Convicted murderer Willie Clark just wants to be treated fairly
Andrew J. Nilsen
Willie Clark knows he's not popular.
"I understand that I'm Colorado's most hated person," Clark writes from prison in neat script, all caps. "But I'm still human and what I'm being forced to endure is not right."
For five years, ever since Clark was indicted in October 2008 for the murder of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, he has been in solitary confinement, locked away without the ability to socialize or even exercise most of the time. The Colorado Department of Corrections has given Clark and his lawyer various explanations as to why, but they both suspect that it boils down to this: Clark is notorious — and a notorious prisoner can cause problems.
After all, Clark's crime made international headlines. D-Will, who wore number 27 for the Broncos, was killed in a drive-by shooting in the early hours of New Year's Day 2007 when a spray of bullets shattered the window of the Hummer limo that was chauffeuring him and fifteen others home from the club where they'd celebrated New Year's Eve. One of the bullets struck Williams in the neck, and he died almost instantly.
After a long investigation that saw many of Clark's associates arrested on federal drug charges and then offered deals to testify against him, Clark was charged with the crime. In March 2010, a Denver jury convicted him of pulling the trigger. He was sentenced to life without parole plus 1,152 years for the attempted murders of the limo's other occupants. The DOC determined that Clark would serve that time at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, which is reserved for the state's "most violent, dangerous, and disruptive offenders."
But Clark says that he's none of those things. What's more, even as he maintains his innocence in an appeal that is winding through the court system, he is suing the DOC to get himself out of solitary. But if it works, he won't be housed among Colorado's general prison population. In October, the thirty-year-old was shipped to a prison in another state.
At Clark's trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys told different stories of what happened on the night Williams was killed. In the prosecutors' version, Clark was a bad-boy gang member who felt disrespected because the professional athletes at the club were getting the VIP treatment. According to them, it all started when former Bronco Brandon Marshall cut to the front of the line.
"When that happened, a guy with dark glasses and a little hoodie, he turned around and said, 'We street niggas; we got money, too,'" Marshall testified at Clark's trial. "And just being where I'm from, trying to diffuse the situation, I said to him, 'If I ain't the only one with money, then drinks is on y'all tonight,' trying to make a joke."
When police later asked Marshall to pick out the guy with the dark glasses and the hoodie in a photo lineup, he identified a photo of Clark.
Once inside the club, Clark and his friend Daniel "PT" Harris wound up hanging out near the athletes, including Williams, on the club's third floor. Someone in the Broncos entourage shook a bottle of champagne, popped the cork and sprayed booze onto several people standing nearby, prompting Harris and Clark to confront them. It got so heated that security was called to escort the two men downstairs.
But Harris and Clark ran into the athletes again at let-out. More words, and possibly even some punches, were exchanged; on the stand, Marshall admitted to escalating the situation. But Williams didn't get involved. Instead, he herded teammate Javon Walker and friends into his white Hummer limo and took off. Around the same time, prosecutors said, Clark got into a white Chevy Tahoe with two of his cousins and Harris. Both vehicles ended up on Speer Boulevard.
The way prosecutors told it, Clark was driving. On Speer, he steered the Tahoe so it was next to the Hummer, rolled down the passenger-side window, pulled out a .40-caliber pistol, told his cousin to lean back and began shooting at the limo.
Afterward, Clark confessed to the murder no fewer than six times, even boasting to a cellmate who was reading a magazine article about Williams's death that he "put that bitch to sleep," prosecutors said. During closing statements, they showed the jury a copy of Clark's mug shot with his nickname "Little Lett Loose" written above it. "The inescapable conclusion is that this man killed Darrent Williams, he injured two other innocent people, and fortunately didn't kill the rest of them," prosecutor Tim Twining said.
But Clark's defense attorneys said prosecutors were mistaken. They, too, showed the jury Clark's mug shot, but with a different caption: "Scapegoat." "That's what this is about, folks," public defender Abraham Hutt said. "Willie Clark is a scapegoat."
