Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew, Nathan Myers, were released last week, 43 years after being wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida. A Duval County circuit judge vacated their convictions based on the recommendation of the State Attorney’s Office.
The two men were convicted in the 1976 killing of Jeanette Williams, whose girlfriend, Nina Marshall, was wounded during the shooting. Ms. Marshall’s testimony was the only evidence tying the men to the crime. She testified that Mr. Williams and Mr. Myers broke into her home while she and her girlfriend slept and fired gunshots at them from the foot of their bed.
Homicide detectives responding to the crime scene found physical evidence showing the bullets were fired from outside the house and through the bedroom window, and that they all came from a single gun. Police found that neither man had gunshot residue on his hands just hours after the shooting. Mr. Williams and Mr. Myers identified 40 people who could testify that they were at a birthday party next door during the shooting.
But defense counsel ignored the physical evidence and presented no witnesses. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. After the second trial, which lasted two days, the jury convicted and recommended life imprisonment for both men. Judge Cliff Shepard, the harshest judge in Duval County at the time according to an analysis of average sentences, overrode the jury and sentenced Mr. Williams to death. (His death sentenced was overturned years later by the Florida Supreme Court.)
Decades later, newly-elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson established the state’s first conviction integrity review unit. Shortly after Shelley Thibodeau was appointed to lead the office in 2018, she received a letter from Mr. Myers describing the specific problems with the case, including the physical evidence, and decided to investigate.
The conviction review unit’s investigation found that another man who had been in the neighborhood that night had confessed to at least five people that he had killed Ms. Williams.
Ms. Thibodeau explained in an exhaustive report that “[t]here is no credible evidence of guilt and likewise, there is credible evidence of innocence.” The report’s conclusion that “[t]he culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants,” led the court to grant a motion to vacate the men’s convictions and order their release.
Mr. Myers, who was 18 when he was arrested, is now 61. Mr. Williams, 33 at the time, is now 76. After the hearing, Mr. Williams sat behind a Bible opened to the book of Isaiah. “My mother died while I was on death row,” he said and he started to cry. “I just wanted to get out and see my kids. There wasn’t nobody but them.”
Mr. Williams is the 165th former death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973. Twenty-nine people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated in Florida, the most in the nation. In 21 of the 23 Florida exonerations for which the jury’s sentencing vote is known, judges imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. Florida now requires a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.