Wrongly Convicted Men Freed From Prison After 43 Years. 43 YEARS!
In 1974, 34-year-old Clifford Williams Jr. was 34 and his 18-year-old nephew Hubert Nathan Myers went to a party in Jacksonville, Florida. Down the street from this party, a woman was shot and killed in her apartment. Police officers swiftly arrested the pair and they were convicted based on testimony from another woman who survived the shooting and sentenced to life in a quick, two day trial.
Multiple people reported being with them at the party at the time gunshots were heard. Later on, another man even confessed to the crime.
They were innocent. They did not kill that woman. And this week, after 43 years in prison, they are finally having their convictions out and being released.
It should probably not surprise you to know that the two men were black.
The pair always maintained their innocence, throughout the trial and the next 42 years they spent behind bars. They filed multiple failed motions for "postconviction relief," prosecutors said.
Things began to change when they petitioned the Conviction Integrity Review unit, which the state attorney created in 2017. Among the findings: Another man reportedly confessed to people that he committed the murders and felt bad Williams and Myers were imprisoned for it, the Conviction Integrity Review investigation report said. That man died in 1994.
The new unit's review led to the first-of-its-kind result, with the cases being tossed.
The Conviction Integrity Review unit determined that "it no longer has confidence in the integrity of the convictions," according to a press release from State Attorney Melissa W. Nelson.
I would say not!
The two men were convicted solely on the testimony of one eyewitness, Nina Marshall, who was lying in bed next to the victim, her girlfriend Jeanette Williams, at the time of the shooting. Despite the fact that ballistics showed that only one gun had been used, Marshall testified that both men had shot at the couple, and the prosecuting attorney told the jury they could just ignore the ballistics and the gunshot residue because "When you have an eyewitness, you don't need all that."
The Florida Times-Union reports that while Myers will be receiving compensation for his time in prison, Williams will not on account of the fact that he had prior convictions. How that makes any sense, I could not begin to tell you. He wasn't in prison for 43 years, for longer than I've even been alive, for those other crimes. He was in prison for this crime, which he did not commit. Especially given that he stayed in prison for decades after another person confessed, and apparently no one felt that this was a thing they might want to follow up on.
Just last week, another black man, Archie Williams, was released after spending 36 years in prison for a rape and stabbing that he did not commit. That conviction was based solely on the eyewitness testimony of the victim -- who had failed to identify him in two photo line-ups before she finally did identify him in another one. The fingerprints at the scene were not a match, his height didn't match the original description of the assailant, and three people testified that Williams was at home, sleeping, at the time of the assault.
Now, I believe in believing victims, and I don't believe the victims in these cases thought they were lying, but this is why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. It's not anyone's fault -- I can't watch Chicago P.D. because I can't tell the two main actors apart and I will never in my life remember which Chris is Chris Evans, so I can see how people might make an honest mistake with faces in a horrifying situation like that. But juries should not be convicting on eyewitness testimony alone unless the victim actually knows the assailant. That is just not "beyond a reasonable doubt."
There needs to be at least as much outrage over wrongful convictions as there is when someone people believe is guilty "gets away with it" by being found not guilty. There's so much pressure on prosecutors to get a conviction, to put the "bad guys" away, and nowhere near enough pressure on them to actually get it right. That needs to change.
As horrifying as it is that these men, and many others, have spent lifetimes in prison for crimes they didn't commit, at least they can be let out now. At least we have the ability to rectify the situation in some small way by releasing them. But this is proof that our criminal justice system is not infallible, and I don't know how people can look at things like this and still be OK with the death penalty. Because there is no correcting that if you're wrong. There's no going back.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse