A woman who has spent nearly half her life behind bars will appear before the Nevada Parole Board Tuesday, for the fifth time.
Jessica Williams has been granted parole four times, but still has two convictions to resolve before she can be released.
Eighteen years ago, she was involved in a horrific incident in which six teenagers were killed. The case focused attention on Nevada’s DUI statute and when a driver is considered to be impaired.
The case has special relevance now in light of changes to marijuana laws
“I know it’s right to fight for myself and I know I should be, but I still feel extremely guilty and I don’t want to stand up for myself,” said Jessica Williams in a 2008 interview.
Over 18 years, multiple interviews conducted in several different prison facilities, the one constant for Jessica Williams is grief. She wears it like second skin.
“I’d really rather just not be alive.”
For the first few years of her incarceration, she was on near-permanent suicide watch. And her conversations with the I-Team always seemed to end in tears. But in recent years, she has grown stronger.
At 38, she’s not a youngster anymore. And in a recent letter to her longtime attorneys, she described herself as “still a wreck, but a functioning one” adding that she would no longer consider suicide because she couldn’t do that to them.
“I will always work on Jessica’s case,” said attorney John Watkins.
He is headed toward retirement, not taking any new cases, but a photo on his cluttered wall reveals the commitment to Williams. It was taken on the day her verdict was handed down. Williams held on to co-counsel Ellen Bezian.
The incident was a huge story in the spring of 2000. Williams and a friend were driving back from a night spent at Valley of Fire. She fell asleep at the wheel and her vehicle drifted into the median on I-15, right at the spot where six teenagers had been assigned by the county to pick up trash discarded by trucks on their way to the Apex landfill. The kids died.
Williams became a pariah, even though officers at the scene and a jury agreed that she was not impaired at the time of the incident. Still, she was convicted, sentenced to 48 years in six consecutive terms, one for each victim, because she had smoked marijuana the night before and still had trace amounts in her system.
“She knew she wasn’t impaired, but she killed six kids,” Watkins said. “Unlike a lot of clients, we see, they blame everybody else. Jessica never has.”
In multiple appeals filed with the Nevada Supreme Court and even the U.S. Supreme Court, Watkins and Bezian argued that Williams didn’t get a fair shake, that the law which finds people guilty of DUI, even if they are not actually impaired, is unjust.
Williams had a barely detectable two parts per billion marijuana metabolites in her blood. Watkins says anyone carrying a medical marijuana card would easily exceed that amount and would be guilty of DUI any time they drive. Nevada’s marijuana laws have undergone radical changes in recent years, but the DUI statute is still in effect and is still being enforced.
“See that article? The DA wants to change pot laws,” Watkins said. “He says they don’t show any impairment and shouldn’t be used but the DA’s office still uses them. If you drive with lawful medication in your system that is not a prohibited substance and it’s impairing, it’s illegal and if you hurt somebody, you face the same sentence that Jessica would but it’s strictly impairment and that’s what it should be. Why should we put people in jail when they are not impaired?”
Williams has been a model prisoner and has been granted parole for four of her six convictions. Tuesday she will appear before the parole board for the fifth case. If she prevails, she will still have a sixth conviction to resolve. She was recently moved to Casa Grande transitional housing, a step toward an eventual release.
“The thing I’m hoping for is everything goes well and she’s able to get a job and get a little taste of the world and at some point, to be able to live in the world,” Watkins said.
Although Williams attorneys were not able to get her conviction overturned, they did win a victory in how the state calculates credit for time served and good behavior.
The Nevada Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in Williams’ favor which could affect her sentence, and those of as many as 5,000 other Nevada inmates.