Tears from both families greeted the emotionally-fraught sentencing of Michael L. Williams, one of four young men charged in the home invasion that killed Nicholas Hood in front of his fiancee and her children.
Williams was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison for his part in the events of that night, though the judge questioned the plea agreement offered by the prosecution and considered throwing it out.
Certain facts don’t seem to be in dispute, according to court officers. On Oct. 20, 2015, four young men went riding around in a car: Orlando Adkins Jr., Terrion Stevenson, Lamar Gulley, and Michael L. Williams.
It was apparently Adkins’ idea to break into a house he knew, looking for marijuana and cash, according to court officials. He got his hands on a computer instead, and ran away. Williams was in the car, his attorney said, but was otherwise not involved.
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The second house, however, held tragedy. At some point Atkins gave his gun to Stevenson, who kicked down the door of a house in the 1800 block of Apache Street in Caseyville while the others stood on the porch.
It was the home of Nicholas Hood’s fiancee, Amber Sarmento. Sarmento said she could not identify the person who kicked in the door of her mobile home; Hood ran down to the living room and was fatally shot in the struggle at the door of his home. She and her three young children were not physically harmed in the home invasion.
The Major Case Squad was activated to investigate the murder, which they quickly connected to the previous burglary on South 21st Street.
Adkins admitted he was the one who broke into the first house and stole the computer in court, according to the defense. He had the gun and drove the car, and he has pleaded guilty and been sentenced to 25 years in prison, of which he must serve 100 percent.
Stevenson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, admitting to shooting and killing Hood. His sentence is pending. Gulley was sentenced to 12 years, of which he must serve 85 percent.
Williams’ attorneys had negotiated a plea for 20 years in prison, of which he must serve 85 percent. But St. Clair County Judge Robert Haida took issue with the deal, stating that he was not required to abide by it and questioning whether the facts had been fully investigated.
Defense attorney Cathleen MacElroy pointed out that Stevenson confessed to Hood’s murder. “There is no disagreement between the state’s attorney and the defense on who shot Mr. Hood,” she said.
Haida had said he was concerned about the disparity in sentences among the four young men. “All four were at the door,” he said.
But MacElroy said that Adkins drove the car, had the gun, took the laptop from the first robbery, and that that gun matched evidence from another shooting, on which charges had not been filed. Williams had no prior criminal record. “My client takes responsibility for his part,” she said. “That’s why he comes before you to plead guilty.”
Haida had hinted that he might set aside the agreement and impose the maximum sentence, which the defense argued meant that Williams might serve more time in prison than the man who drove the car and brought the gun. “These negotiations were not entered into lightly,” MacElroy said.
Prosecutor Steve Sallerson said while he did not handle the plea agreements, he concurred with the defense on the facts. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Stevenson was the shooter,” he said.
He added that Williams had signed a cooperation agreement promising to testify in case Stevenson withdraws his plea and chooses to go to trial.
“We don’t believe (Williams) was the shooter, and he didn’t have the gun,” Sallerson said. “He was present, and thus legally responsible … But we made a determination. It’s a pretty substantial sentence.”
MacElroy argued that Williams, who is currently 23, will be 39 when he gets out of prison. “By then he will be past the impulsive and rash decisions that led him to this,” she said.
Williams’ grandmother, Carol Ray, had raised Williams and his three brothers from the time they were found abandoned when Williams was 8 years old. She said he and the others had been neglected, found filthy and wearing ill-fitting adult clothing, with rubber bands and roaches lodged in their ears. She said Williams never argued with her and never had any run-ins with law enforcement; he would get frustrated, she said, but never violent.
Meanwhile, Hood’s family remained on the other side of the courtroom. Brenda Hood wore a T-shirt with Hood’s face on it that read, “RIP Nick Hood.” Several times Brenda began sobbing, and had to leave the courtroom twice during discussions of the events of that night.
Williams gave a brief statement prior to sentencing. “I want to apologize to the family,” he said. “If I could take it all back, I would.”
Haida told Williams he should think about his grandmother and how much he had let her down.
“It goes to your credit that you’ve accepted responsibility and you’re willing to testify if needed,” Haida told Williams. “I’ve got to think in the 14 months you’ve been in custody, you’ve thought about your grandmother … and how much you’ve let her down.”
Then there was a long, silent pause as Haida appeared to consider the sentence, as the family members on both sides of the courtroom were audibly crying.
But in the end, Haida went with the sentence recommended by the prosecution. “This is a situation where I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t think it would be fair for me to guess when I’m not sure of the facts … So you get the benefit of the bargain.”
Brenda Hood then left the courtroom, crying loudly, and was too upset to be interviewed. Williams’ family remained after court recessed, saying their farewells and crying. When Williams hugged his grandmother, he was crying as well.
Stevenson is the last of the four to be sentenced. His hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11, but Sallerson said it is possible Stevenson will withdraw his plea. If so, he said, Williams may be called upon to testify against him.