The Story of Rev. Accelyne Williams (Boston, 1994) by Tyler Salomon

Accelyne Williams: A Man of God & Victim of Police

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by Tyler Salomon, JR364- History of the Alternative Press, May, 8, 2015

On March 25, 1994, the Reverend Accelyne Williams, a retired Methodist minister, climbed up the steps to his second story apartment in Dorchester, MA. The 75-year old minister was about to unwind for the day as he would on any typical afternoon.

This day, however, would take a different turn.

At the same time, Boston Detective Lisa Lehane of the Drug Control Unit was about to execute a “no knock” search warrant from the Dorchester District Court. Police were geared up to invade the apartment located at 118 Whitfield Street in search of drugs and guns. They had information that several Jamaican drug dealers had set up shop in the building.

As the Rev. Williams settled back to rest for the day, a team of twelve police officers in bulletproof vests began to storm his home. They smashed in the door and rushed into the living room shouting out orders in a garble of voices. The frightened minister, at home alone, fled the living room to his bedroom to hid from the invaders. He too was aware of drug activity in the building.

He locked the door between him and them for safety. He refused to obey the commands of the armed invaders to open the door. In short time, the men knocked in the bedroom door and pounced on the elderly minister.

He was thrown to the ground by three officers who wrestled with the old man in an effort to place him handcuffs. In the midst of the panic and struggle, the 75-year old minister suffered a fatal heart attack and perished under the heavy weight of the police like a trapped animal.

Moments later, the Boston police officers would realize that they had made a tragic error. They had besieged the wrong apartment.

The story of Accelyne Williams has been recognized as one of the most horrifying instances of police brutality in the United States. With recent police brutality incidents making headlines such as the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, William’s name and story has reappeared in publications listing some of the worst policing cases in history. The biggest red flag in the story of Rev. Williams is that his death was instigated by a critical piece of misinformation: a police informant gave the wrong apartment number to chief Det. Lisa Lehane.

His death led to significant criticism of the Boston Police Department back in 1994 and launched several investigations into the supervision of Boston police officers. While changes in the code of conduct were made and responsibility was taken by Boston Police, did the admittance of guilt following the death of Accelyne Williams bring justice to his story?

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The Rev. Accelyne Williams was described as a, “peaceful and unbiased man,” by his friends and family. The memory of his violent death at the manhandling of police stings those who knew him to this day.He could realistically be alive today if not for police negligence.

Former Police Commissioner Paul Evans said, “there is nothing which the Boston Police Department can do to change the events of March 25, 1994. What we have done is to make our best effort to see that they are not repeated…”

But for the Accelyne family, and those who followed his story, feeble police attempts to prevent history from repeating itself does not bring justice to his story. It only proves that misguided officers, whose job should be to protect the innocent, can still get a clean slate when found guilty of negligent actions towards minority residents.

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  Rev. Williams: A Gentle Giant Taken By Aggression

The Rev. Accelyne Williams lived his life as a hard-working Christian who sought to teach the lesson of god to those who would listen. His life was dedicated to ministering to the West Indian immigration community of Dorchester, the people of the smaller Caribbean islands, and to loving his family.

Born on December 15, 1918 in Freetown, Antigua, Williams found his passion in theology and pursued his dream job as a Methodist minister and preacher. Over the next forty years, he traveled throughout the eastern Caribbean islands spreading the work of Jesus Christ to hundreds of people he met in each town or village.

Some of his major accomplishments came during his time on the island of St Eustatius by establishing the St Eustatius Christian Council in the 1970’s and serving as the prison chaplain on the island of Montserrat.

During this time, he met his wife Mary and they raised daughter, Josephine. He retired from his traveling minister duties in 1983, but remained an active member of the Methodist community.

Nearly ten years into his retirement, he met his untimely demish at the hands of the Boston police. His tragic death came as a shock to those who knew him and led to outrage within the Boston black community.

The Rev. Birchfield Immure, minister of the Parkway United Methodist Church and colleague of Williams, remembered his dear friend fondly at a memorial service in Dorchester: “Accelyne Williams saw one race.  He saw people, not black or white…That was the Accelyne Williams that we all knew and respected.”

The members of his Methodist parish of the Leeward Islands would echo a similar memory of their teacher, calling him “a man of God, a man of faith and courage, a man of determination and endurance [whose] love of god and church cannot be denied.”

