For 36 years, David Williamson dutifully cared for his wife Shirley as her vision and mental health deteriorated.
Then, early one morning last August, he killed her.
Williamson received an 18- to 20-year prison sentence on Tuesday.
He testified that Shirley, who was blind and suffering from severe paranoia, had asked him to shoot her.
“Did you love Shirley, on Aug. 26, 2017, when you took her life?” Williamson’s defense attorney, Tim Blatt, asked him in Park County’s District Court.
“Yes,” Williamson said.
“And do you still love her today?” Blatt asked.
“Yes,” Williamson said.
Over the course of a nearly four-hour hearing, Williamson and other witnesses called by the defense described how he had made Shirley, 65, his priority — serving at her beck and call even as he struggled to deal with her deepening mental problems.
“Is it a defense? No,” Blatt said after presenting the testimony. “But can we at least understand that this is not the monster that the initial charges point out?”
District Court Judge Bill Simpson said he was sympathetic, but that he couldn’t look past the killing and “this terrible, terrible tragedy.”
“... Perhaps you had to forgo certain things in life, perhaps work, perhaps it was an inconvenience, perhaps you were tormented, perhaps you didn’t get enough sleep,” Simpson told Williamson. “But your wife is dead.”
The judge said the three- to five-year prison sentence that Williamson requested through his attorney would amount to only about two more years behind bars and was not enough time.
“I know you loved your wife, I know she was very loved by many people and that’s why it would discredit her memory, under these circumstances, I think, to give you anything less than 18 to 20 years,” Simpson said. “And that is the sentence of the court.”
Park County prosecutors initially charged the 65-year-old Williamson with second-degree murder, alleging that he’d killed Shirley “purposely and maliciously, but without premeditation.” However, as part of a plea deal reached months ago and finalized on Tuesday, prosecutors agreed to reduce the charge to voluntary manslaughter. Williamson — who had no prior criminal record — pleaded guilty to the offense, admitting he’d killed his wife “without malice, expressed or implied, voluntarily, upon a sudden heat of passion.”
“We believe the facts comport with that” reduced charge while it also fits Wyoming Supreme Court precedent about the definition of malice, Deputy Park County Attorney Leda Pojman said.
The Williamsons’ three adult children expressed differing and conflicted opinions about an appropriate sentence, according to statements by Pojman. One daughter testified on Williamson’s behalf on Tuesday, another daughter “doesn’t quite understand still why the defendant is not charged with first-degree murder,” and the couple’s son was “too upset and angry” to testify, Pojman said.
“It’s torn the family apart,” she said of the crime. “The children, they’ve lost their mom, in many ways they’ve lost their dad, and now the siblings have lost each other.”
Pojman argued for the maximum 18- to 20-year sentence that Simpson imposed.
‘I’m the one that killed her’
Immediately after shooting Shirley at their rural Powell residence, Williamson called authorities, reporting that his wife was dead and to send officers.
Responding Park County Sheriff’s deputies found Williamson waiting for them on the front porch of his Lane 11 home. He directed them inside, where they found Shirley’s body on the couple’s bed.
“I need to go to jail, I guess,” Williamson told Sheriff’s Investigator Phil Johnson when he arrived. He later told the investigator, “I’m the one that killed her. That’s all you need to know.”
Tuesday’s hearing offered many more details about the events leading up to the Aug. 26 killing, with Blatt tracing the couple’s entire relationship.
It was only a few years after their marriage that Shirley’s eyesight began failing; according to testimony on Tuesday, Williamson shouldered much of the cooking, cleaning and child care over the coming decades, along with being the family’s provider.
More recently, over roughly the last 10 years, Shirley also suffered from paranoia, hearing the voices of non-existent intruders in their home or garage.
Williamson said he was always on-call for his wife, dropping whatever he was working on to return home and assure Shirley that all was well. What began as two to three calls per week grew to a half-dozen calls per day, according to testimony.
“That all fell upon Dave [Williamson],” said Harlow Welton, who lived in a camper on the couple’s property for more than a decade, adding, “I watched the man wait on her hand and foot; I never once heard a harsh word from the guy.”
