Former Guilford County and Davidson County Animal Shelter Director Marsha Williams, who is charged with felony animal cruelty in Davidson County, will see her day in court – it just won’t be a day this year.
William’s attorney, Duane Bryant, said he has informed Davidson County District Attorney Garry Frank that his busy schedule for the rest of 2016 does not allow for the trial to take place until next year, and Frank said this week that – though his office would prefer to see the case go to trial sooner than 2017 – it doesn’t look feasible.
While the trial almost certainly won’t take place until next year, some activity is expected before then: Both Frank and Bryant said that Bryant is going to make a legal move in the case. Indications are that it should be a very interesting one, though both men declined to share any details of what is now expected to add yet another layer of complication to an already complex case.
As for the trial’s delay until next year, Bryant said there was no other option.
“I am slammed – it’s going to have to be after the first of the year,” Bryant said of defending his client in court.
Bryant and the Davidson County DA’s office have been holding conferences to discuss how to proceed with the trial, as well as how best to work through discovery matters. Frank said his office was essentially now done with evidence collection and that he is, as required by law, turning all of that evidence over to Bryant.
Bryant said this week that he feels confident the Davidson County office is providing him with all the case materials he’s entitled to see.
“I’ve never had a problem with Mr. Frank with discovery,” Bryant said.
Frank said the discussions had been going well, but added that his office was trying to move the case forward while, at the same time, working with Bryant over any legitimate scheduling concerns. Frank said he doesn’t feel Bryant is attempting a delay tactic by claiming his workload is heavier than it actually is. Frank said he has worked with Bryant many times before and that Bryant had no history of stalling, and he added that Bryant had a good working relationship with the court in Davidson County.
“He has a pretty heavy schedule,” Frank said. “We have calendaring authority, but if we try to use our authority and the attorney has a conflict, the judge will just grant a continuance.”
He added that his office attempts to work with attorneys on the timing of trials.
“That changes if they have a track record [of delay tactics],” Frank said. “We try to work with them unless a lawyer is trying to run us around a flagpole.”
Frank also said he’s aware Bryant is introducing a new wrinkle into the case, though Frank said he didn’t wish to comment any further on that.
“It would be improper for me to say,” Frank replied when asked about the details.
Bryant also didn’t want to reveal anything about the legal move he has planned.
“I can’t say right now – I’m not trying to be evasive,” he said. “Let me do what I do and at that time it will become known.”
In November, Bryant told the Rhino Times that there appeared to be major racial and political motivations in this case, and he said Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes demonstrated that he was determined to see Williams prosecuted even after Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson decided not to bring charges in the case. It’s possible that Bryant’s coming legal action is related to those claims of impropriety, but right now no one is saying.
Bryant said last November, after Barnes held a press conference with Ann McCrory, the wife of NC Gov. Pat McCrory – at which Barnes called for the prosecution of Williams – that it was highly inappropriate for Barnes to get the governor and his wife involved in the case. That all happened in Guilford County, but Bryant also said at that time that he had questions about what connections Barnes had to Davidson County that made Barnes feel he could move “outside the legal framework” to pursue convictions against Williams in Davidson County.
Last year, in addition to the charges against Williams, Frank’s office brought indictments of animal cruelty against Marissa Studivent and Dana Williams-King, who is Marsha Williams’ daughter. All three women worked at both shelters for the United Animal Coalition (UAC) – the nonprofit organization that had its license revoked by the state last year and was hit with a $300,000 fine for multiple violations of animal care at the two shelters.
Williams, along with the two other former shelter employees, is facing felony cruelty animal charges that allege the women “tortured” an injured dog named Nana through neglect. That dog, reported to have had a broken back and other ailments, was allegedly left without proper medical care or pain relief in its cage for three days before it was euthanized.
Bryant said this week that his client has unfairly been the recipient of a great deal of public anger due to people’s love of animals and the strong emotions at play in this case – combined with a failure to understand what really transpired.
“Some of those emotions are just phenomenal,” he said of the public’s outrage.
