JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two men who spent more than 42 years in prison on a conviction in the murder of a Jacksonville woman were freed Thursday after a recently formed unit of the State Attorney's Office found there was insufficient evidence to find them guilty and a judge agreed.
Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew, Nathan Myers, have maintained their innocence since they were charged in the May 1976 death of Jeannette Williams and the shooting of her roommate, Nina Marshal.
More than four decades later a judge finally agreed.
“Justice demands the granting of these motions,” Circuit Judge Angela Cox said after announcing she was vacating their convictions.
Years later, another man, Nathaniel Lawson, told friends of the two convicted men that he actually committed the murder. He was never charged or investigated and has since died.
This release of Williams and Myers occurs after an investigation by the Innocence Project and the State Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, which State Attorney Melissa Nelson impaneled last year to re-examine questionable cases. This is the first case the unit has investigated that has led to an inmate's release.
Judge Cox, noting that she was 3 years old when the crime happened, called her review of the volume of material in this case a daunting task. But based on her review, she found there was insufficient evidence to convict in the case and contradicting evidence has come to light since, causing her to grant the motion to vacate the convictions.
“Justice demands the granting of these motions,” Cox said.
Imprisoned at age 34, Williams is now 76. Myers, who was 18 when he was convicted, is now 63.
Ninety minutes after their release, the two men appeared with the attorneys who advocated for them to answer questions.
"My mom died while I was on death row," Williams said. "I just wanted to get out and be with my ... kids. There wasn't nobody but them."
"Right now I feel blessed, you know, because I feel among friends," Myers said. "I'm not bitter for what happened to me because the Lord Jesus Christ made me to be a man. I was a kid when I come to prison. I grew up on my own, so now I understand the things a man do. What I want to do now is have a chance to go out and be that man."
A wrongfully convicted individual found innocent is entitled to compensation. Florida law requires them to receive $50,000 annually up to a maximum of $2 million, as long as they don't have any prior felony convictions.
History of case
Jeannette Williams was shot and killed in her apartment on Morgan Street in New Town at 1:30 a.m. on May 2, 1976, as she and Marshal slept in bed. Nina Marshal told investigators that two men came in the bedroom and fired the shots. She identified Clifford Williams Jr. and Myers as the gunmen.
But evidence gathered at the time appeared to show the shots came from outside the apartment and not from inside the bedroom.
Williams and Myers said they were at a party down the street at the time of the shooting and a number of witnesses at that party corroborated their story. A review of the case shows that evidence was never brought up during the trial.
They were put on trial two months after their arrest. When that ended in a mistrial, the state offered Myers a five-year sentence if he would testify against his uncle, but he turned it down.
During a second, two-day trial, both men were convicted. The jury recommended life in prison but the judge sentenced Williams to death. Four years later on appeal, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, leaving Williams with a life sentence.
The prosecutors' theory was that Williams and Myers committed the murder because of a $50 drug debt owed by the victim, but no evidence of that was produced at trial. The only evidence submitted was from the surviving roommate who identified Williams and Myers as the gunmen.
The review by the Integrity Unit found crucial evidence was ignored during the trial, including the ballistics report that showed the bullets came from one person and they were fired from outside the house, not inside the room.
The case review found that Lawson told several people he killed the woman Williams was convicted of killing. He said he wanted to send Williams’ family money but said: "What can I do? I can’t turn myself in."
The original 1976 police report confirmed Lawson was near the scene of the shooting.
The Integrity Unit investigation originated from a letter Myers wrote, asking that his and his uncle's convictions be reviewed, and sent to the State Attorney's Office in 2017. One year later, the office began investigating, reinterviewing evidence and finding and re-interviewing witnesses who were still living. Ten months later, the State Attorney's Office concluded the convictions should not stand.
Williams and Myers finally got their day in court on Thursday.
The victim's family were not at Thursday's hearing, but her sister, Sharon Young, wrote a letter last November to the director of the Integrity Review Division saying she is not sure if the developments will help Williams and Myers, but questioned why they did not come forward when others involved were still alive who could dispute their claims. She ended the letter by saying, "May God have mercy on the guilty and innocent."
So far in 2019, the convictions of 42 people in the United States have been overturned. Those people were freed after convictions for crime ranging from drugs to sexual assaults and other violent crimes to murder, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Last year, 151 people were exonerated, according to the organization's database. Of those, 23 were the result of DNA tests of old evidence.
According to the Innocence Project, other cases were overturned based on mistaken identities, false confessions and, in a few cases, it was proven that the arresting officer framed the suspect.
"Things are different today," Nelson said of contemporary legal standards compared to what was in place in 1976.
The Conviction Integrity Unit has received 200 requests for review. Nelson did not have numbers on how many cases it has reopened.
Since Nelson formed the unit in the 4th Judicial Circuit two years ago, similar units have opened in Florida's 9th and 13th Judicial Circuits.
A Time Magazine study conducted last year found that of every 100 people sentenced to death, four are likely innocent, but on average only two of those prisoners are exonerated.