Twenty-five years ago this week, the fate of Savannah resident Jim Williams was in the hands of a Richmond County jury.
Williams, who was later the subject of the New York Times bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” had already been found guilty in the May 2, 1981, shooting death of Danny Hansford by a jury in Chatham County Superior Court.
The 21-year-old acquaintance of Williams, described as a “street urchin” and “hustler” by the prosecution, was shot three times in the chest, head and back following a violent altercation in the study of Williams’ home, now familiar to most Georgians as Mercer House in Savannah.
Williams, an affluent antiques dealer and avid restorer of historic homes, testified that a drunken Hansford became enraged following a friendly game of backgammon around two o’clock in the morning. After allegedly grabbing Williams by the throat and throwing him against the wall, Hansford began destroying several antiques and turned over an 18th-century grandfather clock in Williams’ Italianate mansion, located at the west end of the peaceful and picturesque Monterey Square.
In a statement Williams gave police, he simply said, “Danny went wild.”
According to Williams, Hansford entered his study saying, “I’m leaving tomorrow, but you’re leaving tonight,” and raised a German Luger he found in the house, firing directly at Williams several times.
But Hansford missed and Williams said he felt he had no other choice but to protect himself.
Williams testified that he reached into the drawer of his desk where he kept another German Luger and fired, not recalling the exact number of times.
His bullets hit his target. Hansford was dead.
Following the shooting, Williams called his attorney and the Savannah police. Shortly before 3 a.m., Williams greeted both parties by saying, “I shot him. He’s in the other room.”
In Williams’ mind there was no doubt that he had acted in self-defense. But a Savannah jury on Feb. 2, 1982, didn’t feel the same way.
As the guilty verdict was read, it was reported that the standing Williams quietly took his seat.
He was facing life in prison. And at the time of the 1982 trial, Williams was 51 years old.
But Williams and his lawyers refused to accept the decision handed down by the Savannah jury. Williams knew someone had to understand what happened to him that night in Mercer House.
However, little did he know it would take him eight years, four trials, 22 months in a Chatham County jail and almost $1 million in legal expenses to find the understanding he needed awaited him in Augusta, Ga.
Bobby Lee’s Business
While Williams was a member of Savannah’s most elite, known for hosting lavish gatherings for the cream of the city’s society including his popular black-tie Christmas parties, Williams did not come from old money. He worked hard for what he had and was extremely proud of the more than 70 historic homes in Savannah and the surrounding areas that he had managed to save.
He was not about to let this guilty verdict interfere with his business or his rebuilding of Savannah’s history.
“Jim Williams was a quite a collector of Faberge items of the Romanov Dynasty and I remember even while his case was pending, Jim got permission to fly, I believe, to Geneva to go to an auction of the Faberge items,” said Bobby Lee Cook, William’s lead attorney for the 1982 trial. “He was quite an antique specialist. I was quite impressed with him.”
Cook is a Georgia institution all of his own. Said to have been the inspiration for Andy Griffith’s “Matlock” TV character, this Summerville, Ga., attorney runs an international law practice where he has handled cases for the Rockefellers and Carnegies.
One reason Williams may have approached Cook was because of his 90-percent acquittal rate in murder trials.
“It was my personal opinion, based upon what I had reviewed and people I had spoken with, that he had acted in self defense,” Cook told the Metro Spirit in 2002, sitting in the library of his Summerville office encircled by thousands of law books. “I think the young man that he killed, Danny Hansford, was a wild, erratic individual who was somewhat inclined to violence and I was convinced that Hansford was taking advantage of Jim, financially and otherwise. I truly believe he was trying to kill Jim.”
But Cook said there were obvious elements in Savannah that were working against Williams.
“Jim Williams was a handsome, debonair, sophisticated gentlemen who obviously was very knowledgeable in certain areas,” Cook said. “And, I guess, I would have to say that he probably had a slight touch of arrogance, but I don’t mean that in a mean sense. He was very self-assured.”
Confidence usually plays well with juries; arrogance often does not, Cook said.
“I thought at the time of the trial, and no differently now, Jim made a pretty poor witness on his own behalf,” Cook said. “I thought that he came across, if you didn’t know him and the jurors obviously didn’t know him, as being somewhat arrogant and somewhat condescending. And he just didn’t come across too well.”
There was also the matter of Williams’ sexuality. Williams was a very private man, who did not flaunt his lifestyle. But during the end of the first trial, the prosecution revealed that Williams had a sexual relationship with Hansford.
