On April 4, 2011, Derrick Williams became the 13th Florida DNA exoneree and the 268th nationwide after post-conviction DNA testing proved he was innocent of the crimes that he had been wrongfully convicted.
The white adult female victim arrived at her home on August 6, 1992, in Palmetto, Florida, at 5:30 p.m. When she pulled up to her home, it was raining, and she observed a black male, holding a white cloth, standing on her porch approximately 20 feet away.
As she was getting out of her car, the man forced his way into the car, put the victim in a headlock, while punching her in the face, and drove her to a nearby orange grove. On the orders of the assailant, the victim got into the backseat and undressed. The assailant took off his t-shirt and made the victim put the t-shirt around her head to block her vision. The assailant then sexually assaulted the victim, both vaginally and orally. The assailant tied up the victim with her own pantyhose and exited the vehicle to smoke one of her cigarettes. During this time, the victim managed to untie herself and drive away with the assailant’s white cloth and t-shirt still in the vehicle, leaving the assailant in the orange grove.
Law enforcement collected numerous items of physical evidence in this case, including a rape kit from the victim, the victim’s clothing and jacket worn during the attack, the victim’s pantyhose, debris from the seats and floorboards of the victim’s car, as well as the assailant’s t-shirt and white cloth. Despite the availability of DNA testing at the time, no such testing was conducted on any of these items.
The Identification of Derrick Williams as the Assailant
The victim initially described her attacker as being between 5’6’’ and 5’8’’ in height, with a scar “where his gut is.” This description was at odds with Williams’ actual characteristics: Williams is 5’11” and had a scar, but it was on the center of his back. Importantly, the victim initially stated that she did not get a good look at the assailant and did not look at his back.
After the crime, the victim was shown an inherently suggestive “all-suspect” photo lineup containing 33 photos, two of which depicted Derrick Williams. The victim noticed this “double inclusion” and then identified Williams as her assailant, after the two photos were removed from the photo array, laid out side by side in front of the victim for her to look at for about 15 to 20 minutes.
At trial, the State presented a three-pronged theory of prosecution. First, the victim unequivocally identified Williams as the assailant at trial. The victim’s description of Williams’ height and the location of his scar evolved from her original description to match Williams’ actual characteristics. Moreover, the victim stated at trial that she had sufficient opportunity to view the assailant during the crime, despite her previous statements to the contrary and the fact that her face was covered during the actual sexual assault.
Second, the prosecution offered testimony of a member of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MSO) who supposedly stopped Williams’ Uncle Jonny in his blue truck driving back and forth in front of the victim’s home after the rape. The prosecution used this testimony to infer that Williams left the family barbecue with Uncle Jonny, who then dropped Williams off at the victim’s home, and was then waiting to pick him up, thus creating the opportunity for him to commit the crime.
Lastly, the prosecution presented evidence, albeit inconsistent, that Williams had a shirt similar to the assailant’s t-shirt left in the victim’s car. The jury, however, also heard testimony of an analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) stating that a hair of “Negroid” origin collected from the perpetrator’s t-shirt could not have come from Williams.
To undermine the victim’s identification, the defense pointed out the suggestive lineup procedure employed and the many inconsistencies between the victim’s descriptions of her attacker and Williams’ actual characteristics. Another witness at trial whose home was near the orange grove where the rape occurred saw the shirtless perpetrator running through his back yard shortly after the victim escaped. The witness could not identify Derrick Williams at trial as the shirtless, running man. In fact, he testified that the perpetrator was not wearing short denim, cut-off shorts, as the victim described, but that he was actually wearing long, knee length dark colored shorts and dark shoes.
The defense offered many friends, neighbors, and family members of Williams as alibi witnesses to establish that he was at a family barbecue at his mother’s house at the time of the incident, and that they had never seen Williams wearing a t-shirt similar to the t-shirt that the assailant left in the victim’s car. Most importantly, these alibi witnesses stated that Williams briefly left the barbecue as much as 55 minutes after the crimes against the victim had commenced more than two miles away.
On March 19, 1993, despite the infirmities in the State’s evidence against Williams, he was convicted by the jury of kidnapping, sexual battery, robbery, grand theft motor vehicle, and battery, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison.
Reaching Out for Help
Derrick spent most his incarceration at Tomoka Correctional Institution, in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he kept himself busy and productive working in the Prison Industries (PRIDE) program. In August 2006, Williams’ sister-in-law wrote to IPF seeking help for Williams.
Finding the Evidence
Throughout 2006 and 2007, IPF staff and interns gathered necessary documents from the court file, MSO and FDLE to review the case for merit. In doing so, IPF began to press MSO to produce items of evidence, including the victim’s rape kit, which were collected before trial and should have been retained in the MSO property room. Thus began a 22-month endeavor to determine the existence of vital physical and biological material that could unlock the truth of Derrick Williams’ case.
IPF was able to locate the victim’s pantyhose and the assailant’s t-shirt, which were entered into evidence and stored at the Manatee County Clerk of Court. Finally, in February and March 2009, MSO finally provided IPF with proof of destruction of much of the Williams case evidence (including the rape kit and exculpatory hair) in late 2003. IPF learned that this vital evidence in the Williams case was in the First Union Bank vault in Bradenton. Documents released by MSO revealed that MSO allowed for boxes of evidence in the vault to get moldy over a six-year period and the entire contents of the vault (at least 3,600 cases worth of evidence) were cleared out and incinerated.
In June 2009, IPF filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing in the circuit court asking for testing of a number of items still in evidence. Upon the State’s agreement, on March 19, 2010, the Court ordered the testing to be performed at DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC), in Fairfield, Ohio.
On July 26, 2010, DDC issued a report indicating that male DNA was found on the inside collar of the assailant’s t-shirt and that Derrick Williams was excluded as a contributor of that DNA. The State refused to agree to any relief, instead insisting that the victim’s identification was strong and that they would fight to preserve the conviction against Williams.
Given this posture, on August 19, 2010, IPF filed an amended motion for post-conviction relief, asking the court to vacate Williams’ convictions and sentences on two distinct grounds: (1) newly discovered DNA test results demonstrated that Derrick Williams was not the wearer of the perpetrator’s t-shirt during the crime and, therefore, was not the perpetrator; and (2) that MSO unlawfully destroyed vital and exculpatory evidence in violation of Williams’ right to due process under the Florida and United States Constitutions.
The State still opposed Williams’ motion, necessitating an evidentiary hearing to resolve the matter. IPF brought on local criminal defense attorney, Derek Byrd, as its local counsel. A two-day evidentiary hearing was held on March 14 and 15, 2011.
On March 29, 2011, IPF received a fax from circuit judge Marc Gilner granting Williams a new trial. The very next day, when the State informed IPF attorneys that it had decided to appeal the ruling.
The state attorney called IPF again on Monday, April 4, 2011, and said the words that would end this ordeal: They were withdrawing their appeal and dropping all charges against Williams. At 8:00 p.m. that evening, Derrick Williams walked out of Hardee Correctional Institution, alongside his legal team, as a free man. He was reunited with dozens of family members.