Clark wasn't driving a white Tahoe that night, they said; he was driving a black one. He never chased the Hummer, and he certainly never shot into it. At the time the first 911 call was made, Clark was on his phone, talking to a girl he was interested in.
The so-called confessions weren't credible, they said, and neither were the prosecution's star witnesses. The most glaring example was Harris, who was the only person to say that he saw Clark shoot into the Hummer. But at the time Harris agreed to testify, he was facing life in prison on federal crack-trafficking charges. His cooperation netted him a deal that resulted in him serving just five years instead.
But if Harris was lying, no one was willing to tell the truth. Clark's cousins, who prosecutors said were also in the Tahoe, refused to take the stand and were each sentenced to a year in prison on contempt and perjury charges. And despite the fact that forensic evidence showed there had been two shooters, Clark declined to testify in his own defense.
"I choose not to because I received threats about this issue of me testifying or not," he told the judge. "I actually wanted to, because I have nothing to hide, but I can't protect my family."
In prison, Clark has had no choice but to hide. He's been kept away from other prisoners for most of his time behind bars.
Although he wasn't charged with murder until October 2008, Clark had been incarcerated since four days after Williams was killed, when he was arrested at his lawyer's office on a parole violation related to a previous car-theft charge. The police named him a "person of interest" in Williams's death but stopped short of calling him a suspect.
Clark was then sentenced to six months in a facility for parole violators, and on the day he was scheduled to get out in June 2007, he was arrested again for drug possession and distribution in connection with the federal trafficking case that also involved Harris and several others who would eventually testify against him.
The cops alleged that Clark was a member of a violent drug crew associated with the Tre Tre Crips gang that was involved in large-scale crack trafficking, drive-by shootings and burglaries, and whose members were linked to eleven unsolved murders — not to mention the 2006 shooting death of witness Kalonniann Clark. (Willie Clark, who is not related to Kalonniann Clark, was eventually convicted of that crime, along with two other men, and given another life sentence. He's also appealing that conviction.)
After his arrest, Clark was locked up in the federal detention center in Littleton. The day he was charged with Williams's murder, he was moved to solitary confinement, known as the "special housing unit." When Clark asked why, the warden wrote in a letter that his placement was up to the U.S. Marshals Service, which "works closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Colorado State Attorney's Office. Additionally, your case received national publicity, and your placement in our special housing unit was to ensure your safety."
Clark was later transferred to the Denver County Jail to await trial for Williams's murder. There he was again kept separated from the other inmates.
After closing arguments, the jury spent a day and a half deliberating.They asked the judge three written questions, as juries are allowed to do. One asked whether Clark could be found guilty of first-degree murder "as a result of being complicit."
Yes, the judge answered (a response that has now come up in appeal).
On March 11, 2010, the jury found Clark guilty of murder and of a litany of lesser charges. Shortly thereafter, Clark told the court that he intended to appeal. But it took several years for the state to appoint an alternate defense-counsel attorney and for that attorney, Eric Samler, to prepare his argument. Finally, in February of this year, Samler filed the opening brief, laying out the reasons why Clark's conviction should be overturned. Now he's waiting for the state attorney general's office, which handles all criminal appeals in Colorado, to file its response.
In Clark's appeal, Samler argues that the trial was riddled with juror misconduct, including an experiment the jurors performed outside the courtroom. According to one of them, several jurors went to a witness's apartment complex and stood on a balcony in an attempt to figure out whether the witness could have distinguished the color of a vehicle driving below on Speer Boulevard. The witness had testified that the night Williams was killed, he saw a green or brown SUV — not a white one — speeding northbound on Speer after he heard what he thought were firecrackers.
When Clark's previous attorneys asked for a new trial based on juror issues, however, the request was denied, a decision Samler would like to see overturned.
Clark's appeal also argues that prosecutors knew some witnesses were lying on the stand. Harris was the worst, it says. His version of events was "in direct conflict with the testimony of other witnesses" and was "not supported by physical evidence."
