JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville mother who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of her 5-year-old daughter was in court Thursday for her sentencing hearing.
Brianna Williams, 30, pled guilty to second-degree murder back in March and could face 20 years to life in prison.
In 2019, Williams called 911 saying she had awakened to find her back door open, and her daughter missing. Following the alert, a large-scale search was launched leading officers to find children’s remains buried in a wooded area of Marengo County in rural Alabama.
A neighbor whose statements led to Williams being arrested for child neglect testified Thursday describing the times when he saw Taylor left at home alone.
Carlos Johnson described a casual relationship with Williams. He said he saw her come home from work just about every day -- most of the time he said she was with her daughter, but that changed around the middle of May 2019.
During the sentencing hearing, Johnson told the court that he saw Taylor outside alone on April 17, 2019.
He said he saw Williams come home around 6:30 or 7 that night. He did not say anything to her that night, and he said he did not call authorities when the defense questioned if he called the police.
Another witness and neighbor to Williams told the court she offered to watch Taylor after learning she was outside alone, but William never reached out.
Johnson said three times a week he would see Taylor waving at him from the apartment sliding glass door, and Williams’ car was never home.
He also said he never saw Taylor after May 15, not even with Williams, and when he asked about Taylor, Williams told him she was with her grandparents in Alabama for the summer.
The defense asked Johnson if he was sure about the day he saw Taylor outside alone and then pointed out how he didn’t know Williams that well.
The 911 call Williams made on Nov. 6 was played in court on Thursday, and the jury also heard testimonies from the responding officer and the detective from the missing person unit.
Jay Livingston, the responding officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, said there was no one waiting on him outside when he arrived at the home on Ivy Street, which is unusual when responding to a missing child case. Livingston said he spent time canvassing the street to find the house, but realized he was given the wrong address.
It wasn’t until six minutes later that Williams came out and could be seen on the body camera footage. The defense argued that Williams could’ve been in the backyard where the officer couldn’t see her yet.
Livingston said Williams, who was in full military uniform, was crying when he first saw her, but she didn’t seem emotional.
He said he “thought her tears were forced,” and that she “didn’t appear overly emotional.”
When Livingston went into Williams’ room, he said he saw multiple guns on the bed but didn’t see children’s toys or anything other than a small bed that looked like a child had been living there.
Williams said she heard noises, and walked around with her gun but didn’t go into her daughter’s room.
Lashantae Whitaker, a detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Missing Persons Unit, also testified about her interview with Williams after the investigation turned criminal.
“During the interview, she didn’t remember crying. [I] had to ask her to put her phone down. She was texting and answering phone calls. Parents are usually upset, wanting to know what’s next. She didn’t ask what they were doing to find Taylor,” Whitaker said.
In the interview video played at the sentencing trial, you could hear Williams get overwhelmed during questioning saying “I am over this” and responding “not right now” when Whitaker asked if she wanted to answer any more questions.
The state showed pictures from crime scene unit investigators who said they smelled feces inside the home. The defense said there was no testing done to verify if it was actually feces the officers were smelling. The same defense was used for the pictures of soiled children’s clothes and underwear.
A chief who worked with Williams in the Navy testified as well. He said he picked up Williams after she was interviewed by the police and she didn’t cry or say she wanted to look for Taylor.
The defense countered that the relationships with these witnesses were mainly at work.
The state also called a forensic investigator who looked into Williams’ search history on her computer. There were several articles about violence against children and malnourishment.
The defense argued that there was no way of knowing if a person typed in those articles or if they popped up on their own.
The sentencing trial is set to continue Friday.