TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Florida woman was found guilty Friday night for her role in the murder 18 years ago of her first husband.
After eight hours of deliberation, a Leon County jury convicted 48-year-old Denise Williams of all three charges against her. She faces life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree murder and accessory after the fact for masterminding and concealing a wicked plot to free her from the marriage and collect nearly $2 million in life insurance money.
The guilty verdict brings closure to the nearly two-decade-long mystery of what happened to Mike Williams, a 31-year-old father and real estate appraiser when he went missing Dec. 16, 2000.
"We got justice for Michael," his mother, Cheryl Williams, told Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs moments after the three guilty verdicts were read by Leon Circuit Judge James Hankinson.
Denise Williams remained emotionless, as she had during four days of testimony. The verdicts came two days shy of 18 years to the day that Mike Williams was murdered.
Fuchs said he was happy he and his team were able to bring some resolution for Mike Williams' family and friends.
"This is a career case," Fuchs told reporters. "It's not every day in your career that you get to be involved in an unsolved homicide that is 17 years old and through team effort make an arrest and ultimately get a conviction on a 17-year-old homicide."
He described how close he became with Mike Williams' family over the course of the investigation.
"They’ll always be a part of my life," he said. "Miss Cheryl and that smile that she has and then the thanks that she just gave me, and our team, of course, there's no way to describe it."
Denise Williams' attorney Ethan Way described her reaction as “stunned, she's just shocked; she’s very upset.”
He told reporters he would appeal the convictions. A date for her sentencing will be set next week.
"It’s terrible; it’s the wrong verdict on the facts, but you have to respect what the jury does," Way said. "Obviously, I don’t think she’s guilty of any of the three counts. Ultimately, we submitted the case to the jury and the jury made a decision."
He blamed "the drumbeat" of intense media coverage of the case that chronicled Williams' disappearance and the discovery of his body last year proving he was murdered.
"I firmly believe (Denise Williams) was tried in the court of public opinion and that spilled over in everything involved with the defense from the beginning," Way said.
Way also said the confession of Brian Winchester, who did the actual killing of Mike Williams, may have clouded jurors’ thinking that someone needed to be punished for his death.
“They’re probably wondering, as any reasonable person might wonder, why is Brian Winchester getting a free pass on murder?” he said. “He shot his best friend in the face at 3 feet with a 12-gauge shotgun. Denise Williams didn’t do that. Denise Williams didn’t put him up to that.”
In exchange for his confession and the whereabouts of Mike Williams' body, the state granted Winchester immunity for any statement he made about the murder. In court, he detailed the plot to do away with his best friend so he and Denise Williams, with whom he'd been having an affair for three years, could be together.
During his closing arguments, Fuchs called the agreement a risk. After the verdict, he said it was one that paid off two-fold.
“Once we were able to find Mike Williams and bring him home and they were able to give him a proper burial, I think that was the right decision, regardless of the outcome there,” Fuchs said. “Now, it just feels that much better.”
Jon Fuchs' portrayal of Denise Williams
The verdict followed Friday morning's closing arguments, during which Fuchs told jurors there was no doubt Denise Williams conspired, helped cover up and was responsible for the murder of her first husband.
He painted her as an ice cold co-conspirator, a woman who didn’t flinch when her former lover Winchester recounted the gruesome details of shooting Mike Williams in the face from a yard away, sticking his body in a dog crate and rushing back to Tallahassee to bury him at a familiar hunting spot along the shore of Carr Lake.
“She sat here stone-faced. Didn’t bat an eye. Didn’t shed a tear,” Fuchs said.
He also presented jurors with a document that showed Denise Williams filed an insurance claim 19 days after her husband went missing. The search for Williams continued well into February, nearly two months after he disappeared.
“That’s a cold individual. That’s a person who is involved in a homicide,” Fuchs said.
He highlighted a recorded phone call he played in court, in which Winchester's ex-wife Kathy Thomas, who was working as a confidential informant, confronted Denise Williams about the murder.
In the February call, Thomas said Brian Winchester told her in 2003 what had really happened to Mike Williams and that she knew Denise was involved. Twice during the call, Thomas accused Denise Williams of plotting the murder, but she did not react or deny the charge, instead redirecting the conversation.
“It’s not what she said, it’s what she doesn’t say,” Fuchs said, asking jurors to use their common sense when making their decision on her guilt or innocence.
Way told the jury that after years of investigating, the evidence presented amounted to just a few concert tickets, life insurance documents and photos of the search for Mike Williams. It filled up a single table.
“We have some pieces and some guesses, but without Brian Winchester, it doesn’t amount to anything,” he said. “All of the things presented to you by the state attorney to suggest corroboration do not prove anything. They never have, they never did and never will.”
Jurors found otherwise.
In his closing arguments, Way told jurors the case before them wasn’t about justice for Mike Williams. Fuchs told them he was wrong.
“This absolutely is about justice for Mike,” he said, pointing to Denise Williams. “This is about holding that person accountable for what her role is.”
Fuchs closed his remarks with a photo of Denise Williams juxtaposed with a photo of Mike Williams' skeletal hands still wearing his wedding ring.
"Mike Williams was a devoted father; he was a devoted husband. Mike Williams died with his ring on," Fuchs told the jury. "The only part of that that Denise Williams took to heart is the death do us part."
He took that very gold band out of his pocket and laid it on the jury box. The sound could be heard in the hushed courtroom.
"So, she took it to the extreme and she, along with Brian Winchester, made sure that death did him part."