For example, Harris testified that Clark was the only person to shoot a gun into the limo, but two types of bullets — .40 caliber and .45 caliber — were found in the Hummer. Furthermore, the bullet holes showed that the .40-caliber bullets were mostly shot at a horizontal angle and the .45-caliber bullets were mostly shot at a downward angle, all of which points to two different people firing two different guns at two different angles.
On the stand, Harris also downplayed his role in the incident, making it sound as if he was Clark's clueless friend. Nearly every other witness identified Harris as the man who started the altercation and continued it at let-out. But Harris said he didn't remember seeing any athletes at the club or getting into any arguments. Only after he was shown surveillance footage did he admit that he looked like he was spoiling for a fight.
"The prosecution was aware, or should have been aware...that Mr. Harris's testimony was false, yet they persisted in going forward with it," Samler writes.
"Then...they sought a complicity instruction so they could argue that even if the testimony of their star witness was not true, Mr. Clark could still be convicted even if he was only the driver." (For his cooperation, Harris was not charged in the case.)
Furthermore, Clark's appeal takes issue with the testimony given by a gang expert called by the prosecution. In light of prosecutors' assertion that Clark was a Crip, Robert Fuller, a former police officer and Metro Gang Task Force member who was working on the Williams murder case, gave what Samler calls a "lecture" about the Crips' origins and culture.
"The biggest thing about the gang is that nobody snitches," Fuller said on the witness stand. "They don't talk to the police, they don't go to the police, and if we do get them involved in a situation, they will lie to us."
"Isn't it true, given the code of silence, that to enable an investigation to go forward, you need to break the code of silence?" prosecutor Twining asked.
"Yes," Fuller said.
"And the way it was broken here was through a federal investigation?" Twining asked, referring to the federal drug-trafficking case.
"Yes," Fuller said.
(In all, more than eighty people were indicted as part of the federal investigation, but not all of them were relevant to the Williams murder case. And of those who were, not all of them cooperated with prosecutors. Brian Hicks, Clark's alleged gang boss and the owner of the white Tahoe, was one who refused to play ball. Hicks has since filed his own federal lawsuit alleging that he was placed in solitary confinement only after he declined to talk to the cops about Williams's murder, and that he's been kept there ever since.)
Fuller's gang testimony was irrelevant to the crime, Clark's appeal argues; its purpose was to paint Clark as a violent thug capable of murder. Because the judge allowed it, Samler writes, "Mr. Clark's guilt, in the mind of the jury, was a foregone conclusion."
It didn't matter if Clark fired a gun, Samler argues, or whether he was simply driving the Tahoe, unaware that his friends planned to rain bullets into the Hummer.
"The fact that he was a gang member was enough," Samler writes, "because...when there is a shooting from one car into another, the shooters must be gang members. And therefore, as a gang member, Mr. Clark must have been in that car and must have shot."
Though he declined to speak at his trial, in recent letters to Westword, Clark has said that he's eager to talk now. He cites several reasons why, including his pending criminal appeal and wanting "to open up a line of communication with Ms. Williams" — presumably Darrent's mother, who attended the trial. "I'm willing to give you all-access to my ordeal in exchange for your assistance," he writes. "As you know, the power of the media is strong and manufactures results of all kinds. I need help with being treated fair."
But on October 17, the DOC denied Westword's request for an in-person interview, saying that Clark was in solitary confinement, known in prison parlance as "administrative segregation" or "ad seg," and that he couldn't be interviewed while he was in ad seg.
"This situation is for his safety," DOC spokesman Roger Hudson said then. "He's a high-profile offender.... He's a special case for obvious reasons." But Hudson wouldn't elaborate on those reasons. In addition, Westword's requests to speak with someone from the DOC about Clark's housing and about how the DOC handles high-profile offenders were denied.
Samler also declined an interview.
But Elisabeth Owen, who is representing Clark in a civil lawsuit he filed against the DOC in Fremont County, where the Colorado State Penitentiary is located, agreed to speak.
The suit seeks to reverse a decision by prison officials to put Clark back into solitary confinement after he'd begun taking a class that the DOC requires prisoners to complete before transitioning into the general population. Clark was put back into ad seg because he was involved in a fight that he says he didn't start.
