Retiring Ulster County Judge Don Williams reflects on 40 years in law enforcement

Judge Donald Williams (photo by Dan Barton)

In 2010, not long into Ulster County court judge Donald Williams’ tenure on the bench, deputies at the county sheriff’s office had a laugh over an incarcerated defendant’s assessment of the longtime prosecutor-turned-jurist. The jail’s call-recording system captured the inmate lamenting the tough sentences handed down in Williams’ courtroom: “That dude is slaying [defendants] with time.”

Over the course of his decade on the bench and three more in the district attorney’s office, the 66-year-old Williams earned a reputation for dispensing tough justice on violent or repeat offenders, along with harsh critiques of attorneys who made the mistake of entering his courtroom unprepared.

Despite his reputation for toughness, Williams has also worked to make his vision of punishment — followed by redemption and reform — manifest in efforts to assist addicts and help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society. As he prepared to step down from the bench at year’s end, Williams sat down with Ulster Publishing for the first time since his election as county court judge to talk about his 40-year career in Ulster County’s criminal justice system. 

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Williams grew up on Crown Street in Uptown Kingston, in the shadow of the Ulster County courthouse. He would pass by the iconic structure every day on his way from school to religious instruction. The son of an accountant and a homemaker and real-estate agent, Williams said he recognized early on that he had an unusual aptitude for debate, a talent he could put to use in the legal profession.

“I refer to it as my gift, my family used to call it the curse,” said Williams. “I always felt I could try to understand both sides of an argument, and, once decided, aggressively and persuasively argue my position.”

Williams took that gift to Seton Hall, then Albany Law School and then, after passing the bar, to the county district attorney’s office, where he went to work for then-DA and future state supreme court judge E. Michael Kavanagh. At the time, Williams said he had no plans to make a career on the prosecution side of the bar. Rather, he planned to follow a well-worn path for fledgling attorneys — put in a few years in a DA’s office, gain valuable trial experience, and then move on to more lucrative work as a litigator. Having grown up in modest, albeit comfortable circumstances, the aspiration to become a high-rolling trial attorney had allure for Williams. “Money and to be rich was a consideration,” said Williams of his early career plans. “I knew I had a gift. I wanted to be a trial lawyer for a long time. I wanted to go into private practice and make a lot of money.”

A change in career plans

That path would shift, unalterably, with a horrific crime that unfolded among Marlborough’s apple orchards. On March 13, 1979, Antonio Navarro and David Cruz abducted a 15-year-old girl from Haverstraw in her mother’s car. The pair took her to an apple farm in the southern Ulster County town, where they broke into a trailer. Over the next 24 hours Cruz and Navarro repeatedly sexually assaulted the victim at knifepoint.

The next day, they left her hogtied and gagged on the dirt floor of a woodshed. Williams still marvels that the frail teenager was able to free herself from her bonds and make her way to safety.

Barely a year out of law school, Williams was assigned to prosecute the case because, he believes, as the office’s youngest ADA, his superiors thought he was best suited to establish a rapport with the teen victim. Cruz would go on to plead guilty to a single count of rape. He was sentenced to six to 18 years in state prison and died there in 1995.

Navarro opted to go to trial. Williams recalls the trepidation he felt knowing that the girl would have to testify in excruciating detail about her ordeal and fearing she would freeze up on the witness stand. Forty years later, he pauses to collect himself as he describes the climactic moment of the trial.

“She steps down from the witness stand, walks over to the defense table and said, ‘This is the man who tried to ruin my life,’” recalls Williams. “To see the courage of that young lady was amazing after what had happened to her. She didn’t want it to happen to someone else.”

Navarro was convicted on all counts and received consecutive maximum terms for rape, robbery, kidnapping and other crimes. He was released in 2012 after 33 years in prison. After the trial, Williams began receiving letters from the victim, a correspondence that lasted until her untimely death under circumstance the judge declines to discuss. The trial, he said, set him on the course of a career prosecutor. “After that trial, I couldn’t imagine anything that would fulfill me more than seeing justice done, in my eyes,” said Williams. “Suddenly $15,000 a year wasn’t so bad because there were more important things, or at least more fulfilling things.”

A tough DA, but that’s not the whole story

Within a few years of that trial, Williams was promoted to chief assistant district attorney. In 1999, when Kavanagh left the office to become county judge, Williams was appointed to the top job. He would go on to win election to two four-year terms as DA. As the county’s top law enforcement officer, Williams earned a reputation for driving hard bargains on plea agreements, mandating that defendants plead guilty to the top count in any indictment in exchange for a deal. He also personally prosecuted dozens of high-profile cases at trial.

But, Williams said, his reputation as a tough-on-crime DA belied efforts by himself and his predecessor both to modernize the office and to look for solutions beyond the jailhouse. During his tenure as chief assistant and as DA, Williams said, the office created a domestic violence task force, hired the county’s first sexual assault nurse examiner, and helped create a program — a precursor to today’s drug courts — to provide jail-based outpatient and inpatient services to addicts.

“[Kavanagh] and I were able to accomplish a lot, in terms of change. As DAs we were ahead of the curve in what was then a very rural conservative county,” said Williams.

