Derrick Williams’ Conviction Vacated; Exonerated After 18 Years Wrongfully Incarcerated
Judge Finds DNA Evidence Would Acquit and that Sheriff’s Office Unlawfully Destroyed Exculpatory Evidence
(Tallahassee, FL) On April 4, 2011, Derrick Williams was released from custody after the state dropped all charges against him related to a 1992 Palmetto, Manatee County rape. He has spent the last 18 years wrongfully incarcerated in the Florida prison system. Williams is the 13th DNA exoneree in Florida and the 268th individual to be exonerated through the use of DNA testing nationwide.
“I have been waiting for this moment for so long now. I wasn’t sure it would ever come. I just had to put my faith in God and rely on the support of my family to get me through. I just want to be with my family as a free man for the first time in 18 years,” said Williams upon his release.
This exoneration follows Circuit Judge Marc Gilner’s March 28, 2011 order vacating 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. In a 22-page order, 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 that the recently conducted DNA test on the shirt worn and abandoned by the perpetrator excluded Williams as a contributor of the DNA it contained, made it “highly likely that [Williams] did not wear it,” and the DNA results directly contradicted the victum’s identification. “It was clear from the beginning that these DNA results demonstrated that Derrick Williams was not the perpetrator of this rape and that the victim was mistaken in her identification. We are so pleased that after eight months of legal proceedings, the state has finally agreed to do the right thing and let Derrick go home to his family,” 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 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 urge MSO to notify the individuals whose evidence was destroyed so they can avail themselves of whatever relief is available. We may never know how many more innocent people will remain in prison because their evidence was in that vault,” said Michael Minerva, Chief Executive Officer of IPF.
Montle informed Williams about the breakthrough in his case by telephone to Hardee Correctional Institution after the charges were dropped. “Thank God, God is good,” said a crying Williams upon hearing the news.
Derrick Williams’ wrongful conviction was caused primarily by eyewitness misidentification and limited science at the time of his trial. Misidentifications by victims and other eyewitnesses have contributed to 75% of the wrongful convictions of individuals who have later been exonerated by DNA testing. “This identification had all the hallmarks of a mistaken identification. This case highlights the need for prosecutors to closely scrutinize identifications before trial and for judges in Florida to be more open to hearing from scientific experts who can help the juries better understand how to properly evaluate such IDs if they do come in at trial,” said Seth Miller, Executive Director of IPF.
Click here to 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.
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.
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