Justice in a mom's death

More than a few people called or wrote, angry about last Thursday’s sentencing of Walter Williams to 2 to 4 years in prison for throwing an errant punch that hit and killed Tovoyia Owens, a 21-year-old pregnant mom, during an altercation last year outside Philadelphia Traffic Court.

How was it possible for a man to get just 2 to 4 years in prison for killing a pregnant woman?

The explanation probably won’t satisfy anyone. Nor will the fact that Williams, 28, was sentenced by Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart to just 1-1/2 years shy of the maximum possible sentence.

First the crime, which occurred shortly before 2 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2011. Williams was arrested after he and his brother and others accidentally encountered Owens and her boyfriend outside Traffic Court at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets.

Owens’ boyfriend and Williams’ brother had been feuding and, according to Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley, Williams instigated a confrontation that quickly escalated. Williams threw a punch that missed its target and hit Owens’ head. Owens’ head twisted, an artery to her brain tore and she died an hour later.

Williams was initially charged with a general count of murder, which means anything from the most serious first-degree murder – a planned malicious killing of another person – to involuntary manslaughter. A charge involving the death of Owens’ unborn child was not filed, said O’Malley, because her pregnancy was recent and Owens was not showing.

“There was no way to prove that he knew she was pregnant,” O’Malley said.

And so at a pretrial motions hearing, the first-degree murder charge was dismissed and Williams went to trial on a charge of third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.

First-degree murder was now off the table – and with it the possible penalties of death by lethal injection of life in prison without chance of parole. Still, a third-degree murder conviction carries a not-inconsiderable 20- to 40-year prison term.

Williams’ attorney, Robert Marc Gamburg, opted for trial without a jury and a veteran homicide judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, was assigned to the trial.

Trial by a judge is a defense tactic often used when the crime – the death of a pregnant mom, for instance – is so inflammatory it virtually guarantees a guilty verdict by a jury.

And the case against Williams had become one of legal analysis: what Williams did rather than whether he did it. Third-degree murder requires that you commit an act that you intend to injure someone, but not kill them. The usual explanation judges give juries is that you get angry at someone and shoot them in the foot. You don’t mean to kill them but the bullet nicks an artery and the person dies anyway.

But Williams did not even intend to hurt Owens; he swung at someone else, missed and hit her instead. Moreover, Owens’ death was described as a “freak injury” that was not the expected outcome of a punch to the head.

So Minehart’s verdict was guilty of involuntary manslaughter which, under Pennsylvania law, is a misdemeanor of the first degree, not a felony.

At sentencing, Gamburg argued that the maximum penalty under law was a sentence of 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison and Williams should be sentenced within the prison term recommended under state sentencing guidelines: 15 to 21 months.

O’Malley asked Minehart to impose a 2- to 4-year prison term and the judge agreed, telling Williams “You set in motion a chain reaction that led to the death of this poor girl.”

Williams apologized to Owens’ family and his own and told Minehart, “I wish I could have taken that punch instead of her.”

Owens’ mother, Jowanna Williams, described her daughter as a dedicated mother of a daughter, 3, and a hard worker employed since 15. She said Owens had earned a certificate as a pharmacy technician, worked at a local drug store and was working on a degree in criminal justice.

“The punishment does not fit the crime,” Williams told Minehart.

No one argued with her.