JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville mother was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison in the 2019 death of her 5-year-old daughter.
Former Navy Petty Officer Brianna Williams, 30, gets credit for 1,043 days served and has 30 days to appeal.
Judge Kevin Blasz handed down the sentence Tuesday afternoon, calling it a “tragedy all around,” after Williams, who was charged with child neglect and lying to police, eventually pleaded guilty in March to second-degree murder in the disappearance and death of her daughter, Taylor Rose Williams.
Blasz acknowledged several times Tuesday how difficult a case this was for him. He noted Williams “served honorably” in the Navy, yet had carried on relationships with other military personnel for which she could have been prosecuted by the Navy. He read the report by the defense psychologist, who found Williams had unresolved psychiatric issues.
Blasz, though, said that the case came down to the fate of a 5-year-old girl, who probably died from starvation, and noted that “the victim was not valued from the time of conception” by either parent. Prosecutors said during Williams’ sentencing hearing that because of the state Taylor’s body was in when it was found, “We’ll never know exactly how (Taylor) died.”
“This case was emotional for everyone who touched it — for anyone who went to the apartment, the house, to Alabama. It touched our community because it involved a completely innocent child, and the matter of which she died, which obviously the court found today the evidence supports that she was starved to death, is particularly horrific,” said 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson after the sentencing.
The defense asked for a 20-year sentence, and the state asked for life. Prosecutors got the sentence they were hoping for. Blasz told Williams that he took no pleasure in imposing the life sentence with no chance for parole.
“Considering the aggravating and mitigating factors, I want to ensure that the community is protected and that the sentence is rendered in a way that those not dishonor the life of Taylor Rose,” Blasz said.
Williams did not say anything before she was led away from the Duval County courtroom.
“Today has provided justice for Taylor Rose,” 4th Judicial Circuit Assistant State Attorney Lauren Anderson, lead prosecutor for the case, said following the sentencing. “Brianna Williams’ remorse, or lack of remorse, really isn’t important. What’s important is that justice has been done for Taylor Rose.”
Anderson said horrific cases like this one are the reason she became an attorney.
“In this case in particular we have a child victim who was killed by her own mother. That obviously was striking to all of us in our office, as well as the investigators,” Anderson said. “It is something we worked tirelessly day in and day out.”
The tragic case began nearly three years ago.
“This is something, from day one, you’re dealing with what you thought is a community tragedy — a child goes missing. No one knows what happened. And then it turns out, at the end of the day, that it’s the mother that’s responsible for this,” said 4th Judicial Circuit Chief Assistant State Attorney Lee Hutton. “And that is about as shocking as an example of the work that we do in this office as we come across.”
On Nov. 6, 2019, Williams called 911, saying her 5-year-old daughter was missing.
Williams’ former Southside apartment and new Brentwood home were searched, but Taylor was not found. The next day, dive teams, police, firefighters, volunteers and cadaver dogs continued to search for Taylor as her mother stopped cooperating with police.
In court, evidence showed that Williams was lying to police and that she found her daughter dead in their home before removing her body.
On Nov. 11, 2019, search teams traveled to Demopolis, Alabama to continue to look for Taylor. The following day, Taylor’s remains were found, and Williams was arrested.
Months later, William took a plea deal. It was uncovered that she had put Taylor’s body in a container and dumped the child’s body.
After a two-day sentencing hearing last week, the judge took everything he heard into consideration and reviewed the 127 exhibits and other expert records before announcing his sentence on Tuesday.
‘I blame no one but myself’
During the final day of Williams’ sentencing hearing Friday, someone read a statement on her behalf after she said she was too scared and nervous to read it herself. Here’s what her prepared statement said:
“I know what I did was wrong. I failed as a mother, a protector and as a decent human being. I didn’t immediately call the police and when I finally called, I lied and lied some more. I didn’t take advantage of any timely opportunity to right my wrongs.
“I apologize to everyone affected by this tragedy. I’m tormented and punished every day since losing my baby. I tried to kill myself to escape it all, however, I’m not asking for any sympathy. I deserve everything I’ve received over the past approximately three years, externally and internally. I lost the most important person in my life and without her, I lost myself.
“I accept full responsibility for everything. I voluntarily plead up to murder. I blame no one but myself.”
On Nov. 6, 2019, Williams called 911 saying she had awakened to find her back door open and her daughter missing. But as she said in her statement, that was a lie.
Among those testifying Friday was a psychologist, who said that Williams described to him the day she found her daughter dead in their apartment -- more than a month earlier.
The psychologist said somewhere at the end of September or October of 2019, Williams went to bed early and let Taylor stay up. She told him that around noon the next day, she went looking for Taylor and found the little girl in a closet, slumped over and cold. He said Williams told him she didn’t know what to do and considered suicide multiple times.
During cross-examination by prosecutors, the psychologist said Williams left her dead daughter in the apartment and didn’t return for weeks, possibly a month.
Earlier, he testified that Williams told him she put Taylor in a container and drove to her grandfather’s grave, but she couldn’t find the grave and became distraught, so she left the body. He said she told him that when she went back, she couldn’t find it.
Later, she called police to report her daughter missing and following the alert, a large-scale search was launched that a detective testified Friday included more than 100 units.
The detective said about a dozen members of the homicide unit and 75 officers from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office eventually traveled to Alabama, after tracking Williams’ movements. Once in Alabama, they found children’s remains buried in a wooded area of rural Marengo County. Prosecutors pointed out that only 10% of Taylor’s remains were found because her mother “left her decaying body on the side of the road.”
Prosecutors then wrapped up their case for the judge, arguing that Williams should be sentenced to the maximum of life in prison. The defense asked for a sentence of 20 years.
The prosecutor said Williams had many chances to tell the truth when she contacted police on Nov. 6, 2019, to report her daughter missing -- and many chances after that.
“Five days, three states, hundreds of officers, miles of lands searched day in and day out -- all coming to a close because Captain Roberts followed his nose in the pitch black on his hands and knees scouring every piece of dirt,” she said. “Not knowing at the time just eight days prior, this defendant discarded her daughter like a piece of trash on the side of the road. Her tiny body in a t-shirt wrapped in a filthy shower curtain like nothing more than trash.”
The prosecutor said because of the state Taylor’s body was in when Williams finally left it, “we’ll never know exactly how she died.”
Neighbors, authorities testify
During testimony Thursday, the court heard for the first time from a neighbor who saw Taylor left at home alone. That neighbor’s statements are what ultimately led to Williams being arrested for child neglect.
Carlos Johnson said he knew Brianna Williams only casually. He testified that on the morning of April 17, he saw Taylor outside alone.
Johnson went on to say he saw Williams arrive home that night, but he didn’t speak to her and answered “no” when Williams’ defense attorney asked him if he ever called the police.
Johnson also said he never saw Taylor after May 15, and when he asked Williams about her daughter, she told him she was with her grandparents in Alabama.
The defense asked Johnson if he was sure about the day he saw Taylor outside alone and then pointed out he didn’t know Williams that well.
Another neighbor testified that she offered to help with babysitting after learning Taylor was left alone, but Williams never took her up on the offer.
The 911 call Williams made on Nov. 6, 2019, was played in court on Thursday, and the jury also heard testimonies from the responding officer and the detective from the missing persons 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 have 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, Williams could be heard getting 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.