When Welton saw a deputy at the Williamsons’ home on the morning of Aug. 26, “my first question was, ‘was Dave all right?’” Welton recalled. “Because I was afraid that it was just the opposite.”
The Williamsons’ son told authorities shortly after the killing that he thought his father had been mean to Shirley and picked on her, investigator Johnson said.
Over the years, deputies from the Park County Sheriff’s Office were periodically summoned to check the property and assure Shirley no one was there; Williamson even attached bells to their home’s doors so she could hear anyone coming or going. But the delusions continued, Williamson said, and he didn’t reach out for help.
“She’s my wife,” Williamson said, testifying that there “wasn’t anybody else.”
Shirley’s problems became more pronounced last August and the episodes reportedly stretched into sleepless nights and days.
Williamson eventually took his wife to the Powell Valley Hospital Emergency Room on the night of Aug. 25; Shirley, however, didn’t want to go in and started yelling and screaming.
ER staff gave Williamson a card for Yellowstone Behavioral Health, the mental health care facility, and did not treat Shirley.
“The emergency room staff didn’t feel comfortable treating her against her will,” investigator Johnson said.
Before they left the hospital parking lot, Shirley insisted on calling 911, reporting there were people in her garage miles away. A deputy followed the couple home and checked the property, but Shirley still refused to go inside, Williamson said. He offered to stay at a hotel, but she refused to do that, either. They eventually went in, but Shirley continued expressing fears that people were coming to kill them.
‘[I] couldn’t believe I did it’
Things culminated after Shirley took an unloaded gun that Williamson had given her for protection, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger, he said. Williamson said he threw the gun to the floor and she left the bedroom, looking for the voices she heard.
When Shirley returned, “she just kept telling me to kill her; I said no,” Williamson said.
Then, he said, she became calmer and appeared more lucid — asking him to give her one last kiss, and then to shoot her.
“We kissed, she laid over, closed her eyes. I laid back down, but I didn’t think I was going to do anything,” Williamson said in court, choking up with tears. “The next thing I know, I heard the gunshot.”
Williamson said his wife had asked for him to kill her before. Asked why he did so that morning in August, Williamson said he had no explanation “other than if I’d been sleeping like I was supposed to have been, I’d probably have never done it.”
Although the shooting occurred on Aug. 26, Williamson says he still believes that it actually happened on Aug. 29; Judge Simpson described himself as “somewhat concerned or perplexed” over the discrepancy, but Blatt, the defense attorney, suggested it was a sign of sleep deprivation.
In his arguments, Blatt suggested Williamson was in front of the court because he may have cared for his wife too much. Had Williamson walked away from the situation, passed the responsibility of caring for his wife on to someone else, gotten a divorce or known to reach out to organizations like Yellowstone Behavioral Health or a nursing home, “he might not be here,” Blatt argued. “But Mr. Williamson said, ‘I’m her husband, I’m the one that’s taking care of her,’ and he did so for the life of their marriage.”
For her part, prosecutor Pojman called it “egregious and unacceptable” that Williamson killed his wife “instead of getting her help — help he knew she so desperately needed.”
She said a good husband would stick by his wife and get her the appropriate care.
“Many people, every day, struggle with being a caregiver for someone who has chronic mental health issues and physical issues that just get worse, and they, too, are sleep-deprived from being that caregiver and working outside of the home at the same time,” Pojman said. “But that’s not an excuse, even if that person allegedly wants to end their own life.”
In pronouncing the 18 to 20 years of prison time, Judge Simpson said Williamson had options — including to simply get in the car and drive away; he also could have sought help from law enforcement or mental health professionals to involuntarily hospitalize Shirley.
“If those things had happened, she’d be with us today,” Simpson told Williamson. “She had issues …, but she also had people who loved her very much. And the tragedy is that I know that you were one of them.”
In addition to the prison time, Williamson was ordered to pay routine court fees and slightly more than $4,000 in restitution to cover expenses related to his wife’s funeral.