TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Legislation that would award $2.15 million to a Jacksonville man who spent 43 years in prison on a wrongful conviction is headed to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the House approved a bill already passed by the Senate to provide compensation to 76-year-old former inmate Clifford Williams, who was all smiles as votes were cast.
“Mr. Williams, we cannot return your 43 years to you, but it is a pleasure to be able to honor you here today, to have you here in the Florida House to watch this vote,” House Speaker Jose Oliva told Williams.
Williams and his nephew, Nathan Myers, were convicted in the May 1976 death of Jeannette Williams and the shooting of her roommate, Nina Marshal, in Jacksonville’s New Town neighborhood, despite a lack of physical evidence tying either man to the crime.
“The injustice did not break his spirit,” said Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels. “I look into his eyes and sense how truly grateful he is, being so humble to stand before the same state that wronged him in the spirit of thanksgiving. I know we’re doing the right thing by offering this small token of compensation.”
An investigation of the case by the Conviction Integrity Unit established by State Attorney Melissa Nelson in the 4th Judicial Circuit -- which is made up of Clay, Duval and Nassau counties -- found there was insufficient evidence to find them guilty. The review revealed that “multiple credible alibi witnesses” were not called to testify during the 1976 trial, House Special Master Jordan Jones wrote in a report on the bill.
“I find that claimant has successfully demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, that he is actually innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted in 1976,” Jones wrote of Williams in the eight-page report.
Following the investigation by the State Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, a judge agreed there was insufficient evidence to find Williams and Myers guilty and overturned their convictions in March 2019.
Both men were released from prison last March. Myers was eligible for $2 million in compensation under state law, but Williams isn’t because he was previously convicted of two unrelated felonies. That’s why lawmakers needed to authorize the payment from the state’s general revenue.
Even though Williams’ prior felonies — one for attempted arson in 1960 and another for robbery in 1966 — made him ineligible for compensation, Daniels and State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, pushed to make Williams an exception to the law. On Tuesday, their efforts succeeded.
In brief remarks, Williams said that now that it’s been a year since his release, he wants to go back to the prison he exited.
“I’ve got a lot of friends of mine that are still in that prison system, and they told me once I’d been out a year, that I could come and bring them ministry in there, and that’s what I want to do," Williams said. "God came to the rescue.”