As he watches murderers and armed robbers come and go, Alvis J. Williams remains in prison, only about one-fourth of the way through an 80-year sentence.
Burglary and stealing.
Now 45, the Kansas City man is serving what many veteran lawyers in Jackson County say is an unprecedented sentence for crimes not involving an act of violence.
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“I’ve been around the courthouse since 1990,” said Kansas City attorney John Picerno. “That’s the harshest sentence I’ve ever seen for property crimes.”
The average sentence for a convicted second-degree burglar in Missouri is 6.2 years, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Armed robbers in the state serve an average of 16.3 years. Even killers convicted of second-degree murder have an average sentence of just under 25 years, the department’s statistics show.
While the lengthy sentence is bad enough for Williams, there is another factor in his case that he says is even more painful.
He says he is innocent.
“I didn’t do the crime,” he said in a recent phone conversation from the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.
Bolstering Williams’ contention is an affidavit signed in 2010 by another Missouri inmate serving time for burglary. That inmate happens to be Williams’ stepbrother.
“I am personally aware that Alvis Williams did not commit the crimes for which he was charged, convicted and sentenced,” Sylvester Stewart Sr. wrote. “I committed those offenses.”
Despite that document and numerous state and federal appeals filed, Williams has been unable to convince a court to grant a hearing on his case.
“The main thing I’m hoping for is the chance to talk to the court and explain my situation,” he said.
It was midafternoon on Oct. 18, 1993, when a 19-year-old man looked out of his window and saw people breaking into both sides of a duplex on Meyer Boulevard near Holmes Road.
The witness got the license plate number of the car. He also got a clear, unobstructed look at the face of one of the men who made off with thousands of dollars in electronic equipment and other items before police arrived.
The burglars’ car was registered to Williams and to Stewart’s wife.
The witness identified the burglar as Williams.
At trial, Williams presented an alibi defense, but witnesses he needed to bolster his case, including Stewart’s wife, didn’t show up to testify. She would have testified that she had the car when the burglaries were committed, Williams argued.
Because Williams had previous burglary and stealing convictions, he was classified under Missouri law at the time as a Class X offender. That opened him up to a sentence enhancement beyond the maximum seven years in prison for each of the two second-degree burglary convictions and two stealing convictions.
At sentencing, prosecutors asked for what they considered a stiff sentence of 20 years.
“Because of his record and because of the boldness of this crime, that sentence would be appropriate in this case,” a prosecutor said, according to the court transcript.
The defense, citing the fact that no one was home during the burglaries and that none of Williams’ prior convictions involved violence, asked for a sentence of five to seven years.
Senior Judge William Peters, who had a reputation as the toughest sentencing judge in Jackson County, heard the arguments.
Without comment, he quadrupled the state’s request, sentencing Williams to four consecutive 20-year terms.
Peters died in 1996. According to the court transcript, he did not provide reasons for the sentence.
Whatever the judge’s reasons, Williams found himself facing what felt very much like the rest of his life behind bars.
“I cried and screamed and yelled,” he said. “And cried and screamed and yelled. You don’t know what else to do.”
On appeal, his attorney attacked the sentence as excessive and unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.
They pointed out that lawmakers changed the Missouri Class X offender law before Williams was sentenced in 1994 to remove second-degree burglary from the list of dangerous felonies eligible for enhanced sentencing.
That didn’t matter, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled. The version of the law at the time of the crimes counted.
Sean O’Brien, a veteran defense lawyer and an associate law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said imposing a sentence that is “clearly, clearly excessive” is counterproductive to the goals of public safety and offender rehabilitation.
“One of the consequences of these really long sentences is that they (the offender) lose contact with family and friends,” he said.
Those are the people who can help them successfully integrate back into society when they are released, according to O’Brien.
“What a waste of human life,” he said. “To keep them beyond where they are any risk to society.”
Although Williams was initially angry and frustrated over his situation, he said he now relies on his faith to keep himself positive.
“I’ve learned integrity,” he said. “I’ve found a way to cope and learn and keep my mind going forward.”
All he can do is continue working on his case, he said.
“I can’t do anything about the time I’ve served,” he said. “I just want to get back to my children, my wife and my God.”