For a man who lived a peaceful life, it is ironic that his final moments were characterized by negligent brutality. While his memory lives on in those who knew him, the story of the events leading up to his death remain embedded in the memories of thousands of supporters across the city and country.

March 25, 1994: The Misinformed Raid

On Friday March 25, 1994 at 3 p.m., members of the Boston Police Drug Control Unit (DCU) arrived in the vicinity of 118 Whitfield Street in Dorchester, MA. Det. Lisa Lehane briefed the “entry team” of twelve officers about the layout of the second floor apartment at 118 Whitfield.

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According to the Suffolk Country District Attorney report, Det. Lehane informed the unit to expect to find the following scenario in the second floor apartment:

“The apartment was occupied by four to seven Jamaican males who possessed a large number of weapons including an Uzi machine gun, a Mac-10 machine gun and two 9mm handguns and that the weapons were kept on the kitchen table, fully loaded. A large quantity of cocaine and marijuana was kept and packaged by these men in the kitchen area.”

The information provided to Det. Lehane came from a longtime informant for the Boston Police Department identified as “#13,” in the DA report. Based on the description provided by the informant, police believed it necessary to execute a “no-knock” invasion of the apartment.

Lehane and eight members of the entry team broke through the first floor entrance of 118 Whitfield and proceeded to head up the stairs. Once reaching the top of the stairway, Lehane directed the team to the front door of the apartment as an officer smashed in the door with a sledgehammer.

“Boston Police, Everybody down,” shouted officers as stormed the living room. Police say Williams fled the room tried lock himself in a bedroom. Officers ordered him to open the door. When he refused to comply they broke down the bedroom door to find a frightened Williams “standing in front of a closed door with his hands raised to his chest.”

“Get on the floor!” police shouted as they threw him to he ground. Two officers grabbed his arms and yanked them behind his back in an effort to subdue him. As Williams struggled, a third officer held him down and put secured his wrists with flexicuffs.

The confrontation swift and violent, the shocked Williams never had a chance to identified himself despite being asked repeatedly. More importantly, the elderly minister gave no indication of his cardiac distress.

According to police, the left the room momentarily and returned to find Williams face down on the floor gagging on his own vomit. Two officers rolled Williams onto his back, cut the handcuffs and proceeded to bring in paramedics to help the old man. Paramedics transported him to Carney Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:58 p.m. It took less than an hour for the Boston police to take him from this earth.

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Following the raid, the drug control team found no evidence of drugs or weapons in the second floor apartment. With the negligent actions of police undeniable, they police and district attorney began an investigation what happened.

The Investigation & Aftermath

Two investigations were launched following the events of the botched drug raid. One by the  Internal Review Board of the Boston Police Department and another by the homicide division of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.

The primary goal of both investigations was to understand the sequence of events that lead up to the unnecessary death of Accelyne Williams and whether the police officers involved in the search engaged in criminal conduct.

The DA’s investigation consisted of 24 interviews with members of the police team, among others. It revealed significant problems with the conduct of the police before and after the raid.

For example, before a search warrant can be issued, officers must have a probable cause to support a police investigation. For Det. Lehane, her informant, #13, provided her with information that drugs and weapons were located in an apartment at 118 Whitfield. The informant had been “partying” with several of the suspected dealers a few days earlier at the building.However his evidence for citing the second floor apartment was weak.

According to the informant, he saw someone peering outside the second floor window and assumed that was the apartment with the drug and weapons activity. In fact, it was another apartment on the second floor. In his state of inebriation, he wrongly identified the apartment of Williams to the police. The police made no follow up effort to confirm the informants evidence.

The lack of police effort to confirm the information is even more shocking because of an earlier incident of location confusion in the same building. In September of 1993, seven months prior to the raid of William’s apartment, police raided a third floor apartment in search of drug dealers. The suspected dealers were living on the fourth floor and fled the unit before police correct the error and locate them.

The D.A.’s investigation was formally completed on May 10, 1994, less than two months after the death of Accelyne Williams. District Attorney Ralph C. Martin III concluded that the actions taken by the officers taken in executing the search warrant and subduing Rev. Williams was not unlawful based on the evidence provided.

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“In this case, the evidence shows that the entry team followed its standard protocol, and that its issue of force was consistent with that protocol,” DA Martin wrote. “Despite the benefit of hindsight, it would have not been reasonable… for the entry team to interrupt their standard procedure when Reverend Williams resisted and refused to obey their orders.”

