How Syracuse Inmate Won His Murder Trial Without A Lawyer: 'That Dummy Showed Us'

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Derrick Wilson turned his jail cell into his personal law office as he fought a murder charge.

He crammed 17 boxes of legal documents under his desk, beneath his bed and against the walls.

He spent more time sitting at his desk than on his bed because paperwork was sprawled across the cot. Deputies joked the cell was approaching a fire hazard.

When Wilson wasn't in his "office" at the Syracuse jail the last two years, he was plugged into a law library kiosk in his roughly 50-man housing unit for eight or nine hours a day.

Evenings, he paced around the rectangle, gymnasium-sized "pod," rehearsing his opening statement or reciting his questions for cross-examination.

"Muhammad Ali said the fight wasn't won in the ring -- it was won in the gym," Wilson said in an interview with Syracuse.com from the Onondaga County Justice Center. "The courtroom was my ring. My office is my gym."

His office is where Wilson says he beat a murder charge without a lawyer.

The 38-year-old, ninth-grade dropout successfully defeated a career prosecutor in an unprecedented trial in the Easter morning 2000 shooting death of Waliek Hamer. Charges were not brought for 15 years.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said he'd never in his 40 years seen a murder defendant successfully represent himself in Central New York.

Fitzpatrick attributed the victory not to the "sex appeal of Derrick Wilson representing himself," but to uncooperative witnesses who the prosecution believes Wilson intimidated to change their stories on the stand.

The victim's brother, who sat through the trial, said if he was on the jury, he would have found Wilson not guilty. He said while he believes in his heart Wilson committed the murder, prosecutors and investigators did not present convincing evidence, and disappointed the family before the jury read its verdict Dec. 5.

Wilson, who remains incarcerated as he serves a 28-year federal drug sentence, concedes the verdict is mostly a statement about the strength of the case.

Wilson maintains his innocence and contends the DA's office shouldn't have brought the 17-year-old case against him at all.

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Wilson has no formal training as a lawyer. Most of his schooling took place in law libraries, jail cells and the streets of Syracuse.

He dropped out of Henninger High School 23 years ago and admits he was selling drugs instead of going to class.

Derrick Wilson in an undated photo prior to his most recent arrests.>

Derrick Wilson in an undated photo prior to his most recent arrests.

Wilson spent a year in county jail before he turned 18. He has been arrested 26 times. At 20, he went to state prison for drug-related crimes he says he didn't commit.

Studious by nature, Wilson never stopped reading, and his early introduction to the criminal justice system was motivation to learn the law.

He successfully sued the Syracuse Police Department, with a lawyer, over a body cavity search in 1998. He says the lawsuit led Syracuse officers to target and frame him for the latest crimes.

He views the inner city of Syracuse as a totalitarian state, in which some corrupt officers act like "modern-day gestapos."

Wilson said lawyers appointed by the court for people like him, who can't afford to hire one themselves, are ill-equipped and overburdened. He cycled through at least nine attorneys in the two cases he's fought over the last three and a half years.

It's that backdrop against which Wilson taught himself law and eventually, represented himself.

"I went to trial sitting next to a lawyer that never asked the questions I wanted him to ask, that never conducted the investigation I wanted him to conduct," Wilson said.

"My experiences and my principles would not allow me to go through that again," he said. "This is my struggle. This is why I am as diligent as I am, because nobody cares. Nobody's going to fight for me the way that I am."

Wilson developed criteria by which he evaluates a new lawyer: They have to respond to his requests within 90 days, and recall fine details of the case from memory.

Many times, he has made the case to a judge that his lawyer didn't meet the standards afforded to him by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The counsel in Onondaga County, they're not reading 11 boxes," he said. "That's the type of investigation and research you have to pay a lawyer $250,000 for."

Still, everyone he talked to tried to convince him not to proceed by himself. His mom begged him to reconsider. Lawyers pleaded with him about the risks.

Wilson even advises others not to try to pull off what he did. He does hope his success motivates other defendants to study their own cases and take an active role in their defense.

Tylyn Bozeman, who briefly served as his lawyer before stepping aside to a "facilitator" role at trial, said Wilson was a demanding client.

