Stillwater News Press

College Sports

June 26, 2014

Commentary: Where does ex-OSU player go to restore reputation?

STILLWATER, Okla. — When former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan was acquitted by a jury on fraud charges in 1987, he asked a question that had no answer. “What office do I go to get my reputation back,” he asked.

It’s a question former Oklahoma State basketball player Darrell Williams has every right to be asking today. Unfortunately, like Donovan before him, there is no answer, no office to go to, and his name, like Donovan’s, will remain attached to something for which he appears to have been wrongfully accused, but even worse than Donovan, wrongly convicted.

Williams’ road to potential redemption has been fraught with far more harrowing turns than anything even Donovan had to endure.

Williams was convicted by a Payne County jury in 2012 of two counts of rape by instrumentation and sexual battery following accusations by two women following an off-campus house party in Stillwater in 2010, but there was a serious question of potential mistaken identity.

Several of Williams’ teammates were there, who like him, were black and were wearing warmup suits. Williams insisted from the outset it was a case of mistaken identity.

OSU head coach Travis Ford stood by Williams even as many others bailed on him, assuming the worst and willing to attribute it to more bad behavior by pampered athletes.

But there have of course been other instances where the public, and yes the media, jumped to conclusions. In 2006, several Duke University lacrosse players were accused of a gang rape and were tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, kicked out of school, the lacrosse program  temporarily disbanded and had their names dragged through the muck before it was revealed their accuser had concocted her story and there was serious prosecutorial misconduct involved.

Sadly, it appears we did not learn much from that incident about assuming guilt instead of innocence.

While there is no evidence Williams’ accusers lied and there certainly is no sense of prosecutorial misconduct, the facts were so thin when presented at his trial, it was a shock he was convicted at all.

When the verdict was announced, Williams banged his hand on the table and cried out “Oh my Jesus God” and then yelled to the jury “I didn’t do it.” And when he put his hands to his head and wept in anguish as he left court, one got a sense looking at those photos this was not a phony reaction. And maybe the jury got it wrong.

His conviction meant he would have to register as a sex offender and his scholarship was gone, even though he maintained a 4.0 GPA while awaiting trial.

His family was stunned. They already had dealt with the shooting death of Williams’ oldest brother in 2009 when he had gone to visit his grandmother in Chicago.

There were protests, but protests by the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson no longer carry much weight, considering Jackson’s own baggage.

Still, one had a sense something was amiss and maybe the judge didn’t feel comfortable with the verdict either, handing Williams probation. It could have ended there, but thankfully, it didn’t.

His conviction was overturned on appeal in April by the Oklahoma Court of Appeals because several jurors had made unauthorized visits to the crime scene.

Then, last week, Payne County District Attorney Tom Lee announced he would not seek a retrial, citing the fact the two alleged victims did not desire to testify again. Or maybe the case is just too impossibly weak?

And like that, Williams was freed from the burden of being a convicted sex offender. But how free?

The now 24-year-old hopefully can piece his life back together. Some reports indicated he still hopes he can play professional ball someday. Who knows.

Neither Williams, nor Donovan, nor the Duke lacrosse players likely will be the last to have their names associated with crimes for which they were practically judged guilty in the court of public opinion, but later were exonerated.

There is no polish that can magically restore the luster to a tarnished name and reputation, there is no easy way to right a life turned upside down, and, sadly, that office Donovan asked about 27 years ago still doesn’t exist. What a crime.

Ruthenberg is sports editor at The Enid News & Eagle. Contact him at daver@enidnews.com.

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