In 2007, it appeared that Williams was ready to pursue his long-deferred ambition to become a private-practice litigation attorney. He passed on a third term as DA to join his friend Dave Clegg’s legal practice in Uptown Kingston.

Williams’ tenure there was a short one. In 2009, county court judge Mike Bruhn told Williams that he would not seek another ten-year term on the bench and encouraged him to run for the office. Williams defeated Deborah Schneer, who’d been appointed by the governor to fill the remainder of Bruhn’s term, and donned the judicial robes.

On the bench, Williams established himself as an exacting taskmaster and a hard worker presiding over an average of 20 trials each year.

Williams praised his court attorney, John Prizzia, as a critical component of the operation. Prizzia has been at Williams’ side since he served as an assistant district attorney and later chief assistant in the DA’s office. As court attorney, Prizzia researches case law and handles much of the painstaking behind-the-scenes work that goes into the adjudicating more than 300 felony cases each year. “He has the knowledge of the law, the talent to try cases, and the drive to work,” said Williams. “As proud and as confident as I am about my abilities, the reason I can do what I do is because of John.”

Here comes the judge

Williams’ style on the bench is serious, stern and appears aimed at creating an atmosphere of gravity. In other courts, judges and attorneys engage in fast-paced jargon-laden proceedings in an effort to clear cases quickly. Williams, by contrast, makes time to speak to defendants slowly and carefully in a smooth baritone and measured cadence as he asks if they understand the rights they are giving up by pleading guilty. He will address jurors and victims and sometimes expound at some length about the harm a defendant has caused.

Williams’ style has earned him hushed criticism from prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, who complain about his manner, his inflexibility on plea agreements, and his in-court chastisement of lawyers who provoke his ire. But Williams views his work on the bench as more important than his popularity among fellow members of the bar. He also sees part of his job as teaching young attorneys the nuances of criminal law from the bench, offering correction when needed. 

“I am demanding of lawyers, but there is just too much at stake in my courtroom,” said Williams. “And I’m not just talking about victims and their families, I’m talking about defendants, I’m talking about the community.”

For defendants, Williams’ manner can range from withering to near-fatherly, depending on their crimes and their level of remorse. When a convicted pedophile repeatedly interrupted Williams sentencing, the judge had court officers gag him.

But Williams is also known to offer words of encouragement and support to addicts who have turned a corner while in jail and to cut years off of sentences for defendants whom he believes express true remorse. He has made it a habit of interrupting defendants’ post-conviction statements to the court and to their victims with questions. A young man who claims he got in trouble running with a bad crowd might be asked why he chose to associate with them. A defendant who blames their crime on alcohol might be asked pointedly if someone held a gun to their head and forced them to drink.

The point of the questioning, Williams said, is to probe whether the defendants have a true understanding of the magnitude of their crimes and are truly committed to changing their ways. Williams also defended his reputation for tough sentences, noting that he reserved long prison terms for either violent offenders or those who continue in a life of crime after having been given multiple opportunities to reform.

“It gives me no joy to sentence people to prison,” said Williams. “But it’s not about punishment, it’s about deterrence, it’s about rehabilitation, it’s about making victims feel that justice has been done and making the community have greater faith in the system.”

Putting down the gavel

Earlier this year, Williams announced that he would not seek a second term on the bench. The judge, a Republican, said that it was not a choice entirely of his own making. At 66, he is eligible to serve as a judge for another four years. Williams said that he had formed a campaign committee and was preparing to announce his run when “political machinations” upon which he declined to elaborate caused him to rethink his plans. On January 1, Democrat Bryan Rounds, who made frequent appearances as a defense attorney before Williams, will be sworn in as the new county judge.

In the end, Williams, a widower, said that it was his daughter’s words that convinced him it was time to end his 40-year career in the criminal justice system. “She said ‘Dad, Mom and I think that you have done enough,” recalls Williams. “The next day I called my people and said I don’t think I’ve done enough, but it was time. And I’m going to miss this.”

There are 7 comments

  1. Sharon Williams Schonger

    Congratulations Don. It’s been years since we saw each other, but as your 2nd cousin on your dad’s side I I wish you well in your retirement. Consider a move? Think North Carolina, I relocated here 2 years ago and love it. Sharon Williams Schonger

  2. Charlie Hubert

    I had the distinct privilege of serving on a jury in Judge Williams’s court. Though he suffered no fools he was fastidiously ethical, professional, fair, humorous and instructive.
    Ulster County and its residents were fortunate to have him on the bench. We’ll miss his expertise and wit.
    Best wishes Judge Williams!

  3. Tom Lattin

    I did an internship in 1994 when you were Chief Assistant under Mike Kavanaugh. By far the best real time experience I had. You also called me out a few times saying ” just answer the question, don’t try to analyze why I’m asking..” congrats on your career and retirement..

  4. ron stonitsch

    Being a “tough guy” Judge he, according to parents I know, asked their daughter( who just came out of a hospital,had bandages on her wrists( suicide attempt!)…if she wanted to go to the hospital or jail…she had been symptomatic and resisted police officers…the point is that, based on Judge Williams ignorant offer to someone in crisis, it is obvious he is clueless on mental health mental and that our Judges need training in how best to handle cases involving people with mental illness! He caused hardships to an already distraught Ulster County family…lets hope his successor has more insight and training!

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