When Norma Williams heard last month that a fearsome collision between two black-and-white police cars had killed three Los Angeles officers and widowed a young wife, the shock and sadness she had felt Oct. 31, 1985, washed over her once again.
It was on that night three years ago that her husband of 17 years, Los Angeles Police Detective Thomas C. Williams, was gunned down. And "each time we lose an officer . . . it brings it all back again," she said.
This was no ordinary police shooting. Williams, 42, was killed at his son's Canoga Park school by a career criminal who fired 17 shots with an automatic pistol. The assassination was in retaliation for routine testimony Williams gave against his killer, Daniel S. Jenkins, in a robbery case that day in court.
In the three years since, Norma Williams has shown that she, too, is anything but ordinary.
The 44-year-old Canoga Park woman has helped her young son, Ryan, recover from the trauma of seeing his father die, and she has become active in the Police Department's support group for officers' survivors. She has taken an intense interest in the courtroom proceedings that have so far convicted two of the five accused in the assassination plot.
'She's No Quitter'
And she has done all of that, her friends say, with characteristic determination and good humor.
"Every day has been hard for her," said childhood friend Yvonne Lewandowski, who now lives in Valencia. "Every time I see her, every time we talk, there's the loneliness, the hurting."
Lewandowski said tears flow at times. "But Norma will let it out, and then she'll recharge her batteries and get back in there. She's no quitter."
Tom Williams was a man who loved family camping trips, who helped coach his son's soccer games and who laughed at his wife's jokes. In proceedings at Los Angeles Superior Court, Williams has seen all that, the life of a man, reduced to official evidence: ballistics data, coroner's reports and detailed descriptions of meetings during which the crime was planned.
It was also in the Van Nuys courtroom, blocks away from the Williams' first home, where she learned that Jenkins had at one point considered the execution of other family members.
"She's there in the courtroom, not only for herself, but also for us and for my dad," said Susie Williams, 19. "No matter what she sees in court, she's strong."
Perhaps the most difficult experience for Williams has been the discovery that the justice system her slain husband dutifully defended is not always considerate of crime victims' survivors.
Defense lawyers succeeded in barring her from attending most of the trial of Jenkins and co-conspirator Ruben A. (Tony) Moss, which opened last January, because she was considered by prosecutors to be a potential witness.
From February to the trial's end in June, she had to settle for detailed, daily reports from a friend inside the courtroom. She also quizzed Deputy Dist. Attys. Richard P. Jenkins and William Gravlin, who prosecuted the case, and Major Crimes Detective Michael Thies, who investigated it.
Jenkins was convicted and sentenced to death for planning and executing the murder of Tom Williams. Moss, a Jenkins lieutenant who knew about the plot, was convicted and was sentenced to life without possibility of parole. (Three other men are charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder; their trial started in November and is expected to last until March.)
When Jenkins was sentenced last September, Norma Williams told the court about her husband, the man, the lover, the friend. But she had to fight for that right too.
Williams was told the night before Jenkins' formal sentencing that she would not be allowed to make her statement, a right guaranteed her by the 1982 California Victims' Bill of Rights Act.
She was told that a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Booth vs. Maryland had superseded California law in death-penalty cases and that statements from survivors could not be considered before sentencing. Williams was allowed to make a statement to the court, but only after the formal sentencing had occurred.
"The defense portrayed Jenkins as a loving father, a guy who would do anything for his children, who was torn up when his grandmother died," Williams said bitterly.
"They are allowed to seek sympathy. Then why can't the victims have that equal right to give a character reference for their loved one? Each side should be given equal consideration."
When Moss was formally sentenced Dec. 15, Williams was there again. This time, because the jury had given Moss a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Williams was allowed to make a statement before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Judith M. Ashmann imposed the sentence.