After Clark was found guilty of Williams's murder in March 2010, the DOC placed him directly in administrative segregation. The official paperwork lists several reasons, including his "history of involvement in STG-related activity." STG stands for "security threat group" — a prison term for a gang. And while Clark denied that his crime was gang-related, documents say he admitted that "some of his associates" were involved in a gang.
The paperwork also says that "given the current notoriety of his conviction, the length of his sentence and the severity of his crimes, his presence in general population would be unsafe for both staff and offenders."
According to the DOC, ad seg "is an offender management process and is not used as a punitive measure." Prisoners are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. For one hour, they're allowed to go into a small room, alone, to "exercise."
Studies have shown that isolating prisoners for prolonged periods of time can cause depression, anxiety and paranoia in healthy people and can make mentally ill people even sicker. "Even an individual who enters healthy may, after some time in solitary confinement, have some mental deterioration," says Rebecca Wallace of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. How much time is too much time is a subject of much debate, but Wallace, who is not involved in Clark's case, says she defines "prolonged" solitary confinement as more than a month — and definitely more than a year.
While the DOC rules allow newly admitted prisoners to be placed in administrative segregation, Wallace says a prisoner's notoriety shouldn't be considered — though the state seems to have considered it in Clark's case. "Administrative segregation is supposed to be used to manage deeply problematic behaviors by prisoners," Wallace says, "and it really should be limited to the most extreme cases, where prisoners have been involved in real violence or credible threats."
But Clark's prison progress reports show none of that, Owen says. In one, from November 2011, Clark is described as "quiet and compliant," and his behavior is noted to be "appropriate and respectful." The report does say that Clark's television was turned off for three days as punishment for not removing toilet paper from his vent, but Owen says that's because cold air was coming through it. She provided copies of three grievances that Clark filed to no avail before resorting to the toilet paper.
"We're not entitled to a specific air temperature, but we should not be subjected to extreme hot or cold," Clark writes in his grievance. "The last two nights, it has been extremely cold and I had ice in the inside of the window in this cell. I'm only asking that the heat is turned on for the remainder of the cold season."
Owen first received a letter from Clark in 2011.
At the time, she was a year out of law school at the University of Denver and was running the Colorado Prison Law Project, a nonprofit she founded with a fellow student in 2010. The 28-year-old had developed a special interest in solitary confinement when, as a participant in DU's civil-rights law clinic, she represented several Arab Muslims who'd been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the '80s and '90s and who were placed in solitary after September 11. Through her new organization, she hoped to help other prisoners in similar situations.
Colorado, she says, suffers from the "extraordinary use of harsh corrections practices," including the overuse of solitary confinement. "The punitive mindset here is insane."
Former prison chief Tom Clements, before he was killed earlier this year, had tried to change that. He commissioned the National Institute of Corrections to review Colorado's use of solitary confinement. Its report criticized the state for placing 7 percent of its prisoners in solitary, a figure "significantly above" the nationwide average of 1 to 2 percent. The report also questioned the state's requirement that offenders complete programs of "questionable value" and "limited availability" to get out.
Clements took steps to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary, among other reforms, and the latest figures show that as of September 2013, 3.8 percent of prisoners were in ad seg. Tragically, Clements was murdered in March by a prisoner who'd spent most of his time behind bars in isolation.
After Owen received Clark's letter, she went to visit him. She knew about his case but didn't know what to expect. "But when I met him, I was immediately taken aback with how intelligent and well-spoken and polite he is," she says. "The difference between how he's been presented in the media and my perception of him is radical."
Buoyed by Clements's attention to solitary confinement, Owen wrote a letter to the DOC in February 2012 questioning the department's reasons for keeping Clark in ad seg and asking that he be provided the means to earn his way out. The gist of her letter, she says, was that officials needed "to make a decision now, rather than twenty years from now, when he has lost his mind, about how you are going to incarcerate him."
