By: Tina Sampay
This is a story about music, radio and the connection to the human spirit.
The date is Jan. 10, 1992 and Troy Williams and his cellmate at Pelican Bay Prison are using wire obtained by a maintenance employee to make an antenna for a radio. Antennas were removed from all radios in the prison because they are potential weapons.
Williams was looking for something on the radio he was familiar with, but as usual he was greeted by a flurry of country music. This particular night however, Williams and his cellmate were fortunate.
Twisting these two wires together while holding the radio up high to the window and turning the FM dial, Williams froze in place as he heard the faint sounds of a Marvin Gaye track. Williams and his cellmate took turns after each song concluded, standing in position to maintain the weak signal of the radio station.
They turned the volume up as loud as it could go so that the other prisoners could hear the tunes and bask in the emotions that Williams and his cellmate felt. The music of Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, and Smokey Robinson filled the cellblock for the duration of the program.
As the radio show neared its end, the voice of a woman was heard identifying herself as Sista Soul and to tune into “Sista’s Place” next Friday to hear her set.
Williams felt inclined to reach out to the DJ. Jokingly, his cellmate stated that as soon as she saw the return address was a prison, she would not write back.
He was not deterred and wrote a letter stating:
“I hear your program and a sense of nostalgia comes over me. It sure sounds good and definitely helps to ease the pain. When I first entered Pelican Bay in ’89 I would run through the FM dial looking for something good but all I found was country music. Where I come from we listen to jazz, rhythm and blues, and of course soul. I couldn’t find any on the stations up this way. This greatly increased my feelings of isolation from my family & friends.”
It turns out Williams wrote to a woman named Sharon Fennell. Originally from the South Bronx, Fennell and her husband Michael moved to Humboldt County in early 1980s. They heard of the beauty of Humboldt County and decided to come and also attend Humboldt State.
“I knew from that first letter that Troy was special. If he was involved in any foolishness or anything like that I would have been able to know from those letters. He was always so kind,” Fennell said.
Williams was from South Central Los Angeles and grew up in the 1970s during a time of rampant violence, drugs and gang activity. He grew accustomed to fighting as a way to protect himself from the neighborhood gangs. He teamed up with a gang to help fight other gangs who threatened to hurt him.
Williams was attempting to transition away from the gang but found himself spending more time with a member who was 10 years his senior. Williams said he turned out to be worse than all of the other gang members that he had ever known. Everywhere this guy went, he was a trouble maker.
“I called myself ‘doing good’ by limiting the amount of time I spent hanging out with my homeboys, but I had this knucklehead with me everywhere I go. Also I had a elevated sense of comradeship, honor and all that stuff, and he knew it too,” Williams said. “And he ended up taking advantage of it.”
Williams was going to Inglewood High School and had saved enough money to rent a one bedroom apartment and had an after school job at a video store at the time that he was falsely accused of murder.
While in juvenile hall for jaywalking in North Hollywood, Williams was visited by two detectives named Spears and Hoffman. Williams owned a white Cadillac that he let his “knucklehead” friend use, which was later seen leaving the scene of the murder. It was later found parked in front of Williams’s mother’s house.
The detectives told Williams that they knew he didn’t commit the murder, but to tell them who did.
If he decided to help the officers, Williams would jeopardize his own safety and risk being hurt or killed by his own gang. He refused to help the police and recalled one of the detectives leaned in and said,
“You are the stupidest motherfucker that we talked to all day, we are going to find a way to make this murder stick on you.”
They certainly did.
An all-white jury found Williams “guilty” of first degree and attempted murder. His parents were not present at the trial so Williams appeared to be a disposable kid to the courts. Williams received a sentence of five plus 25-to-life. This meant he had to serve a five-year sentence before he could start on his 25-to-life sentence.
Williams was found guilty of a crime he did not commit. The lack of empathy from the courts for Williams’s case is what ultimately sent him straight to prison.
“I was so mad I could literally feel my temperature rising,” Williams said.
His last words to the judge were, “I did not do this, you have the wrong guy.”
“This matter is now terminated, if you want this matter re-addressed you will have to take up the matter with the appeal courts … ”
Williams, being young and oblivious to the legal system, didn’t even know how or where to file an appeal.
Prisoners have no say in what jails they are sent to and Williams was selected to be on a bus of inmates that were shipped to Pelican Bay prison when it opened in 1989. He recalls his first few years in prison as being rebellious and fighting a lot, mainly for protection from other inmates.
It was here that Williams heard Fennell’s radio show on KHSU. Soon after the first letter reached the Fennells, they became the outside support for Williams he and many prisoners didn’t have. Lack of support often set inmates up as targets for police brutality.
“If you do not have anyone on the outside checking up on you or basically shedding a spotlight on the prison, then the guards and the counselors, feel like they can treat you anyway they wish, which even means physically harming you,” Williams said. “That outside support is a level of protection for prisoners.”
The Fennells contacted wardens, commissioners, the governor and let his name be known to anybody who could help him. The Fennells soon realized the only way Williams could get out of prison would be if the real criminal confessed to the crime.
The Fennells offered support to Williams through care packages, letters and allowed him to imagine a life after prison.
“It was hard because for the longest [time] he didn’t believe that he would ever be released from prison. He would say to me ‘Sista, only one or two people a year ever got released if they have a life sentence,” Fennell said. “So I said to him, ‘Why couldn’t you be that first or second person?’ And this changed his frame of mind to envision him getting out of prison one day.”
This helped Williams tremendously and allowed him to use his time in prison to learn. He signed up to take college courses where he earned straight A’s and made the Dean’s List.
He taught himself Spanish and avidly read an array of genres. He also learned carpentry. He knew Michael Fennell was a carpenter and when he started hoping for a life after prison, it involved working with him building houses and using his hands.
On May 4, 2013 he was released on parole from prison after 27 and a half years and Michael Fennell was there to pick him up.
While in prison the Fennells began to tell friends and family about Williams and his situation. Josh Meisel, a sociology professor at HSU, came to know Williams through the Fennells.
“Troy is an exceptional writer and deep thinker. Perhaps due to the 25 years of imprisonment he endured, he appreciates so much what others take for granted. Troy has a deep appreciation for the freedom he worked so hard to earn,” Meisel said.
Williams now lives with the Fennells on their property in Manila, Calif. He currently takes classes at College of the Redwoods and will soon transfer to HSU. He is building his own house with the help of Michael Fennell on their property.
Williams wants to give back and to carry his own weight, so he has worked various jobs while out of prison, building for friends of the Fennells and those in the community.
“He is an easy person to be with and has a great sense of humor. He likes to work and is really attentive in his work,” Michael Fennell said. “So it was worth it to me; that we could help another human being out of prison and offer them a sense of security. Troy is a unique individual, having survived prison with his mind and spirit still intact.”