On Election Day, November 2014, Chester City Councilman Odell Williams gave his life to the people of Chester.
This retired police officer, longtime coach, mentor and civic leader died with a bullet to his head, trying to protect others.
On Monday prosecutors will tell a jury that Williams was a great man who was gunned down by an 18-year-old gang member who fired more than 15 shots from an assault rifle until one bullet found its deadly mark in a rolling and public execution.
An attorney for the accused killer, Christopher Moore, 19, will likely claim Williams was a gun-toting vigilante who shot first.
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Williams, 69, died after he chased gang members, for miles and minutes, in a terrifying journey through Chester that threatened the public. Now, in court, the man accused of killing Williams is poised to portray him as an old man with anger and a gun who shot first and asked questions later.
That self-defense claim by Moore seems certain, said Kenneth Gaines, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina. It’s also without question that prosecutors will scoff at any claim of self-defense, Gaines said, trying to convince the jury that Moore was armed, lay in wait, then shot Williams. Almost certain that
Moore’s attorney will argue that Odell Williams - who was not a police officer anymore - choice to chase the men while armed. The attorney will then likely claim that Williams, by shooting at the men, forced Moore’s hand to shoot back.
Normally, a person who finds a truckload of alleged, armed gang members calls police to handle the situation, Gaines said.
“But this did not happen that day,” Gaines said. “He chased them.”
This trial, scheduled to start Monday, comes 18 months after Moore defiantly said, “I’m innocent - I ain’t did nothin,” as he stared at cameras in his first court appearance in November 2014, after he was implicated as the shooter.
Unlike most murder cases, many of the details have been made public in earlier court hearings, where the five accused of different roles in the killing, wanted bond or disputed the charges. The alleged gang members say Williams started the chase and that Williams pushed the action until he was killed.
Police and prosecutors say the accused are all gang members and Moore finally lay in wait and shot Williams. Moore’s lawyer will probably argue that because Williams was chasing Moore and the others, he had no “duty to retreat,” to safety, said Gaines - especially on a public street.
“But he and the others didn’t call the police, either, to say that they were being chased,” Gaines said.
Jemal Williams, one of Odell Williams’ three children, took over the family concrete business when his father was killed. Jamal Williamssaid he knows that the shooter is expected to try and paint his father out to be the bad guy. He and his mother and two sisters will be at the trial.
It “sounds like” the accused will try and save his own life by saying he had no choice but to kill a retired police officer and church deacon, longtime football and baseball coach and civic volunteer by making his father out to be bent on violence, Jemal Williams said.
Moore’s attorney is expected to ask a judge Monday to throw the case out, claiming that Moore had a right to shoot Williams after Williams shot first under South Carolina’s stand your ground law. That claim is often made and rarely passes muster. It is unlikely this time because the accused was not home. .
Monday it all is laid out for 12 residents from Fairfield County. The trial is expected to last all week.
Williams had been under indictment for allegedly threatening to kill Chester’s police chief in a city hall bathroom before he died. The high-profile killing exposed Chester’s gang problems andled to creation of a county gang task force and political dispute between police and politicians over money, officer and community safety. The killing of Odell Williams stripped bare the problems in Chester with guns and gangs.
The trial will not be in Chester as pre-trial publicity led a judge to move the trial to Winnsboro in Fairfield Countysouth of Chester.
Odell Williams won’t even be judged by his own peers from Chester. Neither will Moore, the teenaged gang member from Chester who already, in a stunning courtroom move, has apologized for the pain he has caused the Williams family while stopping short of admitting the actual shooting.
Moore said in court months ago he got involved with some bad people, made bad decisions, but he has learned in the year-plus he’s been in jail without bail. He wants a second chance at life.
But Odell Williams, who retired from the Chester Police Department in 1997 and was then elected to city council, got no second chance at life. He got the death penalty Nov. 4, 2014.
Apologies and trials are two different things. If Moore, 19, is convicted of murder, he will face 30 years to life in prison. Potentially, the jury could come back with voluntary manslaughter that carries up to 30 years. Or involuntary manslaughter, which carries even less.
Or not guilty.
The question is will jurors believe the gang member and his cohorts - all possessing criminal records so bad that many were out on bond for violent crimes when Williams died - or will they believe the police and prosecutors. Only a co-defendant charged as an accessory to murder initially told police that Williams shot at the gang members first.
Police and prosecutors have not said Williams shot at the gang members.
Police and prosecutors have said that Odell Williams did chase the gang members after Williams’ wife was terrified after seeing a truckload of armed people. Prosecutors said that the gang members, who all had criminal records and were not allowed to have guns, were set to roba rival gang at its clubhouse near where Odell Williams’ home and business. The call from Williams’ wife to her husband set in motion the chase and the shots and the death.
Prosecutors and police say Moore rolled out of the truck that awful night and waited with an assault rifle in a ditch for Williams to pass .and let loose with a flurry of bullets. However, Williams’ gun was fired, earlier court testimony has showed, and a shell casing was found in his car after he was shot and crashed into a house.
Police made arrests days after the crime and said that gangs had threatened to kill officers who were investigating. Prosecutors have said in previous hearings DNA and blood on the murder weapon and other places near where Williams died link Moore to the crime scene.
They say Moore tried to get a ride from the scene. The alleged ringleader of the gang, Quinton McClinton, charged with accessory before murder and awaiting trial, was out on bond for other alleged shootings and crimes at the time. He has past convictions for drugs and violence.
Three others with criminal records allegedly in the gang are accused of helping with the plot, or helping Moore escape after Odell Williams was shot and killed.
Those four are not on trial and they may even testify against Moore.
On Monday, only Christoper Moore is on trial. Moore, the accused shooter was defiant after arrest. Now Moore is asking for forgiveness. By his last unsuccessful bond attempt, Moore was on the verge of tears.
If Moore has been offered a plea deal, there has been no mention of it in court.
So Monday, all the posturing is stripped away.
First Moore’s attorney will argue that Moore is immune to prosecution under South Carolina’s stand your ground law. If that fails, and Gaines the expert said it is a “longshot,” then a jury will be picked and the trial will start. Moore’s attorney, 6th Circuit Deputy Public Defender William Frick, will use the words “self-defense.”
“It sounds like he is going to have to argue he was in fear for his life,” said Gaines the law professor. “He has to claim self-defense.”
Prosecutors will say Christopher Moore is a killer who had plenty of chances to get away, but chose instead to execute Odell Williams.
Odell Williams, who spent a lifetime serving others, the last few minutes of his life when he chased alleged criminals through the streets of his hometown of Chester, will be on trial, too.