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The ‘devil in him’: A Gainesville killer's confessions expose complexities of an insanity defense

 Paul Graves Williams, 64, stands before Alachua County's Eighth Judicial Circuit judge at his 15thfelony forensics hearing on Oct. 28, 2021 in Gainesville.
Houston Harwood
Fresh Take Florida
Paul Graves Williams, 64, stands before Alachua County's Eighth Judicial Circuit judge at his 15thfelony forensics hearing on Oct. 28, 2021 in Gainesville.

Rebecca Garcia still can’t bear to celebrate Thanksgiving. She can’t stand to look her other siblings in the face, either. She hasn’t in nearly three years, since her brother-in-law confessed to the murders of her sister and niece. And moving on feels especially difficult when the fate of her family’s killer remains undetermined.

Paul Graves Williams, 64, faces two capital charges for the November 2018 murders of Lisa Williams, 57, and Paige Williams, 15. A criminal trial cannot proceed until Williams is deemed mentally competent. A state judge in Alachua County will reconsider the matter again Dec. 16.

Williams plans to plead insanity if and when he is cleared as competent, his lawyers say. Until then, he remains in custody at the Treasure Coast Forensic Treatment Center more than 200 miles south of Gainesville in Indiantown, where he receives psychotropic medication and repeated psychological evaluation.

“If he wasn’t crazy when he went in, he may be crazy now,” Garcia said.

Though nothing is yet certain, the likelihood that Williams will be released from the forensic treatment center appears slim. Whether that is for better or for worse is equally unknown.

A shattered sense of peace

Garcia’s home in Ocala once felt peaceful. She looked forward to visits from a wild fox that occasionally naps in the grass outside her house. She savored the quiet, cold winters — drastically different from her native Fort Lauderdale. But what she enjoyed the most, by far, was having her sister Lisa nearby. Their homes were less than an hour apart. That used to soothe Garcia. Now it haunts her.

Lisa Williams, a Stephen Foster Elementary media specialist, had long dark hair and deep-set brown eyes. She and her husband Paul had two daughters, Paige and Lindsey. They lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Gainesville, where their kids could safely cross the street to swim in the community pool. They had never logged any trouble until the 911 call on Nov. 16, 2018.

On that Friday three years ago, just six days before Thanksgiving, Lisa Williams’ coworkers received a call from her husband. He told them that someone ought to check on the house. The warning immediately felt disconcerting. Plus, Lisa’s coworkers had not heard from Lisa in a few days. It was unlike her to not show up for work.

They called the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office to request a wellbeing check on the family. Something had clearly gone wrong, but no one knew what it was until officers arrived on the scene at 8:54 a.m. By then, it was too late.

The officers entered the Williams’ home through a back door that had been left ajar. Blood coated the floors. In the sink was a red-tinged kitchen knife, and on the counter, a stained pair of scissors.

Officers then found Lisa and Paige, brutally stabbed and bludgeoned. Paige had been stabbed no less than 35 times, the police reports said. Mother and daughter had been moved after they died, their bodies staged.

A confession and a course of action

Officers secured a search warrant and wrapped the house in Garrison Way with police tape. They combed through the crime scene for several hours before Paul Williams returned home.

He had no prior record of violent offenses but the police immediately took him into custody. He was their No. 1 suspect.

At the sheriff’s office, Williams sat down for a video interview that lasted more than seven hours. In it, he admitted that his actions were wrong. He said that he “snapped,” that he blamed the “devil in him” for his homicidal impulse.

The 64-year-old looked scrawny in the confessional. He frequently fidgeted and forgot the answers to simple questions about his own life. He appeared unwell enough to warrant further examination — one that is ongoing.

It is possible to fake incompetence, though hard to prove when it’s faked. “Criminal malingering” is a term for feigning sickness to avoid the consequences of a crime. A 2013 study in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found it can be common; 17.5% of a nearly 900 defendant sample had malingered their way into appearing incompetent to stand trial.

Since Williams’ initial indictment in December 2018, he has undergone seven psychological evaluations and 15 felony forensics hearings while in custody at the forensic treatment center. The public defender and prosecutor overseeing Williams’ case declined to discuss the case. Williams could not be reached for comment.

Chapter 916 of the Florida Statutes requires that mentally ill or intellectually disabled defendants be evaluated by no fewer than two but no more than three mental health experts before they can be committed to a mental institution.

Those experts look to see whether a defendant can understand the charges against them, the range in possible penalties and the adversarial nature of the legal process. Experts also determine whether the defendant can communicate information regarding his case to his lawyers and stand for his own defense in trial if needed.

If treatment is necessary and there is no appropriate care that is less restrictive than being held in a state hospital, the court may commit a defendant for a six-month period. The defendant has to either demonstrate an inability to care for himself or a likelihood that he will cause harm to himself or others in order to meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization.

After six months, a state hospital administrator is required to report on the defendant’s progress. Another hearing within 30 days must be held to determine whether the defendant is still incompetent. If a defendant remains incompetent for five years straight his case is dismissed, but charges may be refiled if he ever regains competence.

It can be a long and arduous process, one that can exhaust court resources and burden family members.

“I never saw any incompetency in Paul,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what went through his head. I don’t think a sane person can reason out something like that.”

In Florida, felony forensic courts function to ensure that cases are “resolved as quickly as possible.” But with cases of incompetence, “as quickly as possible” can take years to a lifetime. And with homicides like those which Paul Williams confessed to, little can ever truly be resolved.

Insanity vs. incompetence

Though defendants found legally insane are typically also found incompetent to proceed to trial, insanity and incompetence are not the same. The two are commonly confused.