"Administrative segregation should not be punitive," she wrote. "It should not be an emotional reaction to the crime committed by an inmate, and it should not be indefinite. Mr. Clark's placement appears to be all of these.... DOC has a choice to make. The agency can either give him the best chance it can to rehabilitate himself and positively contribute to society, or it can continue to cause him irreversible harm."
Prison officials agreed to address the situation. But first, Owen says, they called her and told her that the real reason Clark was in solitary had nothing to do with his crime. Instead, they told her, it was about "some alleged escape attempt," and because of that, Clark would have to be interviewed before they'd consider allowing him to transition out. Owen's request to be present for the interview was denied.
In a letter to Westword, Clark describes that interview. He says that he met with three prison officials who asked him if he was in a gang and if he used to sell drugs. He said yes to the second question but no to the first because he was never initiated into a gang. Clark says the officials also asked how he'd react if he ran into someone who testified against him; when he said he didn't know, they asked if he'd like to be in a prison yard with one of them. No, Clark said. Clark says that he also answered questions about his tattoos, which prosecutors said were gang-related, and denied ever trying to escape.
His answers must have appeased them. In March 2012, he was transferred to the facility that houses Thinking for a Change, a program meant to teach social and problem-solving skills to inmates. Completing it is the ticket out of ad seg.
But Clark wasn't able to do that. On June 6, 2012, he was sitting in class when two other inmates got into an argument while giving their "thinking reports" about the virtues of rock music versus rap. By all accounts, Clark helped defuse the situation, but it flared up again later. And it was then that Clark made his mistake. Instead of retreating to the back of the classroom, he jumped over a table, hurtling himself toward the door — but also the fight. As he explained in his discipline hearing, there was a racial undertone to the brawl, and he thought he would be targeted for being black. He ended up in the middle of the fight, and he says he was forced to defend himself.
"This was an impulsive decision that turned out to be a mistake on my behalf," he said at his hearing, according to an audio recording provided to Westword. "It was not my intention to get into a fight. I was honestly trying to get out of the classroom."
The hearing officer didn't buy it. He found Clark guilty of fighting and "advocating or creating a facility disruption," and two weeks later, another hearing officer decided to put Clark back into solitary confinement. Clark had "led, organized or incited a serious disturbance or riot that resulted in the taking of a hostage, significant property damage, physical harm or loss of life in a correctional setting," the officer ruled, something that warrants putting a prisoner in solitary confinement.
When Clark tried to point out that he didn't do any of those things, the hearing officer cut him off. But the officer did allow him to read part of a letter he wrote: "I recognize that I made a bad decision, but segregation will only have a negative effect on my future facility placement and my personal growth and development. I am working to become the best version of myself, and giving me a chance to make corrections will help me more than locking me down will.... God Bless and Peace and Sincerely, Willie."
The letter is typical of Clark's unfaltering optimism, Owen says, his belief that if he speaks the truth, someone will eventually listen. "Willie believes in the system," she says. "He believes that justice can be achieved through utilizing the channels."
Owen, however, is less sure.
Clark was sent back to ad seg and eventually back to Thinking for a Change, which he completed. But on August 20, the day he and the other Thinking for a Change graduates were supposed to move out of solitary confinement, Clark was told that he wasn't going.
"I called a case manager at [the prison] that day and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Owen recalls. "He's like, 'I don't know. He's earned his way out of here; we don't want to keep him. I don't know what he's still doing here.'"
Owen was told it was "a central office decision." And shortly thereafter, Clark says, he was pulled from his cell and interviewed for possible placement within the DOC's protective-custody unit. That unit is for inmates who are at "substantial risk of serious harm" if placed in the general population. But neither Owen nor Clark thought that level of protection was necessary.
In a letter, Clark says a female prison official asked him whether he'd ever had a problem with Broncos fans. "I told her, 'Not once have I had an issue with anyone in regard to any of my convictions,'" Clark writes. He says he also told her he was "not in any danger, nor am I a danger to anyone," and that he didn't need protective custody.
