Clifford Williams, at the podium, and his wife, Leatrice, stand with supportive relatives and supporters. He was exonerated after 43 years in prison with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida, Holland & Knight law firm, and the conviction review unit in the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville. Photo: Laura Cassels
For 43 years, Clifford Williams, serving time for murder, insisted from behind bars that he didn’t do it. It was true.
Last year, attorneys unraveled the flimsy case that sent Williams to Death Row in 1976, and he was set free.
On Tuesday, the state of Florida approved financial compensation for him in remorse for the wrongful conviction and the wrongful incarceration.
Williams’ horrific ordeal included facing execution on Death Row for five years. Before he could be killed, his death sentence was commuted to life. He remained behind bars for another 38 years and continued to insist he was innocent.
When he was exonerated and released, he filed a claim for compensation but the state refused to pay because he had prior felony convictions.
On Tuesday, Williams and his family watched from the gallery as the House cast the last votes required to pay him $50,000 for each year of his life wasted behind bars for a crime he did not commit. The total is $2.15 million, to be provided in a trust fund.
At a press conference following the vote, Williams thanked God, his family and attorneys who helped him survive his ordeal and secured his freedom.
“I couldn’t have made it without them,” Williams said.
Standing with state lawmakers pushing for changes that would have helped him, Williams pledged to assist inmates with whom he spent four decades of his life.
“I’ve got a lot of friends of mine that are still in that prison system,” he said.
In 1976, Williams and his nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers, were wrongly convicted of a murder in Jacksonville. Williams, then 34, was sentenced to death. Myers, then 18, was sentenced to life in prison. Myers also may get compensation.
Four decades later, Florida’s first conviction integrity unit, created in January 2018 by 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, agreed to investigate their claims of innocence. The unit concluded the convictions were wrongful and asked a court to overturn them. The court did so, and both men were exonerated and released.
The relief bills adopted by the House and Senate this session for Williams were sponsored by Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Senate Democratic Leader, and Rep. Kimberly Daniels, both Democrats from the Jacksonville area. They and others argue that what the state most owes to Williams and others is justice.
“You can never compensate for taking years from someone’s life,” said Rep. Wengay Newton, A Democrat who represents parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota.
“”We have miles to go before we sleep,” said Rep. James Bush, a Miami-Dade Democrat sponsoring a bill to require expanded use of forensic evidence proven to help overturn and to prevent wrongful convictions. That bill passed the House Tuesday, but is pending in the Senate.
Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart, of Tampa, is sponsoring a bill to establish conviction integrity review units statewide like the one in the 4th Judicial Circuit that reopened Williams’ case and led to his exoneration. Her bill has not been taken up in any committee this year, nor was it heard last year, but she said will continue to demand its passage.
Bills also are pending to expand eligibility for wrongful-incarceration compensation, reconsider compensation claims that were denied or never filed, require video recordings of interrogations, and review several categories of sentences that many lawmakers and inmate advocates consider excessive.
Few of the measures have an obvious path to passage, but their sponsors hope to tack them to related bills that stand a chance of adoption before the Legislature adjourns.
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