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Darryl Williams died after a police tasing in Raleigh. A lawsuit is his family's hope for justice

Sonya Williams, 59, at her home with her mother, Eunice Towns, 77, in Wendell.
Aaron Sanchez-Guerra
Sonya Williams, 59, sit in her Wendell, N.C., home with her mother, Eunice Towns, 77.

The buzz of the air conditioning and the chatter of television commercials are the loudest sounds in the home Sonya Williams shares with her mother on a hot June afternoon.

There aren't any pictures on the walls, and their belongings are in boxes. They're moving to a new place, but staying in Wendell, in eastern Wake County, where they've lived all their lives.

They'll leave behind one particularly painful memory in that small apartment.

"(On) January 17th, four police officers came, two homicide detectives came, and told my mother that Darryl was dead," Williams, 59, said in her first sit-down interview since her son's death.

Thirty-two-year-old Darryl "Tyree" Williams died last year in Raleigh police custody just hours after officers repeatedly used Taser stun guns on him while struggling to arrest him on drug charges. He was declared dead an hour after being put in handcuffs.

"That was my son," said Williams. "He was my firstborn, and I really miss him. He wasn't perfect, but that was my son."

That was my son. He was my firstborn, and I really miss him. He wasn't perfect, but that was my son.
Sonia Williams

A year and half later, the worst days of mourning are over for Williams, who's since accepted the death of her son.

She smiles and laughs now — and she says she has tangible hope for accountability in Darryl's death.

After her son's death, Williams received an outpouring of community support. The biggest form was in the legal and emotional support of local civil rights firm Emancipate NC.

Then, she got a call from the nationally-recognized civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who also took on the case and is part of the case's legal counsel. Crump represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

"He's a good lawyer," said Williams. "I think I was fortunate to get him. He told me, 'Ms. Williams, we gonna get justice.'"

The city of Raleigh is now facing the biggest wrongful death lawsuit involving police in recent years, seeking $25 million in damages, filed by Emancipate NC in March this year.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman ruled last year that there were no grounds to criminally charge the six officers involved in the case, and said that they acted lawfully in subduing Darryl with stun guns to arrest him.

Eunice Towns, 77, looks at a portrait of her grandson, Darryl Williams, who died in police custody. She said the portrait was painted by a inmate in Wake County prison.
Aaron Sanchez-Guerra
Eunice Towns, 77, looks at a portrait of her grandson, Darryl Williams, who died in police custody. She said the portrait was painted by an inmate in Wake County prison.

"I'd have been happy if they just charged them police officers," said Williams' mother, Eunice Towns. "I'd have been happy, no lawsuit, no nothing."

In an almost humorous way, Towns recalled asking police an important question when they first told her the news of her grandson's death.

"I said, 'Well, what happened? Did y'all shoot him?'" said Towns. "'Cause I know how they be doing. That's why I asked, 'cause I know they be shooting Black men, I do."

Standing alongside Williams in a news conference last year, Crump spoke out about the same: "Black person after Black person — killed unjustifiably and unnecessary and they try to just sweep it under the rug as if our lives don’t matter."

What happened in Darryl Williams' death

The case against Raleigh police is unique: there weren't any guns fired, Darryl was unarmed, and he didn't attack the officers. Police body cameras captured everything, including his screams and pleas for officers to stop tasing him.

A video summary of the body-worn camera footage of the incident was uploaded to the Raleigh Police Department's YouTube account weeks after the in-custody death.

"He told them, 'I got heart problems,' and then they tased him again," said Williams. "That's ... that's murder."

According to his autopsy report, Darryl was obese, had hypertension, and atherosclerosis, a condition caused by plaque in the arteries.

Williams says her deceased ex-husband, Darryl's father, died from heart-related problems.

Officers approached Darryl on Jan. 17, 2023, when he was parked in his car with another man just after 1 a.m. outside of businesses on Rock Quarry Road in Southeast Raleigh.

Police weren't looking for him. The encounter happened under the pretext of police conducting "proactive patrols," which assigns more officers to high-crime areas.

Police reportedly observed an open container of alcohol and marijuana inside, and detained both men to search them. They accused Darryl of possessing drugs after recovering a folded dollar bill in his pocket with an unidentified substance on it.

Darryl ran away from officers before falling and struggling with officers.

They used Taser stun guns on him at least three separate times, police said previously. Officers used them twice with the drive-stun mode, according to police.

The drive-stun mode delivers a more powerful shock when pressed against the body, according to Axon, the company that makes the devices.

By the time he was in handcuffs at around 2 a.m., he was no longer breathing.

The N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner classified Darryl's death as a homicide in an autopsy released last summer, in part due to "conducted energy weapon use." Homicide as a medical term indicates death as a result of the action of another person, but is not the same as a criminal homicide.

Aaron Sanchez-Guerra
A memorial plaque for Darryl "Tyree" Williams at his mom's home in Wendell, N.C.

A lawsuit represents justice

"I can’t get no closure, until I get some justification," said Williams. "My son’s life meant more than any amount of money that I could get."

Williams said that the police officers' actions in Darryl's arrest justify the outrage behind the pending litigation.

"They think that all Black men in a Mercedes are drug dealers or gangbangers, you know?" said Williams. "A lot of his rights was violated, and that's a big part of the lawsuit."

"Reasonable police officers would have known that these uses of force, which led to Mr. Williams’ death, were unreasonable and excessive," the lawsuit states.

The Raleigh Police Department said Williams was tased three times, but the federal lawsuit filed by Crump and Emancipate NC claimed it was six times, including once while Williams was in handcuffs, WUNC reported previously.

The lawsuit names the city of Raleigh, Raleigh Police Chief Estella Patterson, and the officers involved in the encounter as defendants.

A spokesperson for the City of Raleigh declined to comment on litigation involving the city.

Williams says if she were to see any money from the lawsuit, part of it would go to upgrade the headstone on her son’s grave, which she visits often.

Darryl is buried in the cemetery of Riley Hill Baptist Church in Wendell, the same church where he was baptized as a child.

Williams’ last memory of her son — whom she affectionately called Booboo — is from the day before his death. He'd been telling her about wanting to return to church on Sundays, but he overslept that morning.

"I said, 'Booboo, don’t let the hearse be the one to bring you to church now,'" said Williams. "I had told him that that Sunday before he died. He died that Monday."

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra covers issues of race, class, and communities for WUNC.