In 1982, when the first trial began, not everyone in old Savannah was tolerant of people involved in homosexual activity and that hurt Williams, Cook said.
“There were some people who obviously did not like him,” Cook said. “It was reasonably well known that he was a homosexual or at least a heterosexual and a homosexual. That was not a secret. And that did have an effect, but as his lawyer at that moment in time, I still did not believe that a change in venue was mandated.”
But when the guilty verdict was handed down, Cook did not waste any time. He immediately filed a notice of an appeal within days and, subsequently, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed Williams’ conviction on the grounds that Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton, Jr. suppressed evidence regarding a May 2 report of the crime scene. The report contradicted the testimony of the first law enforcement officer to arrive at Mercer House on the night of the shooting.
Therefore, the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial.
“We do so because we cannot and will not approve corruption of the truth-seeking function of the trial process,” the ruling stated. “The state urges that the defendant should have done more than he did to protect himself. We find that the state should have done more than it did to protect the defendant’s rights.”
Following the reversal, Cook had to step down from Williams’ case because of a scheduling conflict with a federal case.
But Cook continued to follow the case after his involvement ended and was shocked to see that Williams faced four trials, with two convictions, a mistrial and finally an acquittal.
“I guess anybody would be surprised at four trials,” Cook said. “I cannot think of any case that I have ever had or any case that I have ever had any knowledge about that has had four criminal trials. I’m sure it’s not the first time it’s happened in the history of American jurisprudence. But I have no knowledge of any other case of this nature.”
Cook said he can only imagine what Williams and his family was going through during the eight years the case was being tossed around in the court system.
“But Jim Williams was a real gutsy guy. He was not a wimp, by any means,” Cook said. “He was a person of tremendous courage and was always convinced from the beginning that he did what he had to do that he was justified in what he did.
“There was never equivocation or looking back. He was not a crybaby. He was a tiger.”
After Cook left the case in July 1983, Williams turned to his local attorney and friend, Frank “Sonny” Seiler to lead his defense team.
While Seiler has an extensive litigation practice and has served as president of the State Bar of Georgia, Seiler is probably best known throughout the state as that larger-than-life Bulldog fan proudly holding the leash of the highly revered University of Georgia mascot, Uga.
Seiler’s relationship with Williams dated back several years. In 1970, Seiler’s law firm, Bouhan, Williams & Levey, purchased from Williams a magnificent Italian Renaissance building on the corner of Bull and Gaston streets known as Armstrong House. Seiler also served as Williams’ private attorney in several other legal matters.
“I represented Jim Williams in a lot of things, long before anybody ever thought of Danny Hansford,” Seiler told the Metro Spirit in 2002. “After the shooting, I defended him in the unlawful death case that was filed by Danny Hansford’s mother, for millions of dollars against Jim Williams.”
The civil case, claiming $10.3 million in damages against Williams, was eventually dismissed, but Seiler had already conducted his own investigation of the Hansford shooting prior to Williams asking him to take over the criminal case.
As a native of Savannah, Seiler was probably more aware than any attorney of some of the negative publicity that Williams faced in the trials. Seiler realized, while Williams was loved by a large segment of old Savannah, there were also people who didn’t want to see him exonerated.
“There was an element of just plain jealously against Jim Williams — people that just didn’t like his success,” Seiler said, looking out the window of his Armstrong House office which is plastered with photos of the famous Georgia Bulldog. “They didn’t like the idea of a little boy from Gordon, Ga., making all this money and catapulting himself into the better homes in Savannah.”
There was another matter, known as the “Nazi flag incident,” that played a role in the negative opinion of Williams.
A few years prior to the Hansford shooting, CBS was filming a made-for-TV movie in Monterey Square. The film crew filled the streets with dirt trying to transform the city back to the 1860s for a movie about Abraham Lincoln.
Williams claimed the crew was disturbing the neighborhood and asked that the film’s producers donate a substantial amount of money to a local charity.
While cleverly throwing a temporary wrench in the movie, Williams failed to consider the effect hanging a Nazi flag out his window would have on one of the oldest synagogues in the country, Congregation Mickve Israel, which is located directly across from Mercer House.
His actions deeply offended the Jewish congregation, and while friends of Williams said he sincerely regretted the incident, nothing could be done to change it. From that day forward, some citizens of Savannah never forgave Williams.
That, along with rumors of his sexuality, did not play well in the public eye during the early 1980s and the media fed on the scandal.
