James Arthur Williams
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|James Arthur Williams|
|Born||James Arthur Williams
December 11, 1930
|Died||January 14, 1990
|Occupation||Historic preservationist and antiques dealer|
|Known for||An early leader in the Savannah, GA historic preservation movement, as well as the main character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil|
James Arthur "Jim" Williams (December 11, 1930 – January 14, 1990) was the only person in the state of Georgia ever to be tried four times for the same crime. After the May 2, 1981 shooting death of his assistant, Danny Lewis Hansford, in Williams' Savannah home, known as Mercer House. Williams was found not guilty at the fourth, and final, trial.
Born in Gordon, Georgia, Williams was a noted Savannah, Georgia antiques dealer and historic preservationist who played an active role in the preservation of Savannah's historic district. In 1955, he bought and restored his first three houses when he was 24 years old; each was located at 541, 543 and 545 East Congress Street, respectively. Over the next 35 years, he would restore more than 50 homes in Savannah as well as the lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina. Notable Savannah houses he restored include: Odingsell House, Merault House, Hampton Lillibridge House, Habersham's Pink House, Armstrong House and Mercer House.
In 1969, Williams purchased a home originally built for General Hugh Weedon Mercer, great-grandfather of famed American songwriter Johnny Mercer. At the time of the purchase, the house had been vacant for almost a decade since its former occupants, the Shriners organization, had used the building for their Alee Temple. Over the course of two years, Williams painstakingly restored the house. After the restoration, it became his personal residence and he ran his antiques restoration business out of the carriage house located behind the mansion.
Arrest and trials
Williams was arrested in 1981 for the shooting death of Danny Hansford, with whom he had a sexual relationship. After the subsequent four trials, Williams was finally acquitted by a jury in Augusta, Georgia in 1989.
Bobby Lee Cook defended Williams during the first trial. Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, posting a $200,000 bond. Cook subsequently received, anonymously, a copy of the police report showing that the arresting officer had contradicted himself. The judgment was overturned and a new trial was ordered.
Sonny Seiler assumed Williams's defense at the second trial and decided to have Williams openly bring up his sexuality. Little else differed from the first trial. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned the conviction saying the sheriff should not have been allowed to testify as an expert, and that the prosecutor waited until his closing argument to demonstrate some evidence.
New evidence at the third trial showed the victim’s hands were not bagged by the police at the crime scene, a possible explanation for the lack of gunpowder residue. During deliberations, a juror supposedly called a paramedic to ask some medical questions, though it could not be proven. After two deliberations, the jury still had not reached a verdict, one woman adamantly insisting she saw reasonable doubt and would not alter her verdict. With 11:1 jurors in favor of a "guilty" verdict, it was declared a hung jury and resulted in a mistrial.
The fourth trial began two years later with a change of venue to Augusta, Georgia. The jury took one hour to come back with a verdict of not guilty.
On January 14, 1990, six months after the trial, Williams died unexpectedly in his home, at age 59, from pneumonia and heart failure. Reportedly, Williams fell dead in nearly the same spot where Danny Hansford was shot to death nearly a decade earlier. Other sources state he died in the foyer outside of the office where Danny Hansford was shot. Williams was buried next to his mother, Blanche Brooks Williams, in Ramah Church Cemetery, located in Gordon, Georgia.
The book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about Hansford's murder and Williams' subsequent trial for the murder, was written by author John Berendt and published in 1995. A New York Times' Bestseller and finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, the book was adapted into a movie directed by Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood in 1997. Williams was portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (ISBN 0-679-75152-1)
- More than Mercer House: Savannah's Jim Williams and his Southern Houses (ISBN 0-9672187-0-5)