Born in the tiny town of Gordon, Ga., in Wilkinson County, Jim Williams was born with the gift of immense creativity.
He would also develop an arrogant anger that he could keep hidden from others most of the time. At age 24, he began his career as an antiques dealer and historic preservationist who played an active role in the preservation of Savannah’s historic district.
Over the next 35 years, he would restore more than 50 homes in Savannah as well as the low country of Georgia and South Carolina.
He soon became one of the best-known socialites in the city. Invitations to the parties held at his home, the famous Mercer House, were highly sought after by the elite in the late 1970s.
After what would be the last party, Williams was arrested in 1981 for the shooting death of
Danny Hansford, a man who sometimes worked for Williams and allegedly had a relationship with. Williams claimed the shooting was based on self-defense based on Danny drawing his pistol first.
During his eight-year ordeal, Jim Williams spent plenty of money on the best legal counsel.
According to New York columnist John Berendt, he also spent plenty of time and money with a voodoo priestess named Minerva who believed that to understand the living, you must commune with the dead.
At one meeting, Minerva looked across the table at her wealthy client and said “Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour – from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half-hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half-hour after midnight is for doin’ evil. . . . Seems like we need a little of both tonight.”
Williams would work with Minerva and his trial lawyers. But, forgiveness was not in his heart.
The anger and arrogance he tried so desperately to suppress surfaced at exactly the wrong time.
Trial Number 1 - While Minerva performed her graveyard rituals, the Southern gentleman Bobby Lee Cook defended Williams during the first trial. Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, posting a $200,000 appellate bond. Cook subsequently received an anonymous copy of the police report showing that the arresting officer had done some things that resulted in the reversal of his conviction. Retrial was ordered.
Trial Number 2 - Next up to defend Williams was another Southern gentleman whose family still owns the bloodline to UGA, the English Bulldog mascot for the Dawgs – Sonny Seiler.
Seiler took a great risk in deciding to have Williams openly bring up his sexuality. Little else differed from the first trial. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned the conviction saying the sheriff should not have been allowed to testify as an expert and that the prosecutor waited until his closing argument to demonstrate some evidence. Retrial was ordered.
Trial Number 3 - New evidence at the third trial showed the victim’s hands were not bagged by the police at the crime scene, a possible explanation for the lack of gunpowder residue. During deliberations, a juror supposedly called a paramedic to ask some medical questions, though it could not be proven. After two deliberations, the jury still had not reached a verdict, one woman adamantly insisting she saw reasonable doubt and would not alter her verdict. With 11-1 jurors in favor of a guilty verdict, it was declared a hung jury and resulted in a mistrial. Retrial was ordered.
Trial Number 4 - The fourth trial began two years later with a change of venue to Augusta. The jury took one hour to come back with a verdict of not guilty.
At age 59, Jim Williams was the only defendant to have survived four murder trials in Georgia history. He was a free man with many years ahead of him. Yet, many people believed he got away with murder.
Perhaps not. On Jan. 14, 1990, six months after the fourth trial, Williams fell dead in the same spot where he would have fallen eight years earlier had Danny Hansford actually fired the gun and shot him.
Interestingly, Jim Williams was warned by Minerva in the graveyard years before to “ask the boy for forgiveness.” But, Williams angrily refused.
Was his sudden death from pneumonia, as the coroner found, although he showed no signs of illness? Or, was Minerva correct in her assertion that “the boy did it”?
Jason Swindle is a criminal-defense attorney and college professor in Carrollton.