DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Defense attorney Daryl Queen clasped his hands and spoke to the DeKalb County jury tenderly, like a pastor to a grieving family. He told them about Leon Williams, 44, a former longtime state worker who had a void in his life, who wanted a son and decided he had enough love and patience to handle a 10-year-old with autism, communication issues and myriad mental challenges.
Williams, Queen said, also believed in corporal punishment and on April 28, 2017 – after Kentae Williams allegedly cursed at a teacher and then refused to take a bath – it went too far.
The father, charged with murder, held the boy under the tub water to get him in line, and he drowned.
Queen’s oration Tuesday during opening statements at Williams’ trial was the first time his defense strategy was revealed since Williams’ arrest in a case that drew wide attention and led to several firings at the Division of Family Children Services.
Williams “was responsible for the death of his son,” Queen told the jury as pictures of the smiling father and son flashed on a screen on the wall. “What you’ll also see is that does not make him a murderer.”
One of the prosecutors, Mirna Andrews, told a far different version of events. She said Williams, who had worked for various state agencies before his arrest including the Department of Administrative Services, made statements that showed he intended to hurt the child.
Williams, who’d adopted Kentae only months earlier, picked him up from school that last day and stopped to buy a belt, Andrews said. On the way into the home outside Decatur, a witness heard him say, “You’re going to die tonight,” said the prosecutor.
In an interview with police, Williams said that was just a joke, that he had only held the boy under water for 30 or 45 seconds twice. But evidence in the trial will reveal the defendant lied to the detective, Andrews said.
The first witness called Tuesday was former DFCS case worker, Jaire Granderson, who said she’d spent a great deal of time with Kentae and helped comfort him when two adoptions fell through. The boy had been in state custody since birth and didn’t understand why. DFCS workers and foster parents reminded him there were many people who loved him.
Granderson said Williams saw Kentae on a website where potential adoptive parents can look for kids who need a permanent home.
Williams and Kentae met at an “adoption party,” which is a gathering of kids and potential parents, in 2016. It was at Stars and Strikes, the family fun bowling center, in Henry County. They hit it off and began slowly building a relationship, under Granderson’s supervision, until the adoption was finalized in November 2016.
Even after a new case worker was assigned, Granderson kept in touch. She last saw him when she visited Williams’ home in January 2017. She didn’t testify about any sign of trouble.
But, as DFCS would later acknowledge, there were other reports that Williams wasn’t treating Kentae well and the allegations weren’t taken seriously enough. The agency fired three workers after the boy died.
Granderson heard about the death through the media. She remembered the boy as troubled but outgoing, loving and adventurous.
One trait especially stood out: Kentae loved water.
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