STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — After Darrell Williams’ brother was shot to death in 2009 in a Chicago neighborhood, his mother and aunt knew what had to be done to spare him the same fate. A promising basketball player, Williams was hastily enrolled at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater — a town tucked away on the high prairie where a kid from the inner city could make good.
So Williams, armed with big dreams and a knack for the game, made the most of his time at OSU, leading the team in rebounding and averaging more than 7 points a game in 2010.
That all changed at an off-campus party after a home game in December 2010, where he would be accused of assaulting two women and face a jury that convicted him last month of sexual battery and rape by instrumentation.
As Williams, 22, sits in the Payne County Jail awaiting sentencing Friday — jurors recommended a year in prison for each of the rape counts — there has been a groundswell of support for his case. Several websites and Facebook pages have popped up in support and one online petition urging the judge to suspend his sentence and set him free has more than 1,700 signatures.
The player’s family insists Williams, who is black, is innocent — the victim of misidentification by the white women at the party and of racial profiling by a jury of 11 whites and one Asian member who were picked from a largely white jury pool.
One friend of Williams’, Brooke Brant, said the case has nothing to do with race.
“He passed two voluntary polygraphs,” Brant said. “These two girls have lied, and the jury believed their word. I know Darrell’s character; he would never do anything sinister.”
The polygraphs were conducted by a State Bureau of Investigation examiner, and Williams’ lawyers say he passed both.
Thursday night, the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke on Williams’ behalf at a packed Baptist church in Stillwater, assuring the dozens in attendance that God would see Williams through. Some wore bright orange T-shirts exclaiming “Free Darrell,” and Jackson led the crowd in a cheer of “Set Darrell free!”
Stillwater resident DeLisa Stearne came to the rally because she believes Williams has been falsely accused.
“It shows that there is still a lot more that needs to be done until there is justice for all,” she said.
Stillwater defense attorney Sherry Boyce, who sat in on parts of Williams’ trial last month, believes in his innocence because he’s maintained his account of what happened and passed polygraph tests.
“It bothers me, and I live here,” she said Thursday.
Williams’ supporters long have been skeptical of the prosecution’s case because it was built mainly on testimony from the two women and not physical evidence, such as a rape kit or DNA analysis.
During Williams’ trial, defense attorney Cheryl Ramsey also noted that neither woman suffered cuts or scratches and none of their clothing was torn.
“He was at the party, but it wasn’t him,” Mildred Williams, his aunt, said in an interview from her home in Chicago. “Two white girls were against this African-American athlete. My nephew didn’t stand a chance.”
There were as many as 80 people at the 2010 house party, including some of Darrell Williams’ teammates — all of whom wore matching Oklahoma State warm-up suits. The two women heard about the party at a bar and showed up, later accusing Williams of groping them and reaching inside their pants without their consent.
The women did not identify Williams as their attacker until three days after the party, when they were shown a photo of the basketball team by Stillwater police. Before that, the women wrote an anonymous letter to police and some media outlets to report what happened.
At trial, one woman said Williams held her against her will and dragged her in a yard. She said the attack happened in the basement of the house and that no one came to her aid.
“It made me feel violated and sick to my stomach,” she testified.
Assistant District Attorney Jill Tontz, who declined to comment ahead of the sentencing, told jurors in closing arguments that “these girls felt dehumanized, embarrassed.”
Defense attorneys tried to cast doubt that Williams was the perpetrator. Witnesses testified that several players at the party wore similar Oklahoma State warm-up suits, and his attorneys claimed that could have led to a misidentification.
Defense attorney Ramsey referred to the case as a “he said, she said situation” during her closing argument. She noted that no one heard anyone scream at the party, saw any struggles or reported anything inappropriate.
Ramsey did not return a message seeking comment.
One of the victims told the Associated Press that she’s been infuriated by the people who are “blindly” supporting Williams “without knowing the facts of what happened that night.”
“They don’t know what happened to me and the other girl,” she said.
The AP typically does not identify victims of sexual assault.
She also blasted some of Williams’ supporters who believe race played a role in his conviction or that she and the other victim had something to gain by coming forward.
“That’s ignorance for people to say this is a race thing,” she said. “It’s not about race; it’s about rape. He raped two girls.”
AP writers Tim Talley and Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.