Derrick Williams’ Conviction Vacated; State Delays Justice by Appealing Order
Judge Finds DNA Evidence Would Acquit and that Sheriff’s Office Unlawfully Destroyed Exculpatory Evidence
(Tallahassee, FL) On March 28, 2011, Circuit Judge Marc Gilner vacated Derrick Williams’ 1993 convictions of sexual battery, kidnapping, and related offenses after a two-day evidentiary hearing held in Manatee County on March 15-16, 2011. Despite this ruling, the Manatee County State Attorney, Earl Moreland, has decided to prevent the release of an innocent man by appealing this order.
In a thorough twenty-one page order which diligently examined and evaluated all of the evidence in the case, the court agreed with the contentions of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) that newly discovered DNA evidence undermined confidence in the previous guilty verdicts, which were largely based on challenged eyewitness identification. The court found (1) that the recently conducted DNA test on the shirt worn and abandoned by the perpetrator excluded Williams as a contributor of the wearer DNA on the inside collar of the shirt, (2) such a result made it “highly likely that [Williams] did not wear it,” (3) that the new DNA evidence “directly conflicts with the victim’s identification of [Williams] as her attacker,” and (4) that had the jury known this DNA evidence, they probably would have acquitted.
“The state got their chance to preserve this conviction in a court of law and they failed miserably. So instead of moving on gracefully, they are appealing an order that has zero chance of being overturned. Knowing they can’t successfully retry this case, their only move left is to keep an innocent man in prison pending appeal, all the while wasting scarce tax-payer resources. This is a travesty of justice that should not be tolerated by the public,” said Melissa Montle, Staff Attorney with IPF, who is Williams’ lead attorney.
The Court also found that the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MSO) violated Williams’ due process rights in 2003 when it unlawfully destroyed evidence, including a foreign hair from the perpetrator’s t-shirt, that could have conclusively excluded him as the perpetrator. This evidence was destroyed when MSO disposed of at least 3,600 cases worth of evidence stored in a former bank vault without legal authorization. State law in effect at that time required law enforcement officials to maintain physical evidence that might contain DNA for post-conviction testing, such as evidence in Williams’ case.
“MSO violated the very preservation of evidence law enacted to protect innocent people like Derrick Williams. We may never know how many more innocent people will remain in prison because their evidence was in that vault. What we do know, however, is that an frivolous appeal to try and overturn an accurate finding of unlawful destruction of evidence will keep an innocent man behind bars, until the appeal is decided” said Michael Minerva, Chief Executive Officer of IPF.
A study of the first 250 DNA exonerations nationwide indicates that in 88% of those cases the state joined the defense motion to vacate the conviction. Even in the 12% of cases where the state opposed the overturning of the convictions based on exonerative DNA results, such as the Williams case, the study failed to show an instance of the state taking an appeal from an order granting a new trial based on DNA evidence of innocence.
“The state is taking the completely unprecedented step of appealing what appears to be a “bullet-proof” order. Reasonable prosecutors across Florida and the nation understand when to stand down in the face of DNA evidence and such a clear edict by a sitting judge. State Attorney Earl Moreland is breaking new ground for prosecutor tunnel vision that may keep Derrick Williams wrongfully incarcerated for six more months or even a year longer than necessary,” said Seth Miller, Executive Director of IPF.
Derrick Williams has been wrongfully incarcerated for eighteen years. When he is exonerated, he will be the 13th DNA exoneree in Florida and the 268th individual exonerated through the use of DNA testing nationwide.
You can view a copy of the order vacating Derrick Williams’ conviction and finding that MSO violated his due process rights by unlawfully destroying exculpatory evidence in his case at http://floridainnocence.org/content/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Williams-Order-Vacating.pdf.
The Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to finding and freeing innocent people in Florida prisons. IPF represents Derrick Williams for free, including all costs associated with DNA testing and litigation. Sarasota attorney Derek Byrd associated as local counsel for Mr. Williams. IPF’s website is www.FloridaInnocence.org.