Wilson earned a reputation as being a "pain in the butt," Bozeman said, but she respected his right to ask questions and make demands.

"He should be heard," she said.

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The trial began Nov. 27.

The rare show drew curious lawyers and occasional spectators into the Onondaga County courtroom.

Wilson appeared alone at the defense table before Visiting Judge John Crandall. He wore dress slacks and a sweater, glasses and his hair back in two tight braids.

He sparred with Crandall over objections, which he raised ad nauseum, repeatedly earning the admonition, "Let's move on, Mr. Wilson. I'm not getting into a back and forth with you."

He was scolded for speaking out of turn and for calling judges by only their last names.

He asked every law enforcement witness whether they saw him commit the murder. The answer was always no.

He objected in court to a Syracuse.com article he called "disparaging" and "deplorable," about his criminal history, on grounds that it could influence jurors, though they were instructed not to read media accounts of the case.

During his cross-examination of a longtime friend and confessed gangster, he had the witness admitting he lied more than he told the truth.

When he asked this man -- the only eyewitness who testified he saw Wilson kill the victim - point-blank whether he was lying to get a plea deal, the witness said no.

Wilson, breaking courtroom norms and earning a scolding from the judge, offered his commentary: "We'll let the jury decide that."

Wilson always treated the jury deferentially.

He knew the importance of selecting the right people, and making a good impression on potential jurors during "voir dire," when attorneys can converse with them and ask questions. Wilson readily discusses the legal term's French origin and meaning, "to speak the truth."

He raised concerns about the jury pool, which he said contained only five minorities, none of whom were African-American like him. Ultimately, 12 white jurors found him not guilty.

He insisted in an interview that the persona presented in the courtroom was not calculated or fake.

County and federal prosecutors have described Wilson as a drug ring kingpin and a "malignant tumor" that needs to be removed from the community. A jury found him guilty in 2016 of running a drug conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine.

Despite his criminal activity and gang affiliation in the past, Wilson insists he is just a guy who desperately wants to be free to raise his 6-year-old daughter.

Wilson said before his most recent arrests, he was trying to make a living at a factory job and cleaning houses.

He was working on starting a record label, Million $ Fetish, which he has tattooed across his hands. He aspired to study business administration and history at Syracuse University, having earned his GED.

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Wilson did not take the stand during trial, as is his right.

He said in an interview he was there at Grandma's Burgers on South Salina Street the night of the shooting, but didn't see it. He told the jury during his opening statement that he did not kill Hamer in 2000.

"You did!" came a woman's shout from the back of the courtroom.

Members of the victim's family appeared in court every day.

Assistant DA Shaun Chase said he thought bringing the case to trial was worthwhile despite the result, if only because it gave the family their day in court.

Chase and DA Fitzpatrick said Wilson's pro se defense gave him an advantage to influence the jury without being subjected to cross-examination.

Meanwhile, they say, the prosecution's case collapsed, because witnesses wouldn't cooperate and were intimidated by Wilson.

DA officials said a witness who testified against Wilson was beaten up in the Justice Center two days after the trial. A police spokesman confirmed the witness was involved in a fight with two other men at the jail, but said none of the people involved would cooperate and no injuries were reported.

"If I had tried the case myself, it would have been the same result," Fitzpatrick said. "He could have had Barry Scheck as his attorney or Elmer Fudd as his attorney and it would have been the same result."

In a jailhouse interview prior to the fight, Wilson said he's not the person prosecutors make him out to be. He shook his head at the idea he has threatened or intimidated anyone.

"Based on the narrative that's being portrayed, I could be a heinous guy," he said. "But I know who I am."

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Waliek Hamer's brother said the evidence at trial was so bad and the case so painful to watch, he told his mom not to bother coming to the courthouse.

Ronnie Johnson described the feelings of joy and elation his family felt in 2015, when Wilson was arrested and Johnson believed his brother's killer would be brought to justice.

When he learned Wilson was representing himself, he thought they'd already won the case.

"Big dummy!" Johnson recalled thinking to himself. "Well, that dummy showed us."

