Widowed Cancer Survivor Fights Federal Land Seizure

By chillinwill · Oct 2, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    A widowed cancer survivor faces the prospect of being homeless unless she can fight off federal seizure of her house and land.

    Mara Lynn Williams' husband, Royce, killed himself in May while awaiting a verdict in a federal drug case against him.

    The U.S. attorney's office accused Royce Williams of growing marijuana on his Chilton County land with the intent to sell it. They now are attempting to seize his land -- about 40 acres -- and the house where Mara Lynn Williams still lives.

    Mara Lynn Williams, 56, said she didn't know that her husband was growing marijuana, and she said federal authorities should not be trying to take the land, which has been in her husband's family for generations.

    "It is not morally right. My husband has paid with his life. What else do they want?" Williams said.

    Asset Forfeiture Coordinator Tommie Brown Hardwick said the U.S. attorney's office is following standard procedure.

    "( Williams' ) death, which ended the criminal case, had no effect on the ongoing civil case," said Hardwick, who added that she could not comment further on the case.

    Civil Forfeiture

    Authorities routinely seize property if it is believed that the property was used to contribute to a crime.

    In forfeiture cases, U.S. attorney's offices take into account whether statutes allow forfeiture and whether there is sufficient evidence to support it, Hardwick said.

    Other factors can be taken into consideration as well. For instance, the government would not take property that would end up being a liability down the road, she said.

    "The bottom line is, we don't want people to benefit from criminal activity," Hardwick said.

    Usually, such seizures are "cut and dried," but this case is different, said David Karn, a Clanton attorney who is representing Williams.

    Civil forfeiture generally differs from criminal forfeiture in that the burden of proof is on the property owner and not the government.

    In this case, however, the government will have to show that Mara Lynn Williams took part in a drug operation, Karn said. Otherwise, she is protected by what is known as the "innocent spouse" rule, he added.

    The case, which goes to trial early next year, will not be an easy one for Williams, he said.

    "It is an uphill battle from any landowner's perspective," Karn said of civil forfeiture cases.

    A Difficult Road

    Williams, who works as a nurse at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, said her husband smoked marijuana because it helped ease the chronic pain he suffered following multiple surgeries.

    "I didn't know he was growing marijuana. I knew he was smoking it. If I knew he was growing it, I would have made him stop," she said.

    Williams said her husband tried a number of different medications for his pain, but nothing worked as well as the marijuana. She also said her husband did not sell the marijuana.

    "My husband was not a marijuana dealer. My husband was in pain," she said.

    Williams has two grown sons and has lived in her house near Clanton since 1994. She said the house is there thanks to the combined effort of her and her husband.

    "He and I built the house together on that land. I paid as much into that house as he did," she said.

    Mara Lynn Williams said she was diagnosed in 2003 with breast cancer that subsequently spread to her liver, lungs and bone.

    The cancer currently is in remission, but Williams said she expects it to return.

    "It has been in remission before, so I know it will be back," she said.

    Authorities Move In

    Williams said she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment when federal authorities raided the property.

    Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents had discovered the marijuana growing on the Williamses' land while they were flying over it in a helicopter.

    Authorities seized 10 firearms, $18,400 in cash, vehicles, computers and other belongings from the property. Williams said Drug Enforcement Agency officials recently returned several of the vehicles they had seized.

    Williams said she does not want the guns back, even though one of them belonged to her father.

    Williams said the cash was there because her husband liked to keep money handy and recently had taken out a loan in preparation for lean times. He worked construction and knew there would be stretches when he was out of work for as long as six months, she said.

    Court records show that the 408 marijuana plants that were found on the property were behind a school bus a couple of hundred yards from the house.

    The marijuana found on the property was confined to that one patch of land behind the bus, according to documents.

    Williams said the land that authorities are trying to seize is part of a larger plot of land that was divided between her husband and his siblings when their father died.

    The land has been in the family for years, Williams said. The Williams family was one of the first peach growing families in Chilton County, she said. Last days

    Royce Williams' body was wracked with pain and he was in constant discomfort after his arrest, Mara Lynn Williams said.

    She said that while he was in jail, he had to sleep on a concrete floor with nothing but a blanket.

    The thought of as much as 10 years in prison was simply unbearable to him, she said.

    "I think he just didn't want to live that way," Williams said.

    It was Memorial Day weekend when Williams realized that her husband might be contemplating suicide.

    "He was so miserable. He was so uncomfortable," she said.

    Chilton County deputies arrived at the Williamses' house the following Tuesday, about an hour before the jury was scheduled to restart deliberations in his trial.

    They found Royce Williams inside a car, dead from a gunshot wound to his head.

    Royce Williams was 53 when he died. He and Mara Lynn Williams would have celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary in November.

    Williams said that despite all that has happened, she still has things to be thankful for, including that she has been able to maintain employment despite illness and other hardships.

    "I have been very fortunate to work through all of this," she said.

    She also remains optimistic about her chances of avoiding the loss of her home.

    "I am very hopeful that this case will come out the way it should," she said.

    Scott Johnson
    September 27, 2009
    Montgomery Advertiser

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