Revisiting Torture in West Virginia

After being allegedly kidnapped and tortured for almost a week, a young black West Virginia woman is attempting to piece her life back together. The case of Megan Williams has made international headlines but, so far, Williams has said little about her ordeal, allegedly at the hands of six whites. Charleston Gazette reporter Gary Harki updates listeners on the latest developments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, I want to bring you an update on a very disturbing story we talked about earlier this year. In West Virginia, six whites are facing charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault for holding captive and torturing a young African-American woman they allegedly held for nearly a week.

In September, 20-year-old Megan Williams was rescued by authorities acting on an anonymous tip. She was found with injuries believed to have been caused by repeated acts of torture and degradation. She was also reportedly taunted with racial slurs.

It's become a standard practice in the media not to identify victims of sexual assault. But Megan's mother, Carmen, made the decision to identify her daughter to draw attention to the case. Since then, the story of Megan Williams has drawn attention far beyond her community. And we're going to talk to several people close to this case today.

Joining us first is Gary Harki. He is a reporter for the Charleston Gazette, who's been following it closely. Gary, welcome, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. GARY HARKI (Journalist, Charleston Gazette): Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: What's the status of the case? As I said, six people have been charged. Do we know anything about when they'll face trial?

Mr. HARKI: There will be a special grand jury set up in, I believe, early February to handle that case. And from there it will go to trial.

MARTIN: So is there any - let's assess the time frame later this year - I'm sorry - 2008 or do you think it would be longer than that?

Mr. HARKI: I think it'll be, probably, in early 2008. I want to say maybe April or May at the latest. That's - the prosecutor is wanting to get this done, I believe, as soon as possible.

MARTIN: Are all of the defendants going to face trial together or is there any sense that they're going to be separated?

Mr. HARKI: That's unclear at this point.

MARTIN: One issue that's been talked about is this whole question of a hate crime. Now they have not been charged with hate crimes. In the initial complaint, authorities revealed that racial epithets were used. The young lady reported that she was told that one of the reasons she was being brutalized was because she was black - although I'm sure that's not the word that was used. What are prosecutors saying about why they're not pursuing hate crimes charges?

Mr. HARKI: Basically, the reason they have not pursued hate crimes charges at this point is because they have been focusing more on the charges with stiffer penalties - the kidnapping charges, in particular. I believe those carry about 30 years prison sentence versus 10 - I believe 10 to 15 for the hate crime charges.

And the problem they're also running into is whether or not they can make the hate crime charges stick. The law in West Virginia is fairly new. It hasn't been vetted through the Supreme Court. So you have a situation where it would be possible, although probably - maybe not probable - where they can put up a couple of charges against each of these people, say that kidnapping - different assault charges and then also, the hate crime charge. And you could have a jury that would convict her possibly just on the hate crime charge. And then, that goes to the Supreme Court, and they could overturn it because it's a very new law in West Virginia. I think that's another thing that I think the prosecutors are concerned about.

MARTIN: Have Megan's alleged attackers said anything since their arrest - anybody close to them, other family members - about why they think this may have happened? And, of course, you know, we always have to speculate that people are innocent until proven guilty in this country. But sometimes, people close to a situation will be - speak out. Has that happened?

Mr. HARKI: One of the attackers and - forgive me, I can't remember which one's it was at this point, but one of the attackers - his sister called me and I did a story with her some months back. And she had actually been hearing stories about Megan being with them before because Megan had been there, off and on, since at least June, I believe.

And the picture she basically painted was one of escalating violence. She - making, I think, started out as some sort of relationship with some of the attackers, maybe Bobby Brewster. And then they have sort of had an argument. And the state police actually came down.

MARTIN: You're saying it's domestic violence, basically. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. HARKI: No, not necessarily.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HARKI: But I mean, that - I think it may have started out like that. And I don't know that you can put a fine point under this to - when the violence escalated to the level that it did.

MARTIN: And finally, and very briefly, if you would - some who are close to the Williams family are concerned that they are just - might not be adequate understanding of the severity of this matter owing to the demographics of that community. Do the prosecutors show that concern?

Mr. HARKI: I don't think anybody in West Virginia looks at this case with anything but horror. And I don't think that there's any - any one who's trying to make light of this or say that this is anything less than just the most terrible thing that could have happened to this girl.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. HARKI: I think what the problem…

MARTIN: I think we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks Gary. Hopefully you'll come back and talk to us again.

Gary Harki is a reporter for the Charleston Gazette. He joined us from West Virginia, a public radio on Charleston, West Virginia.

Coming up, we're going to continue our discussion about this case. We'll be joined by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as a legal adviser to the Williams family.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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