From Day 1, Clifford Williams Jr. and nephew Nathan Myers maintained they had nothing to do with the 1976 murder of Jeannette Williams. They couldn’t have done it, the men said, they were at a party that night. They had multiple witnesses who backed up their alibis.
It didn't matter. They were convicted and sentenced to life anyway.
They spent 42 years in prison – until Thursday when Circuit Judge Angela Cox overturned their convictions and set them free. Cox’s ruling, which followed investigations by the State Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project, echoed what the men had been saying all along: they were innocent.
Sadly, this case isn’t unique.
Groups that study exonerations contend that wrongful convictions aren’t as rare as we might think. In fact, 42 people have had their convictions overturned in 2019 alone, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Last year, 151 people were exonerated – 23 of them as a result of DNA evidence.
In addition to technological advances in DNA testing, convictions in recent years have been vacated for a range of reasons including cases of mistaken identity, false confessions and, in some cases, because suspects were framed, according to the Innocence Project.
The stakes involved with a wrongful conviction couldn’t be higher. A TIME Magazine study conducted last year found that out of every 100 people who received the death penalty, four were likely innocent. By comparison, only two of those prisoners are exonerated on average.
One of the few upsides for those who have been exonerated is that once they’re found innocent, they’re entitled to some compensation. Under Florida law, these men should receive $50,000 a year, and up to a maximum sum of $2 million as long as they don’t have any prior felony convictions.
It’s worth noting that the Williams’ and Myers’ case marks the first time an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit, a special unit formed by State Attorney Melissa Nelson to re-examine questionable cases, led to a prisoner’s release.
“As prosecutors, we have a continuing, post-conviction ethical obligation to pursue justice
when we become aware of material evidence suggesting a conviction is not correct,” Nelson said.
Since Nelson established that unit in January 2018, it has received 200 requests for review. And since then, two of her counterparts in other jurisdictions have formed parallel units – the 9th Judicial Circuit led by State Attorney Aramis Ayala and the 13th Judicial Circuit led by State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, praised Nelson’s office for its handling of the case. “The righting of this injustice for Mr. Myers and Mr. Williams is validation of Melissa Nelson’s vision for the CIR and Shelley Thibodeau’s persistence in finding the truth,” he said.