“The easiest way to distinguish the two is that insanity looks at the defendant’s mental state at the time the crime was committed,” said Peg O’Connor, a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville. “Incompetence, on the other hand, looks at the defendant’s current ability to follow what’s going on in the proceedings and assist his lawyers.”

Most states offer some form of an insanity defense. Florida has what is colloquially known as the M’Naghten rule, named after an Englishman who fatally shot Prime Minister Robert Peel’s secretary Edward Drummond in 1843.

M’Naghten intended to shoot Peel. He was after the prime minister because he believed, delusionally, that Peel’s forces were trying to kill him. Once he was caught and tried, M’Naghten became the first known defendant to receive a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Like many modern defendants, he subsequently lived out the rest of his years in a mental institution.

Insanity defenses are reserved for serious offenses, like murder or armed robbery. It’s not a defense that would ever be raised in the event of a misdemeanor. The defendant would likely wind up staying longer in a mental institution than he would in jail for pleading guilty.

Under the M’Naghten rule, all defendants are first presumed sane and carry the burden of proving they were insane at the time of their crime. The feat is rarely accomplished.

“That’s about the only criminal defense that I am aware of in Florida where the burden of proof is on the defendant,” said George Dekle, a retired criminal prosecutor in Lake City.

Dekle has worked hundreds of cases that have involved incompetence and insanity, including Ted Bundy’s 1980 murder trial in Orlando. Bundy, a serial killer responsible for the rapes and murders of more than 30 women, did not succeed at pleading insane. Few defendants whom Dekle has prosecuted over his 30 years of work have.

Simply proving a “mental infirmity, disease or defect” is not enough to qualify as insane. The condition must cause a lack of awareness of one’s actions and the action’s consequences, or an inability to decipher right from wrong.

The vague wording makes it an especially difficult defense to achieve. A 1991 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health reported that across eight surveyed states, the insanity defense was raised in about 1% of felony cases. Only 26% of defendants in those cases were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

That’s partly because a successful insanity defense requires clear and convincing evidence, the second-highest legal standard of proof. And it’s not a precise parameter.

“There is no definition that I can point you to,” O’Connor said. “We just happen to know that it’s higher than preponderance and less than beyond a reasonable doubt. And it just means pretty good, pretty confident in your findings.”

Yet even feeling close to confidence can involve the risk of getting it wrong.

Legal leaps of faith

If Paul Williams is declared competent and not adjudicated as not guilty by reason of insanity, he will likely be sentenced to either life in prison or the death penalty. If the court grants his defense, he will continue his stay at a state hospital — with periodic check-ins to ensure he is ongoingly insane — rather than go to prison.

If the court were also to find that he does not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization, he could be sent to outpatient treatment or turned loose.

“There’s a myth that no one has ever been found not guilty by reason of insanity and not gone to a mental institution,” Dekle said, “but that’s wrong.”

He recalls a case he prosecuted about 35 years ago:

Walter Chapman Davis set out to travel in 1986 with his wife, Helen, and their children. They had made it to Lake City from Pompano Beach when they decided to stop at a supermarket. Walter had a conversation with another female shopper, which Dekle said made Helen feel suspicious and jealous.

She badgered Walter about it for hours, as she had allegedly done several times before. Helen was reportedly abusive, and on this particular occasion, her husband of 54 years snapped. Walter choked Helen to death.

Dekle took down Walter’s confession. Tape recorder in hand, he heard about how Walter wished he hadn’t killed his wife, how he regretted his actions and felt remorse. He did not strike Dekle as legally insane.

Yet, much to Dekle’s surprise, two court appointed experts found the defendant not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The judge sided with them. And because Walter was unfit for involuntary hospitalization, he walked free despite confessing to his crimes.

“The judge said ‘go on and sin no more,’” Dekle said. “And he walked out the back door of the courtroom into the arms of his children. And he was free.”

Walter remained free until he passed away in 2002.

That outcome is rare. Most defendants who succeed at pleading insane are hospitalized, and most are hospitalized for decades or the rest of their lives.

Still, it is far more likely that a defendant fails to achieve the insanity defense altogether.

Like Bryan James Riley, who is charged with shooting a family of four in their Lakeland home about two months ago. He claimed he received direct orders from God to do so. He, like Paul, had plans of relying on an insanity plea. But in September, the State Attorney’s Office decided instead to seek out the death penalty. His next status conference is scheduled for Feb. 18.

Or John Jonchuck, who was sentenced to life in prison after he dropped his 5-year-old daughter off of Tampa Bay’s Dick Misener Bridge in 2015. He had also planned to rely on an insanity defense; he claimed he had been hearing voices, that his daughter was possessed and he had no choice but to kill her. His life sentence arrived four years after her death.

The final outcome for Paul Williams remains unclear. He has yet to approach a criminal trial. It could take years to get there.

“I don’t think he’s being treated very well in the state hospital, so that’s kind of satisfying to me,” Garcia said. “I know it sounds cold and crass, but I have a really hard time dealing with the whole thing.”

Garcia said she tries every day to forgive her brother-in-law for what he did. She doesn’t know if she ever will. In the meantime, she feels grateful that Williams faces the possibility of permanent hospitalization. But with the thought of his case being dismissed in two years or the chance that he could one day re-enter society, she wonders whether she will ever fully heal.

“I would like some closure, I would like to know exactly where he stands,” she said. “I lie awake sometimes thinking about what my sister went through in her last moments with him. And I wish I could have been there for her. I wish I could have been there.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at ngalicza@freshtakeflorida.com.

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Natalia Galicza - Fresh Take Florida