TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – He spent more than four decades behind bars before a judge said he should never have been sent to prison in the first place.
And yet 77-year-old Clifford Williams said he was never angry all that time.
“That wasn’t going to help,” Williams said when asked about being angry with the judicial system.
Instead, he told News4Jax, his energy was spent fighting for his freedom.
“I lost a lot, but I found a lot,” he said with a sigh.
Time in prison
Williams was 34 years old when he and his then 18-year-old nephew, Nathan Myers, both went to prison, convicted of shooting and killing a woman as she slept inside her apartment in New Town.
A second woman in the apartment was also shot, but survived and identified the duo as the killers. It was the only evidence submitted at their trial in 1976.
“My nephew, he didn’t do nothing,” Williams said, slightly agitated. “He went to prison with me. We was to a party with all these peoples in there.”
During the trial, a jury recommended life in prison, but the judge sentenced Williams to death, later overturned on appeal four years later, leaving Williams with a life sentence.
When asked to describe his day-to-day life in prison, Williams wouldn’t dwell on it long, nor would he talk about his emotions.
“It was being confined, you know, to a cell. Go out to the yard once or twice a week,” he explained.
About the reality of violence behind bars, Williams said, it didn’t take much to set another inmate off.
“You don’t have to do nothing to another convict in there,” he said matter-of-factly. “He might be trying to stick Peter Joe in the back, and you ain’t did nothing. So that’s the way it is.”
Helping him survive more than 42 years in prison mentally and emotionally, including nearly five years on death row, Williams credits his family -- specifically his daughter, Tracy, who sat nearby during her father’s interview with News4Jax.
“She was my biggest strength,” Williams said, smiling as he glanced over at her. “She was all the way to death row and everywhere else when it come to her father, and that kept me going.”
Both he and his nephew have always maintained their innocence, which ultimately led to an investigation more than 40 years later, in 2018, by the Innocence Project and the State Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit.
The investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to find the two guilty back then, and a judge agreed.
Rededicated to God
News4Jax captured the moment when Williams and his nephew walked out of court as free men for the first time in February 2019. His nephew kissed the pavement in gratitude.
Williams said he just wanted to get home to his children and grandchildren after missing so many family events.
“I had lost my mother and my father and four of my brothers because they died from cancer,” Williams said, shaking his head.
But his sorrow disappeared when he described rededicating his life to God while in prison and being baptized in the prison chapel.
“I committed myself to Him,” Williams said with a proud grin.
“Went in the water and looked like everything went to spinning," he said, speaking of washing his “old life" down the drain.
When asked if he was ever afraid in prison, “God was my strength,” Williams said with confidence. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He said there was never a time when he was mad at God.
“No, because He didn’t do nothing to me,” Williams explained. “He’s the one healed me.”
Williams talked about the diagnosis that doctors gave him after he was released from prison a year ago: prostate cancer -- the same cancer that Williams said killed his four brothers during his years in prison.
He said he was never in pain, and that he’s spent the last year undergoing treatment at UF Health, which he referred to by its former name, Shands Hospital.
“The last year, they’ve been fighting over at Shands (for me),” Williams said as he broke out in a smile. “And now I’m cancer-free. It’ll be a year March 28 this year.”
Push for compensation
News4Jax met up with Williams in Tallahassee, as he was there to hear the state Senate Judiciary Committee discuss his case.
Florida law allows someone deemed wrongfully convicted to be compensated $50,000 for each year of incarceration, up to a maximum of $2 million, as long as they don’t have any prior felony convictions.
Williams has two: one for attempted arson in 1960 and another for robbery in 1966, making him ineligible for the compensation.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville, is pushing to make Williams an exception to the law, seeking to award him $2.5 million.
“I remember seeing when Clifford was released, and the judge requiring them to be able to walk out the front door of the courthouse,” she explained. “That really struck me. You know, 43 years is a -- it’s almost your whole life, really. And I wanted to see how I could be helpful. But I wanted to meet him first.”
She did meet him, and his family.
Gibson also read as much as she could about Williams’ case and met with many players in the decision to set him free.
“He was not a saint,” Gibson said while discussing her bill in committee. "But he was not a murderer, either.”
When News4Jax asked what she meant by that, Gibson said that she’s aware of his prior convictions and other illegal activities in which investigators said he was involved. She’s also aware of critics who disagree with compensating Williams.
“No one should take it personally that there was a different outcome,” Gibson said of the investigation that led to Williams’ freedom.
“Clifford Williams is not taking it personally,” she said, referring to the years he spent in prison for a crime she strongly believes he did not commit.
“I believe in his innocence or I would have never filed the claim bill. Never.”
What's in it for her?
“I believe in justice,” she said simply. “I believe that someone who did not commit a crime should not be locked up.”
About the millions she’s fighting to award Williams, Gibson said, “It’s not my money. What matters to me is that 43 years of an individual’s life was taken away from him wrongfully, and so there is a need to help right that wrong.”
What matters in the end
Now that his claim bill (SB 28) has passed unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee, there are still more committee meetings it must pass through before heading to the state House, and then the governor’s desk.
Despite all the help from supportive lawmakers and one of Tallahassee’s most influential law firms, Holland & Knight, there’s still a chance Williams may not be awarded millions in the end.
“See there, so it don’t matter,” Williams said of the money when asked if he would be disappointed to receive nothing.
“I still got God,” he said with a steady smile and gaze. “It’s gonna be alright. He cured my prostate cancer. I’m cancer-free. That worse than anything. Didn’t nobody do that but God. Hey, that’s the biggest blessing I could have.”