DENVER (AP) — The group of Denver Broncos players arrived at the Safari nightclub to celebrate New Year’s Eve and was whisked inside by bouncers. One of the dozens of people waiting in line to get in — an alleged Tre-Tre Crips gang member — took exception.
“We street,” Willie Clark told wide receiver Brandon Marshall, according to court testimony. “We got money too.”
That encounter between celebrated professional athletes and an alleged angry gang member ultimately led to the Jan. 1, 2007, shooting death of cornerback Darrent Williams, a jury decided Thursday, convicting Clark of first degree murder.
WATCH MSNBC COVERAGE ON THE CLARK VERDICT HERE:
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“It was a chance meeting and it was a ridiculous altercation that led to this tragic result,” said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.
Clark, 26, faces life in prison at his April 30 sentencing.
It took prosecutors and police nearly two years to build their case against Clark, partly because those who witnessed the shooting were part of a gang drug ring that was under federal investigation, Morrissey said. A code of silence kept those witnesses from talking.
Federal drug cases pending against the gang’s members helped crack the case. Several witnesses testified they saw or heard from Clark that he fired shots from an SUV truck into a stretch Hummer limousine carrying Williams and 16 others from the nightclub at 2 a.m. Williams died in teammate Javon Walker’s arms.
“It was this man, who indiscriminately, with universal maliciousness … took it upon himself to unload his .40-caliber handgun into that limousine full of innocent people,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Timothy Twining said in his closing argument.
Inside the nightclub, Clark continued to confront the athletes, prosecutors said. During testimony, Marshall described Clark as “off the hook” after a member of the Broncos’ entourage sprayed champagne on New Year’s revelers.
Prosecutors portrayed Williams as a peacemaker as his friends argued with gang members.
Marshall, who was at the nightclub but not in Williams’ limo, grew emotional on the stand as he described teammates with bloodstained clothes at a hospital afterward. He said Walker clutched a bloody necklace Williams was wearing and wouldn’t let it go.
Some gang members testified against Clark in exchange for lighter sentences on unrelated crimes. Two witnesses refused to testify against Clark, saying their families would be hurt if they spoke out against a gang member. A third witness spent a night in jail before changing his mind and agreeing to tell jurors Clark confessed to the shooting.
Security was tight throughout the 11-day trial. Thirteen armed deputies stood in the courtroom as the verdict was read. Deputies also were stationed along a hallway outside the courtroom.
Clark declined to testify in his defense, citing threats to himself and his family. Defense attorney Darren Cantor said gang members had threatened to turn Clark into “Swiss cheese” if he said anything in court.
Another defense attorney, Abraham Hutt, maintained that Clark wasn’t even in the SUV when the shooting happened.
“This is what this is about: Willie Clark is a scapegoat,” Hutt told jurors.
Hutt tried to undercut the credibility of five prosecution witnesses who got shorter prison time in other cases in exchange for testifying. Hutt said the five had their sentences reduced by a combined 188 years.
“We did what we thought was necessary to get the truth in front of those jurors,” Morrissey said.
Hutt said the prosecution’s star witness, Daniel “Ponytail” Harris, faced a life sentence for a drug charge but will be released within two years. Harris testified that he saw Clark fire the shots.
The defense suggested during the trial that Harris had fired into the limo. Harris hasn’t been charged in the case.
A written exchange between the jurors and District Judge Christina Habas during deliberations seemed to center on the possibility that someone else was involved in the shooting.
Jurors asked Habas if complicity was enough for a conviction. Habas answered that it was, if prosecutors met their burden of proof — even if jurors found that someone else committed all or part of a murder.
Williams was a star cornerback at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth, Texas. He played at Oklahoma State, where he was a 2003 All-Big 12 selection. The Broncos made him their second-round pick, 56th overall, in the 2005 draft.
In his second season, Williams was already a starter and had four interceptions, second-best on the team. He was tied for third in tackles with 86.
“After three long years, it is very gratifying to see closure brought to this case,” Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said in a prepared statement.
Shortly before the shooting, Williams had said he wanted to return to his native Fort Worth to talk to kids about staying out of gangs.
“The guy had an excellent future ahead of him and to see it cut short senselessly by violence, it’s just really sad,” said Nick Ferguson, a former Broncos safety who played with Williams.
“As elated as I am, as happy as I am over the conviction, it won’t bring Darrent back to his mom or to his kids,” Ferguson said. “But I do know, after all this time, this means a lot for his family. Maybe now, Darrent can rest in peace.”
Clark showed no emotion as the verdict was read. He leaned back and looked at the ceiling when the jury was dismissed, and gave a small smile to relatives before he was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs.
There was no immediate word on a possible appeal. But Cantor told three sobbing people in the courtroom, “Try to breathe, OK? That’s what appeals are for.”
Williams’ mother, Rosalind Williams, wept as she left the courtroom.
“Something has to happen in society to stop gang violence,” she said afterward.
Asked if she thought there were other gang members responsible for her son’s slaying, Williams gave a tight smile, leaned into a microphone and said, “No comment.”
Jurors deliberated a day and a half before convicting Clark on all 21 counts he faced, including the attempted murders of the 16 others in the limousine.
“We’ll never know what happened that night,” Rosalind Williams said. “This is a start, to clean up the streets here and hopefully everywhere else.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin, Dennis Georgatos and P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report.
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