In court, Johnson said he was "crushed" to watch the evidence unfold. By the time the verdict was read, Johnson said he knew he wouldn't have been able to find Wilson guilty, and didn't expect the jury to either.

Waliek Hamer>

Waliek Hamer

Johnson said he does not buy the prosecution's claims that witnesses were too afraid to testify.

He argues they were flawed from the beginning: The one eyewitness who said with certainty that Wilson committed the murder admitted on the stand he was a liar. Johnson said he knew the witness personally, and doesn't feel like his story adds up.

The other witnesses told police the year of the murder they were only 80 to 85 percent sure Wilson was the shooter.

Beyond witness testimony, Johnson was critical of every aspect of the prosecution's case.

He pointed to police testimony, in which officers said they didn't know whether other suspects were interviewed or couldn't understand the handwriting in their notes.

Johnson noted the DA's office told the public and Hamer's family there was forensic evidence linking Wilson to the murder weapon. At trial, a forensic expert testified that investigators were not able to conclusively identify a murder weapon, let alone connect it definitively to Wilson.

Johnson said he still believes in his heart Wilson killed his brother.

Yet, because of the trial, Johnson said he is also inclined to believe Wilson's theory that Syracuse Police prosecuted him out of a "personal vendetta."

"This is where I start to come back around to, were you trying to set the man up because he sued the police department? It looks like you're framing him," Johnson said. "I started to see maybe this dude is onto something. He made valid points about everything. He was very smart. He did his homework."

At the very least, Wilson convinced Johnson that investigators failed to find proof or properly investigate every lead.

Johnson hopes police continue to search for clues, but it's unlikely the family will ever see Hamer's killer brought to justice.

The prosecutor said that with investigators certain that Wilson killed Hamer, the case is now closed. Wilson cannot be tried for the murder again.

Hamer, 27 at the time of his death, was involved in dealing drugs since he was 15. At 17, Hamer narrowly escaped a barroom shooting that killed his uncle, according to Post-Standard archives.

Johnson said he had hoped his brother, who had a child, was starting to straighten up in 2000 when he was killed.

When Johnson thinks about his brother's case, the trial feels cheap, like Waliek was just a pawn in authorities' attempt to exact revenge against Wilson.

Bozeman, the lawyer who worked with Wilson, questioned whether it was in the best interests of Onondaga County citizens to pursue the trial.

"I'm just shocked they brought the case," she said. "I don't want to take away from Derrick Wilson, but this case was really bad."

Wilson agreed.

"Any lawyer could have beat that case," he said. "The case was weak from the beginning because it was based on inconsistencies and lies."

Wilson contends the DA's office and Syracuse Police have been blinded by their pursuit of convicting him, and have thus misled the family and failed to uncover who really killed Hamer.

"That's sad," he said. He spoke directly into a camera to send his condolences to the family.

So, while his acquittal feels vindicating, he says it's just a small victory in the grand scheme.

He shared a tearful moment with his mom on the phone after the verdict. He heard congratulations, "wows," and declarations that he'd made history from jail deputies and defense lawyers.

Other inmates told him they want him to be their lawyer, that's he's inspired them. A week after the trial, a burglary suspect invoked Wilson's name in court in an attempt to represent himself in a trial.

Wilson derives a sense of purpose from all this.

He talks about himself almost as if he's O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran reincarnated. He's adapted his street name, "Sonny," to "Sonny Cochran" in homage to the famed lawyer.

"My resilience is high," he said. "I don't want to be in no one else's shoes. This is my life. This is my moment and I have to seize it. Rest in peace Johnnie, I'm going hard for the firm."

It's time now for Wilson to head back to his office.

He is awaiting transfer to federal prison, where he'll spend the next nearly three decades of his life, pending his appeal of the drug conspiracy charges.

So far, he's got a court-appointed lawyer out of Long Island to represent him, but he's preparing for his next day in court.

Last month, he filed his own 70-page brief.

Public Affairs Reporter Julie McMahon covers courts, government and other issues affecting taxpayers. She can be reached anytime: Email | Twitter | 315-412-1992

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