“When this shooting happened, there were headlines in the paper the next day about Jim Williams,” Seiler said. “And it didn’t take the news media long to buy into the theory that the prosecution developed, that Jim Williams had killed his lover.”
So, although Seiler wasn’t involved with the first trial, he said he wasn’t surprised by the conviction. In fact, he believed most people in Savannah expected it. However, he thought Williams would eventually be exonerated of the charges because there were serious questions surrounding the prosecution’s case.
“First of all, just a month before the shooting, Hansford overdosed in Jim’s house. Jim found him in a semi-coma, picked him up and personally took him to the hospital and saved his life,” Seiler said. “So, that flew in the face of their theory that Jim schemed to get rid of Hansford. All he had to do was leave him on the floor that night and there would have been no shots fired at all.”
Seiler also found it ludicrous that the district attorney suggested Williams had staged the crime scene by destroying the antiques in his house.
“Jim loved his things. He was not so much a materialistic person, like in the Madonna class, but he liked the things that he had worked for,” Seiler said. “They claimed that Jim tore up the house himself. They even blamed him for pushing the grandfather clock over. Anybody who knew Jim Williams knew that the last thing he’d do would be to push that clock over.”
The Missing Residue
The biggest obstacle in the second and third trials for Seiler was the state’s gun residue test. The lab determined there was no gunshot residue found on Hansford’s hands. To help resolve this dilemma, Seiler had hired one of the best ballistics experts in the country, Dr. Irving Stone, of the Dallas Crime Lab, to be Williams’ top expert witness. Irving had done the ballistic work for Congress during the investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
After the second jury had found Williams guilty of murder on Oct. 8, 1983, and the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction again in 1985, Stone told Seiler he needed to resolve the gun residue issue before the third trial.
According to Seiler, Stone recommended that he subpoena every record at Candler Hospital, where Hansford’s body was taken that night, to see how many people handled the body after arriving at the hospital.
Seiler, who happened to represent the hospital at the time as well, said the hospital administration was not very happy with his request.
“I got this call from the risk manager, Eleanor Shook, and boy was she mad,” Seiler said. “She said, ‘Sonny Seiler, what is this subpoena about?’”
Shook told Seiler that the hospital gave all of the records regarding Hansford to the district attorney’s office, but Seiler told her that he needed to know specifically who handled the body after it was received.
“And she said to me, ‘Well, look on the admissions sheet,’” Seiler said. “Well, I knew very well that I’d never seen the admissions sheet. Because I know their records as good as they do, and better than the district attorney, because I deal with them everyday. So, I said, ‘Eleanor, I don’t have an admission’s sheet. He was D.O.A.’”
Seiler said Shook almost blew her top.
“She said, ‘Sonny Seiler, you know good and well that you don’t get in Candler Hospital, dead or alive, without an admissions sheet,’” Seiler said, laughing. “She said, ‘Because if there is no admissions sheet we don’t have any way of keeping track of the patient, or the body in this case, as it is passed around to various tests and things throughout the hospital.’”
When asked if the hospital still had a copy of the record, Shook said she had retrieved the records earlier that morning.
“I’m holding it in my lap,” she said.
Shook began to read the document to Seiler and got to a line that stated: “Hands bagged bilaterally in emergency department by M.B. Case, R.N.”
Seiler said he almost fell out of his seat. He asked her to explain to him what that meant.
Shook said that Marilyn Case, a nurse, had bagged the victim’s hands at the hospital.
That one little line was the beginning of the end of the prosecution’s case.
In the first two cases, the district attorney had a detective testify in court that he bagged and securely taped Hansford’s hands at Mercer House to ensure the gun residue test would be accurate.
Seiler’s next stop was to see Marilyn Case, the nurse identified on the admissions sheet.
During their meeting, Case told Seiler that Chatham County Coroner Jimmy Metts had called her the night Hansford was taken to the hospital.
“She said, ‘Dr. Metts called on the telephone and said, “I’m sending a victim, D.O.A. He’s to be held for autopsy in the morning and I think they’ll probably want to do a hand wiping test on his hands, so if his hands aren’t bagged, you bag them when you receive him. You bag the hands with paper bags.”’ Well, Marilyn couldn’t find any paper bags,” Seiler said. “So she got some trash liner which is the worst thing she could have gotten.”
When the plastic bags were put on Hansford’s hands and his body was placed in the cooler, his hands began to sweat.
