I usually don’t follow criminal trials very closely, but I did in the case of Hana and Immanuel Williams. In 2008, the two had been adopted from Ethiopia by Larry and Carri Williams. The couple brought the girl and boy to live with them and their seven biological children in their gated-community home in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. Hana was estimated to have been ten years of age when she was adopted. Immanuel was seven.
Three years later, Hana was dead due to hypothermia that was aggravated by malnutrition. Immanuel also suffered abuse but survived.
When the jury returned to the standing-room-only courtroom last night, I set my Twitter page to search for “#Williamstrial” and refreshed the page every minute. And I wasn’t alone. I had joined a 4700-member Facebook group set up to memorialize Hana. Here, members were also glued to Twitter, posting information as it came in.
“Courtroom benches are PACKED. Row of people standing in the back. Still just waiting,” tweeted Gina Cole, a reporter with the Skagit Valley Herald. Also: “Larry and Carri just locked eyes. Depending on verdicts and sentences, it could be one of their last looks for a long time.”
I first learned about the case when Larry and Carri Williams were arrested on murder charges in September of 2011. I happened to be in Seattle at the time giving talks about religious child maltreatment. Seattle is about an hour away from where the family lived. The details of the case were startling: Hana died in the backyard of the family’s home. She was grossly underweight and had been left outside on a very cold night for hours. The eight surviving children had been removed by Child Protective Services.
After reading witness accounts and news reports, I began picking up on some familiar-sounding details: Larry and Carri Williams expected complete obedience of their children, especially of Hana and Immanuel. The parents were devout Christians who home schooled their children. They played audio recordings of Bible verses and Christian music during punishments, and there was talk in the household of Hana being possessed by demons. Also, investigators found in the home To Train Up a Child.
I know that book well. It’s a parenting guide written by Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl who operates a website called No Greater Joy. To Train Up a Child has been harshly criticized for its reliance on physical punishment of children. I had written about Pearl in my book, Breaking Their Will. While I was in Seattle, a local TV station interviewed me about the Pearl angle of the Williams case. Later, I would blog about Pearl and appear with him in a video debate on a Christian website.
Hana was not the first child to die in a home run by followers of Michael Pearl. Both 4-year-old Sean Paddock and 7-year-old Lydia Schatz had been killed by adoptive parents who had had a copy of To Train Up a Child in their homes and had used similar techniques advocated by Pearl. Those techniques included being whipped with 1/4-inch-wide plumbing line, a form of torture that both Hana and Immanuel Williams also suffered.
According to witness statements and court testimony, Carri and Larry Williams were obsessed with child obedience. When investigators interviewed their biological children, they noted that they appeared to be strangely cheery and were often looking at their parents, as if to be sure they answered questions the way their parents wanted them to. All children risked punishment if they disobeyed their parents’ orders. One sibling told investigators that if Immanuel was not doing a chore as instructed, he would “get the switch on his hands.” If Hana would get “switched” if she did not stand within twelve inches of a designated spot.
The children suffered other punishments, as well, according to witness accounts and news report. Immanuel has a medical condition that made it difficult for him to control his bladder, and when he wet his pants, he was rebuked and made to clean himself outside with a garden hose as punishment. He and Hana were made to sleep in a locked shower room when they were perceived to be rebellious. Hana was forced to stay in a locked closet with a light switch on the outside. Sometimes, she had to sleep in a barn, even in cold temperatures. She and her brother were denied food or fed food that was inedible, such as wet sandwiches or frozen food. Sometimes, the emaciated Hana was punished for stealing food.
Larry and Carri Williams claimed they were innocent due to ignorance. They testified that they didn’t know that their adoptive daughter had dropped thirty pounds. Each said that the other was responsible for disciplining the children. Carri Williams called Hana “oppositional,” that she was repeatedly disobedient and out of control. Larry, who was at work on the evening that Hana died, said that he had objected to beating the children because he could see that it didn’t change Hana’s behavior. At one point, he admitted to hitting his adopted son on the bottom of his feet at Carri’s urging. “I couldn’t do it again,” said Larry. “Just the one time, because I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
In the end, both parents were found guilty of manslaughter and child abuse. In addition, Carri was found guilty of the more serious crime of homicide by abuse. The judge will decide the sentencing. Both the Williams’s could be sentenced to life in prison.
Like many others, I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned of the verdicts. I wanted these parents to never have physical contact with their children while they were minors. I wanted this man and woman to experience what it was like to be kept confined in a place where the rules are strict and danger is always lurking. I wanted their children to have a chance to be cared for by people who allowed them to be who they were, to express their own, true feelings, and feel safe. Those children now have that chance. Members of the Facebook group to honor Hana are talking about starting a trust fund for Immanuel and paying for a special tombstone for Hana’s grave.
But Hana is dead, leaving us all to wonder what could have been done to prevent these crimes. Advocates for thoughtful adoption are blogging about what went wrong. Family members and friends saw signs that there were problems. One family notified Child Protective Services, letting them know that the parents were not bonding with their adopted children and the Williams’s were “rigid and structured in raising their family.” According to the police records that contained the family’s statements, “At no time did this family ever hear Carri or Larry Williams praise these children in their presence.” Others were mum even when told of disturbing information.
Could CPS have stopped the abuses? Were family members and friends who failed to make reports convinced that a parents who were so religiously devout were not capable of torture and killing their adopted children?
In light of the convictions, many of Hana’s supporters are only glad that justice was served. Last night, a member of the Facebook group asked for a moment of silence “wherever we are, for sweet Hana…Child, you are loved and will never be forgotten.”
[UPDATE: On October 29, 2013, Carri Williams was sentenced to just under 37 years in prison and Larry Williams was sentenced to just under 28 years in prison.]