However, there were no criminal charges filed against any of the officers involved with the raid. The investigation failed to find sufficient fault with the botched operation to merit a criminal prosecution. In a news release dated May 11, 1994, the district attorney’s office stated that while there was no major evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the police department, “steps must be taken to try and prevent such a tragedy from occurring in the future.”

“There are no words that will make this ordeal easy for (the family,)” said Martin. “We must all do everything in our power to insure a tragedy like this one does not visit another Boston family.”

The internal police investigation, meanwhile, largely faulted the informant for the wrongful police action. It did, however, criticized one supervising officer for failure to follow proper procedures in the issuance of the search warrant. It noted that when Det. Lisa Lehane submitted the warrant, her superior, Detective Stanley Filibin, failed to get the warrant approved by higher ups. He was suspended for thirty days as a result.

The Dorchester Community

The black community and widow of Accelyne Williams found the investigations shameful.  Mary Williams sued the city of Boston for the wrongful death of her husband. The Boston Globe wrote that Mrs. Williams, “ has demanded that the city pay her $18 million to settle her lawsuit out of court, amid allegations by her attorneys that the city places a reduced value on black lives.”

It was within the lawsuit that the first mentions of racial tensions began to surface as a result of the raid. Hundreds came out in support of Reverend Williams widow who all sought for justice for the peaceful man that was Accelyne. While no violent protests ensued as the result of William’s death, demonstrations and marches circled through the streets of Dorchester in an act of solidarity towards racial inequality.

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A long two-year battle between city officials and Reverend William’s widow ensued. Her lawyers argued that the minister’s death was more than an issue of misinformation but a pure violation of his civil rights: “The raid on and detention of Reverend Williams was done under color of law without legal justification. It constituted an unreasonable and excessive use of force, false arrest, unlawful detention and a violation of civil rights.”

In a historic move, the city agreed to settle with the family of Rev. Williams for the sum of $1 million dollars, the largest amount ever awarded by the city at the time.

In the two years following the death of Accelyne Williams, the Boston Police Department worked with city officials to improve the process of obtaining search warrants and fact checking information.

Reflection: Changes & Lasting Impact

It has been over twenty years since Rev. Accelyne Williams went into cardiac arrest in his Dorchester apartment. With racial tension between police officers and African Americans at an all-time high, people across the United States question the judgment of police officers and their definition for acting on suspicious activity.

The changes in the Boston Police Department immediately following his death did not make a significant impact in keeping Bostonians, black or white, safe. The department tightened up the process for obtaining a search warrant but little else of substance.

The Bay State Banner described how the Boston Police Department make their decisions on impulse based on the race and class of the suspects: “The police have got to look upon the areas of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan as not just areas of high crime, but also as a community where law-abiding families live. This would not have happened in a condo on Beacon Hill or in the Back Bay. The perception that `this is only Roxbury’ or `it’s only Dorchester’ has got to change.”

The death of Accelyne Williams bears similarities to cases in the news today. If the Rev. Williams had been white, he likely would not have been manhandled at face value. While there may never be justice for the Rev. Williams, this reporter hopes that in telling his story readers can better understand that all lives should matter in the hands of the police.

 

References

Goggin, Maureen. “Excerpts from reports on police raid” Boston Globe. May 12, 1994.

Martin, Ralph. “Death of Accelyne Williams” Suffolk County District Attorney. Boston, MA May, 10, 1994

Miller, Yawu. “Discipline of police in Williams SWAT case called too lenient” Bay State Banner. Feb 2, 1995

Pawloski, Jeremy. “City Awards Williams Widow $1 Million in Wrongful Death Suit.” Bay State Banner: 12. May 02 1996.ProQuest. Web. 8 May 2015 .

Thorpe, Richard. “Marchers remember minister on anniversary of police raid” Bay State Banner. March 30, 1995

Walker, Adrian. “Minister’s widow seeks $18m for botched drug raid” Boston Globe. June 16, 1994.

“Boston police apologize for man’s death during raid at wrong address” Providence Journal. March 27, 1994.

Photo Credits

March For Williams: Bay State Banner Circa 1995

Accelyne Williams Profile: Obituary of the 1995 Leeward Islands District Conference