“So, when we ran this by Irving Stone, he said, ‘Hey, it’s over for that test.’ He said, ‘I will testify, unequivocally, that that test is meaningless because the hands were not properly protected and if there had been anything on there, it would have been washed away by the condensation,’” Seiler said.
When that piece of evidence was presented during the third trial, it blew the prosecution away, but the jury still did not exonerate Williams.
It was a mistrial by hung jury, with only one person believing in Williams’ innocence.
Williams would have to face a fourth trial.
“That was a dynamic piece of evidence and should have won the case right there,” Seiler said. “And hell, we were lucky to have gotten a mistrial because of the attitudes in Savannah. These juries in Savannah were not trying Jim Williams for murder. They were trying him because of his lifestyle.”
The Road to Innocence Leads to Augusta
By the end of the third trial, it was apparent that it was impossible for Williams to get a fair trial in Savannah.
Chatham Superior Court Judge James W. Head had been assigned the final 1989 case and he determined Savannah could not handle another Williams trial.
“Judge Head knew enough about the history of the case to realize that in order to get it over once and for all, the fair thing to do would be to move it out of Savannah,” Seiler said. “But even when you prevail on a motion to transfer the venue, by no means, do you get a voice in where it goes.
“They could send you, as I told one reporter one time, to one of these little old counties where married people don’t have sex with the lights on. You could be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, because this is the end of the Bible Belt down here and you don’t know where they’re going to put you.”
To Seiler’s relief, on March 21, 1989, Head chose Augusta as the location for the fourth trial.
“I was elated. I love Augusta. I knew a lot about Augusta and its people. I have a lot of friends there. And I have seen every Masters golf tournament since 1953,” Seiler said, quickly knocking on wood. “So, I’m very comfortable in Augusta.”
When Seiler arrived in Augusta, he was beyond excited.
“To our utter delight, the city of Augusta could have cared less about this trial. Which is just the way we wanted it,” Seiler said. “We were utterly amazed at how few people had ever heard of this case or Jim Williams. The jurors were there because they were subpoenaed to try a case. So, it wasn’t hard to get a jury.”
James R. Turner served as foreman of the Augusta jury back in 1989.
In 2002, Turner told the Metro Spirit that the only thing he found “out of the ordinary” about the case was the rather lengthy questioning of the jurors.
At the time, he didn’t understand why that was necessary.
“The questioning of the jurors lasted for three days or so,” Turner said in 2002. “There must have been 60 or 70 people there. And of course, it had come out in the previous trials that the young man and Mr. Williams were homosexuals. So, many of the questions that were asked of us were if you had a problem with that.”
Once the 12 jurors were selected, Turner said it didn’t take them long to determine that there was reasonable doubt that Williams had willfully killed Hansford.
“I think there was one thing that stood out in this trial, that maybe didn’t in the others,” Turner said. “And that was the bagging of the boy’s hands. I think it had been reported by the police it was done one way, and a nurse testified that that was not the case. Apparently, the police didn’t do a good job of really investigating this.”
Turner said it took the jury less than 45 minutes to deliberate on the case before they came back with a not guilty verdict.
“I think after hearing all of the testimony, the majority of us felt that Mr. Williams was justified in doing what he did,” Turner said.
Comments like that are music to Seiler’s ears.
But even before the jury went into deliberation, Seiler said the defense was very confident about its case.
In fact, there was a particular moment in the fourth trial that Seiler began to realize Williams would soon be a free man.
Following the third trial, Seiler had received a call from a juror who had previously voted to convict Williams.
“He said, ‘I want to get some things off my chest that might help you,’” Seiler said. “He said, ‘If you try that case again, you need to put more emphasis on that picture that you’ve got that shows the cat in it.’”
Seiler was aware that Williams had a tabby cat named Sheldon, but he didn’t know what the man was talking about.
“The man said, ‘That’s important because if the police really secured that scene like they said, the first thing they should have done was put the cat out,’” Seiler said.
The man explained how, anyone who has a cat, knows they can get into anything.
“He said, ‘That just wasn’t good police work to leave the cat in there. I picked up that picture and argued it to these jurors but I couldn’t get through to them. But I believe that you could,’” Seiler said.
Seiler thanked the man profusely and immediately searched the photos of the trial. And, sure enough, in the top right corner of one of the photos showing the damage Hansford had done in Mercer House was Sheldon.
A cat right smack in the middle of the crime scene.