Owen understands the concern. "But I am unaware, and Willie is unaware, of any specific evidence of a threat posed to him solely because of his crime," she says. "I don't mean to diminish the Department of Corrections' responsibility to ensure prisoners are safely housed. That being said, I don't know if this is one of those situations."
In the end, DOC officials decided not to put Clark in protective custody. Instead, they informed him that they were considering him for a different type of administrative segregation, known as 4B. Of the five levels of ad seg, 4B is the most indefinite; it has no time limit and no means of earning your way out. The regulations simply state that offenders in 4B will be evaluated every six months to see if they're "appropriate for progressive movement."
"I'm repeatedly shocked by how poorly they treat Willie," Owen says. Even though he's obeyed all the rules, even though the prison system itself has described him as "compliant" and "respectful" and his Thinking for a Change instructors have said he was an active student who didn't cause problems, he's being given the harshest punishment. "Willie's ability to withstand this and to continue to file grievances rather than throwing feces bombs is extraordinary," Owen says. "I have been continually impressed with him and continually proud of him for maintaining a higher ground here."
But, she adds, "I'm concerned for his mental health. Because I don't know how anyone can withstand treatment like this.... There's got to be a point at which someone breaks."
Westword asked Clark how he feels about being in administrative segregation. "There's not enough time to explain how being in ad-seg makes me feel," he writes. "Overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, depressed, exhausted and resentful are a few.
"They stress 'strengthen family ties,' but I'm allowed six phone calls and four non-contact visits per month. They stress 'wellness,' but only offer medication as a remedy to all problems. They stress 'cleanliness,' but will deny me a shower whenever. They stress 'I should be pro-social,' but lock me in a bathroom 24/7. They won't let me get direct sunlight or participate in college courses. I feel like my stability is deteriorating."
Clark says he had another meeting with prison officials on October 16. "They recognize that I've earned my way out of here but they refuse to let me go," he writes.
"I know they know that I have a good shot at winning my appeals, so they're willing to do whatever to prevent me from helping my attorneys help me win.... I didn't kill these people, so I don't deserve to be treated like I have been. I haven't hugged my mom in over five years and that's not right at all! DOC officials have done whatever they want to me, and because of who I've been made out to be, no one has said anything. I'm still human and God and the U.S. Constitution say I deserve to be treated equally."
But whether that will happen is anyone's guess.
On October 23, Clark was taken out of ad seg and shipped to a prison in another state, says DOC spokesman Hudson, as part of something called the "interstate compact," an agreement that allows Colorado to send certain inmates out of state for their own safety, and for those states to send certain inmates here. As of September 30, 91 out-of-state prisoners were serving their sentences here, and 110 Colorado inmates were doing their time in other states.
There are "various reasons" for the transfers, Hudson says; for instance, a police officer convicted of a crime might be transferred for fear he'd be targeted by other prisoners here.
In Clark's case, "it has to do with the fact that Mr. Clark is a high-profile offender," Hudson says. But the DOC spokesman wouldn't give any other details, including where Clark is now or even which states participate in the compact.
To Owen, the move seems retaliatory.
"This was an intentional attempt to prevent him from moving into general population," she says. "They appear to have this vendetta against Willie and this agenda of keeping him in administrative segregation placement indefinitely, and his behavior has clearly never warranted such a placement, so they need to come up with other reasons to do it."
In fact, on October 31, a Fremont County judge agreed that Clark doesn't belong in ad seg. In a ruling in Clark's civil case, Judge Stephen Groome upheld Clark's disciplinary conviction for fighting but wrote that there was "no evidence" that Clark incited a riot and, therefore, "there is no evidence supporting the hearing officer's decision to place [Clark] in administrative segregation."
But that ruling may not matter now that Clark is in another state (Owen knows where, but declined to say out of fear that the DOC would retaliate against her client). He remains in solitary confinement in that state — and the decision to remove him is presumably in that state's hands, she adds.
"Now we're dealing with another state and a whole other system, so I can't speak to how they'll respond to this," she says. "I will argue to Colorado and to the facility where he is now that he should be immediately released from segregation."
Whether or not they'll listen is another story.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.