Williams hasn’t spoken publically about the case since the scandal broke last summer, but Bryant said this week that the unfounded allegations have been hard for Williams to endure.
“This has been very difficult for her,” Bryant said. “She reads articles in the press criticizing her for what is a very difficult job. I don’t know if anyone can imagine the amount of pressure that comes with running a shelter. It’s not an easy job.”
Bryant said he understands well people’s passion for animals and said he’s an animal lover as well. He said he has a wonderful dog – Dani, part German shepherd and part golden retriever – that he’s very attached to.
Bryant said the recent events in Guilford County have shown the pressures that come with being a shelter director.
Former Guilford County Animal Shelter Director Logan Rustan resigned suddenly after taking over the shelter during the scandal last year and later being given the director’s job by the county. Rustan said one reason for leaving was his inability to constantly satisfy all those people who have views on how the shelter should be run.
Williams did get some good news earlier this year. Davidson County dropped charges related to the mishandling of drugs at the Davidson County shelter. Williams was initially charged, in addition to animal cruelty, with felony possession of a schedule IV drug and with “maintaining a dwelling” with a controlled substance. In April, those charges were dropped following a lab analysis of the substance in question.
The charges that remain against Williams and the two other shelter workers are only the legal side of the highly public case. Last year, state investigators with the Animal Welfare Section of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services found a total of over 100 instances of animal neglect and cruelty at the two shelters.
After the details were made public, many people in Guilford County – including Sheriff Barnes – believed that the Guilford County district attorney’s office would bring charges. However, Henderson filed no charges, citing a lack of sufficient evidence to convict Williams.
This is a high-profile case that involves two counties and multiple law enforcement agencies, and both Bryant and Frank said that means there’s a great deal of information to go through.
“It’s a lot of stuff to read,” Bryant said.
Frank made a similar comment.
“There’s a massive amount of information that’s been seized,” he said.
The delay until 2017 comes after some glitches in the investigation phase earlier this year. For instance, some computer files that were examined for the case were initially going to be handled by one investigative agency but it was later determined that another agency would be better suited for the job and that duty was transferred to the new agency.
Bryant said that the two other women charged are being defended by other attorneys and that at this time it’s not known whether those cases will be tried with Williams’ case or tried separately. Bryant said that decision will be up to Frank.
In September, the Davidson County district attorney’s office presented a grand jury with evidence supporting the animal cruelty charges. That grand jury hearing resulted in the felony indictments for Williams, Williams-King and Studivent.
Bryant said in November that Williams is not guilty of animal cruelty or neglect. He said that, on the contrary, she has devoted her life to helping animals and caring for them. He pointed out that Williams worked to help pass Susie’s Law – the North Carolina legislation named after a burned and abused dog that was enacted about seven years ago and that increased the penalties for animal abuse in the state.
“This woman is not guilty – hell, she wasn’t even there when some of these things took place,” Bryant said of Williams last November.
Bryant’s comments last fall may shed some light on the coming mystery legal move he plans to make.
Bryant said last November that Guilford County had an out-of-control rogue sheriff who was clearly overstepping his legal authority by attempting to play judge and jury rather than simply carry out the proper role of a sheriff. At that time, Bryant was especially critical of the Nov. 12 press conference Barnes held in which Barnes called for charges to be filed against Williams for her actions in Guilford County.
“It is troubling to me that he went to the governor, by-passing the attorney general,” Bryant said last November.
At that time, Bryant brought up the racial and political and implications of the case and stated his concerns that race, gender or politics may have been a factor. Bryant said in November that it’s extremely interesting that Barnes was conducting such a tenacious pursuit and vilification of Williams, an African-American woman, when there was a lot of blame to go around for what happened at the Guilford County Animal Shelter.
“If he’s standing up saying that Marsha had a part in the death of an animal, well, who else had a part?” Bryant asked last year. “Why is it that the only persons charged in this matter are three African-American women? Those questions ought to be asked. This is shameful.”
Time will tell if the coming legal action by Bryant is related to those allegations.