“Nobody caught it but this juror,” Seiler said.
So, during the Augusta trial, Seiler managed to enter that picture into evidence again.
“And during the argument, I said, ‘Now, they tell you they secured the scene. Can they be serious about that when they leave Jim Williams’ cat to walk and meander through the evidence?’” Seiler said, adding that during the trial he slowly moved the picture in front of each of the jurors’ faces.
“Every time I showed them that picture, the jurors would smile,” Seiler said. “I knew right then, they weren’t thinking about putting Jim in the penitentiary.”
The Midnight Hour for Jim Williams
In the highly acclaimed book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which is based on the Williams trials, author John Berendt describes Augusta as a city with a “sloping terrain in a descending hierarchy that closely followed the lay of the land.”
“On the Hill and high ground to the north, rich families lived in fine houses and played golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the annual Masters Tournament,” Berendt wrote. “At the foot of the Hill, the city’s old tree-shaded boulevards served as a commercial core and a middle-level residential zone. Father south the town descended into a vast low-lying marshland of working-class houses, mobile homes, shanties, Fort Gordon army base, and a backwoods thoroughfare made famous by Erskine Caldwell as a symbol of rural squalor — Tobacco Road.”
In 1985, Berendt began following the happenings down in Savannah and collecting information for his novel, now known as “The Book” in Savannah. During his travels, Berendt attended the third and fourth trials of Williams and remembers Augusta as a town struggling to find itself.
“It’s a town that you can tell it was once an absolutely beautiful place and it’s been butchered. It’s a shame,” Berendt told the Metro Spirit in 2002. “But in Augusta, it was a good place to have the trial because they didn’t know Jim Williams, so they just looked at what they were told.”
However, Berendt wonders whether it was necessary to move the case out of Savannah.
“I think the trials in Savannah were fair, but there are those who would have never voted to acquit him there,” Berendt said. “So, maybe he couldn’t have gotten a fair trial in Savannah. There probably would have always been at least one person on each trial who would have already had his mind made up before he got there.”
According to Williams’ sister, Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery, by the fourth trial, her family realized the only way her brother was ever going to be free was if the trial was moved out of Savannah.
“I thought it was absolutely critical to move the trial,” Kingery told the Metro Spirit in 2002, while sitting in the drawing room in Mercer House. “It is interesting, from the beginning, our family felt that the system of justice would work. And, of course, we couldn’t understand how unwieldy it was. But there was never a time when we felt that justice would not prevail.”
As soon as the Williams family reached Augusta, Kingery said the whole family was given room to breathe.
“We found the people in Augusta to be gracious and friendly. My two daughters especially noted that, because that was not always the case in the previous trials,” Kingery said. “And the trial went smoothly because there had been no sensational press coverage. They treated us the way that they would treat any normal trial. The way it should be.”
When Williams was exonerated by the Augusta jury, he left the courtroom telling the Savannah Morning News, “After eight years of mental, physical and financial torture, it feels good that justice finally has been served.”
But Williams didn’t have long to savor his victory.
Less than a year after his acquittal, Williams died suddenly at the age of 59.
Kingery said that it was devastating to her family. They had fought almost a decade to clear Williams’ name and within a few months he was gone.
“It was an enormous shock to all of us,” Kingery said. “Nothing has ever shocked any of us as much as Jim’s death. None of us ever thought Jim would die. He was the kind of person who is larger than life, literally. He had lots of energy, and it never occurred to us that there would be a time when Jim would not be here.”
After the huge success of “The Book” in Savannah and around the world, Kingery has always hoped that people don’t forget the real Jim Williams.
“When Jim began to talk to John Berendt about the book, initially he did not plan to provide material and to cooperate. But as time went on, Jim really felt that his story needed to be told and really needed to be told accurately,” Kingery said. “And so, with that said, it’s a book that should have been published as fiction.”
In an attempt to show her brother in what she considers an accurate light, Kingery wrote her own book entitled, “More than Mercer House: Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses,” which details Williams’ many accomplishments in the field of historic restoration.
“When I was in North Carolina recently at a book signing, the question was asked of me, has Savannah ever recognized what Jim Williams did for the city? And my answer had to be no,” Kingery said. “It hasn’t. He was one of the earliest restorationists in Savannah. He’s personally responsible for saving so many of the finest houses in this city.”
“Jim devoted his life to Savannah. He loved Savannah,” she added. “But I’m afraid the city may never return those feelings.”