Federal prosecutors had no weapon and no murder indictment and still a jury found Joseph Williams guilty of two firearms violations and using those firearms in the commission of a murder.
U. S. Attorney Paul McNulty announced the verdict late last Friday. Williams found himself in federal court in Alexandria instead of Circuit Court because of the Safe Neighborhood program, which allows federal and state prosecutors to work together to determine the most appropriate court in which to prosecute a suspect.
After Alexandria police found Gail Collins murdered in her Aspen House apartment on March 21, 2003, and linked Williams to her death, Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney S. Randolph Sengel called the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of Safe Neighborhoods prosecutions. “We knew that we could get a maximum penalty of five years in prison on the state firearms charges,” Sengel said. “We were very pleased that Mr. McNulty agreed to handle this case and I congratulate him and his staff on their successful prosecution of Mr. Williams,” he said.
Federal district court judge Leonie M. Brinkman ruled last summer that prosecutors could present evidence of Collins’ murder in the case, although neither federal nor local law enforcement personnel were able to find the weapon that was used to kill her. They had evidence that Williams, a man with six previous felony convictions, had been seen on several occasions with a nine millimeter hand gun and that he knew Collins. Prosecutors presented evidence that Williams, who also lived at Aspen House, did small jobs for Collins for which she paid him.
“This is a case about the deadly mix of guns and drugs,” said assistant U.S. attorney Erik Barnett in his opening argument. “It is about addiction and what addiction does to people, and what it makes people do. Specifically, this case is about the defendant’s addiction to crack cocaine, and about what that did to him in 2003 and what that addiction drove him to do with a gun.”
And witnesses for the prosecution supported those facts. An admitted crack cocaine user testified that Williams gave her Collins’ ATM card and told her to withdraw money from the bank. Bank surveillance cameras photographed the woman doing just that within 24 hours of the time Collins was murdered, on March 12, 2003. Collins was killed on March 11 by one gunshot wound, fired from a nine millimeter hand gun.
Williams is facing life in prison as a potential sentence when he returns to court on Dec. 17.
The murder was not prosecuted in the United States District court because of a lack of federal jurisdiction over this charge. However, the jury was presented with a special verdict form in which they were asked to make certain findings, and they found that Williams committed first degree murder when he killed Gail Collins.
Federal law allows for the presentation of evidence as to "special circumstances" in felony prosecutions. In this case, the felony that Williams committed was possessing firearms and transporting those firearms between D.C. and Virginia, giving the federal court jurisdiction. The fact that he committed murder while in illegal possession of the firearms increased the penalty.