A man convicted nearly a decade ago in a San Jose “thrill kill” murder case was released this week, following a multi-year court battle over the constitutionality of a state law. Jae Williams, now 29, was ordered to be released at a juvenile court hearing in San Jose and walked out of the Santa Clara County jail the following day. Williams was convicted at the age of 15 for his involvement in the murder of his classmate, Michael Russell, along with Randy Thompson.
The release of Williams has revived painful memories for the victim’s family and sparked debate over the application of Senate Bill 1391. This state law, passed in 2018, prohibits charging teens under 16 as adults in criminal court. Williams’ case became a legal battleground for the law’s constitutionality.
While Williams’ attorney and advocates for the juvenile justice law argue that he has reformed during his time in prison, the victim’s family and other supporters express concerns about public safety. Williams’ attorney highlights his client’s positive behavior during his incarceration, including counseling, earning a high school diploma, and reading over 400 books. Williams has had no instances of violence during his nearly 15 years in jail and prison.
Williams and Thompson were convicted of fatally stabbing 15-year-old Michael Russell in his family’s South San Jose backyard in what was referred to as a Satanist-inspired “thrill kill.” Williams was initially sentenced to 26 years to life in prison, but his case was transferred to juvenile court after the passage of SB 1391. Thompson, who was 16 at the time of the murder, was unaffected by the law.
The release of Williams was made possible by his eligibility for resentencing under SB 1391. The court opted to place him in a jail-based transition program due to his status as an adult under the purview of the juvenile probation system. The release has been met with mixed reactions, with the victim’s family expressing their continued grief and opposition to Williams’ release.
The case of Jae Williams serves as a focal point for the ongoing debate surrounding the treatment of youth offenders and the potential for rehabilitation. Advocates argue that prevailing scientific research supports the idea that children who commit crimes are amenable to reform due to their ongoing brain development.
The release of Williams has reignited discussions about the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs within the criminal justice system and the allocation of resources towards supporting individuals who demonstrate growth and improvement.