Friday, September 10, 2010

Florida Innocence Commission draws up agenda for reducing wrongful convictions

TALLAHASSEE — One by one, the names of 11 men wrongfully convicted flashed on a large screen.

James Bain, 55, watched a room full of judges, lawyers and cops study his case in sobering silence.

The Tampa resident spent 35 years in prison for rape before being exonerated with DNA testing nearly a year ago.

"I thought I'd walk right out of (the trial) because I knew they had the wrong person," Bain recalled.

His struggle for justice — complicated by a poor defense lawyer and handwritten appeals — served as a call to action for the Florida Innocence Commission at its first meeting Friday.

"We can recognize that the perfection of justice will always remain an elusive goal," said Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canaday, who helped launch the group. "But that reality can never be an excuse for relaxing out efforts to protect the innocent."

The 23-member commission, led by 9th Circuit Chief Judge Bevin Perry Jr., is studying the 11 Florida exonerations to make recommendations on how to prevent wrongful convictions.

A national study of 225 people exonerated through DNA testing, conducted by the Innocence Project, an advocacy organization for defendants, helped set the parameters for the commission.

The main factor contributing to wrongful convictions is faulty identifications of defendants by eyewitnesses, the study showed. It occurs in more than three-quarters of exonerations.

The other main problems: invalid forensic evidence, false confessions and bad informants.

The panel will address each element at upcoming meetings throughout the state as it prepares a final report, which is due June 2012.

"You see something like that, you have to take a step back and saw we need to get at these problems," said 18th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge J. Preston Silvernail.

But solutions won't come easy.

Other states with similar commissions have spent six months to a year on the problem of eyewitnesses alone.

And the Florida group started slowly, spending the first hour in the four-hour meeting debating the wording of its mission statement and objectives.

One dispute involved whether to use the word "wrongful" or "erroneous" to describe the bogus convictions. They eventually agreed to use both.

And later the commission deleted a reference in the bylaws to the cases of the 11 exonerated men because members didn't want to declare them innocent without reviewing the cases. "Are they innocent or was there just not sufficient evidence" to convict them again? asked Brad King, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

The slow progress frustrated Alan Crotzer, a former St. Petersburg resident, who was freed in 2006 after 24 1/2 years behind bars for a rape, kidnapping and robbery he didn't commit.

"Please don't let this become a paralyzed system of analysts," he told the commission. "Make it happen. Make it better. Fix it. You have that power now."


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Florida High Court Upholds Decision to Lift Death Sentence

Paul Beasley Johnson was brought this morning from death row to be in court for a case management hearing in Bartow, Fla. on Friday March 21, 2003.

The Florida Supreme Court denied a request Thursday to reconsider its decision to lift the death sentences against murderer Paul Beasley Johnson, who in 1981 killed a Polk County Sheriff's deputy and two others.

The court has ordered a new penalty phase for Johnson to decide whether he should remain on death row or be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The court let the three murder convictions against him stand.

In January, the state's highest court released an opinion saying misconduct by the original prosecutor in Johnson's case means a new penalty phase must be held to decide whether Johnson should be executed or given life in prison.

The state Attorney General's Office filed a motion seeking a rehearing on the opinion.

The Florida Supreme Court's order Thursday denied that request.

Johnson, 61, of Eagle Lake has been on Florida's death row for more than 20 years.

He has twice been found guilty of a drug-fueled rampage that began on the evening of Jan. 8, 1981, and left three people fatally shot, including Deputy Theron A. Burnham, 27.

Johnson was convicted in 1981 of killing Burnham; William Evans, a Winter Haven cab driver; and Darrell Ray Beasley, a Lakeland man who agreed to give Johnson a ride.

In 1986, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial because jury members had not been properly sequestered during their deliberations.

After a mistrial because of juror misconduct, Johnson was retried, and again convicted and sentenced to death in 1988.

Last year, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd organized an online petition, urging the governor to sign Johnson's death warrant.

But the Supreme Court granted Johnson's stay of execution to consider his pending appeal.

The court released an opinion on Jan. 14 calling for lawyers to once again prepare the case for new jurors to hear evidence and arguments about the punishment Johnson receive.

The opinion was critical of the case's original prosecutor and concluded a jailhouse informant should not have been allowed to testify that Johnson intended to "play like he was crazy."

The informant said years later that he lied at trial and testified that he was working under the instruction of authorities to gather information to prosecute Johnson, according to court records.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Murderer's Death Sentenced Overturned

A 78-year-old Brevard County man was re-sentenced to life in prison Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence.

"Them Chinese were crazy, which I'm crazy too," convicted killer George Porter said.

George Porter said he never asked the judge to save his life, but decades of appeals did get his death sentence thrown out and he said the appeals will continue.

"It gives me something to do while I watch TV," he said.

Porter was convicted in 1988 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, 50-year-old Evelyn Williams and her new boyfriend, William Burrows. But last November, the Supreme Court threw out his death sentence because Porter's attorney failed to bring up at his original sentencing, childhood abuse or possible post traumatic stress disorder from combat in the Korean War.

"I got three bronze stars, one silver star. I don't know what they are all for," said Porter.

Because of Porter's age, prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty again.

A victim's advocate spoke on behalf of the Evelyn William's family.

"Using military service as an excuse to commit a heinous crime is positively shameful," said William Burrows, the victim's son.

Porter could be considered for parole after 25 years for each of three life sentences he's serving. He'd be 129 years old, so even though he doesn't have a death sentence, he will die in prison.

The Supreme Court decision in the case did set a precedent. Not only did it get Porter off death row, prosecutors said other defense attorneys could try to use it to help other convicts with military backgrounds.

Memories of student murders fade for some, not all

Today's students are too young to remember slayings, yet lessons from that terrible time remain.

Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Alan Nicotra, left, and Core Portnoy hold a plaque on the Southwest 34th Street walll dedicated to the victims of Danny Rolling.

Twenty years after the murders of five Gainesville college students, memories of the tragedy have faded, and some people worry that a sense of complacency has set in among students.

This week's anniversary of the killings will be marked by a memorial event Thursday at the University of Florida. But most current UF students are too young to remember the brutal slayings, and the execution of Danny Rolling for the crimes in 2006 has further moved the case out of the public consciousness.

"The sadness here is our students don't know anything about this," UF President Bernie Machen said. "I'm not sure whether the best thing is to resurrect it or just to move forward and keep focusing on 'Be safe and have a healthy lifestyle.' "

It was on a day like today, the Sunday before the start of UF's fall semester, that the first victims were found in August 1990. Gainesville attorney Rod Smith remembered it being an optimistic time - John Lombardi had just started as UF president and Steve Spurrier as head football coach - before the murders brought it crashing down. "It would be hard to replicate today how out of hand it got for a few days," he said.

Five victims would be found dead in their Gainesville apartments over the course of three days: Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach; Christina Powell, 17, of Jacksonville; Christa Hoyt, 18, of Archer; Manuel Taboada, 23, of Carol City; and Tracy Paules, 23, of Miami. All but Hoyt were UF students; Hoyt attended Santa Fe Community College (now known as Santa Fe College).

Gainesville was gripped in fear by the idea that a serial killer was on the loose and breaking into students' apartments. Classes were canceled. Thousands of students fled Gainesville for their parents' homes. People living alone slept at friends' places. Gun sales jumped. Nine months passed before Rolling, a drifter and career criminal from Louisiana, was publicly named as a suspect.

Smith was the state attorney who prosecuted Rolling, leading to a death sentence in 1994. Smith, who went on to serve as state senator and is now a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he's struck by the fact that so much time has passed that Rolling's victims would now be adults with families.

"Their children should be at the University of Florida now," Smith said. "They should be watching graduations. Their parents should be celebrating grandchildren that they'll never see."

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell was the spokeswoman for the Gainesville Police Department during the investigation into the murders. She said she hopes the community continues to remember the victims and their families - and that Gainesville continues to use the ordeal 20 years ago as a lesson about public safety.

"It's important to remember not only their loss but that we're all vulnerable, and we need to look out for one another," she said.

The murders had a lasting impact on the victims' families. Christa Hoyt's stepmother, Dianna, said she believes the trauma contributed to her husband Gary's death in 2000 from a rare brain disorder. She said he didn't expect to live to see the execution of his daughter's killer. Dianna Hoyt did witness the execution, which she said hasn't provided closure.

"I think the only thing it's done is given me more peace of mind," she said.

Hoyt speaks several times each year to UF journalism classes on the importance of maintaining sensitivity with crime victims. Increasingly she's speaking to students who weren't even born at the time of the murders.

"They have no idea of the terrors that we faced. ... They've never lived through anything like that," she said.

Students do maintain a connection through a memorial to the victims painted soon after the murders on the Southwest 34th Street wall. Members of UF's Interfraternity Council repaint the memorial when it gets covered with graffiti, and a few days ago installed a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the memorial, which names all five victims and has hearts painted around the word "REMEMBER."

Council President Sean Smith said the plaque is meant to be a more permanent reminder of the tragedy that discourages students from defacing the memorial.

"That's our main goal: to have it at a point that it's general knowledge that you don't paint over this portion of the wall," he said.

There are also five palms planted in the median near the wall in memory of the students, as well as five trees on campus near Library East. UF is marking the anniversary Thursday, the 20th anniversary of the day the first victims were found, by tying white ribbons on the trees and tolling the carillon bells of Century Tower five times. A moment of silence will follow.

While Rolling broke into the victims' apartments to commit the murders, UF officials hope the case can be used as a lesson that students can prevent other types of violent crimes. Machen said he wants to emphasize that students must make good choices such as not jogging late at night or not putting themselves in a compromising position by drinking excessively. "I think that's the relevant thing today," he said. "Sure, it could happen again, but I think people today need to take more responsibility for their own well being than they do."

UF Police Department spokesman Jeff Holcomb, a captain who's been with the department since 1988, said the murders didn't directly lead to many changes in campus security. But he said practices have since been adopted that emphasize the importance of students taking steps to ensure their safety, such as the rape aggression defense program and shuttle escort service at nights.

"Our focus has shifted a lot to a shared responsibility with students," he said.

The murders happened in off-campus apartments in close proximity to Archer Road. Richard Ashbrook, who was a student at the time of the murders and today is president of the North Central Florida Apartment Association, said apartments are generally safer today than at the time of the killings. "It's like anything - the newer buildings are built better," he said.

Apartment owners also have become more sophisticated in educating their tenants, he said. The messages include never leaving doors unlocked and using more than one method to lock sliding glass doors, which is one of the ways Rolling entered the apartments of his victims.

"One of the things that we have to remember first is that safety is the responsibility of the individual," Ashbrook said.

Some of the case's most lasting legacies involve the families of the victims. Darnell said the case was part of a sea change in the criminal justice system. Victim advocacy is now seen as an integral part of the duties of law enforcement, she said.

"Truly that's what our purpose is - to serve those who have been victimized," he said.

An offshoot is a precedent set by the case involving crime photos. The media sought access to photos that showed the dismemberment of some of the victims. Circuit Judge Stan Morris ruled that the media and public could review the photos at the courthouse but could not duplicate the photos.

The case continues to be a reference point as the media seek access to autopsy photos and footage such as a video of a SeaWorld trainer's death by a killer whale this year. Morris, who retired from the bench earlier this year, said he believes his decision was a reasonable compromise.

"I was firmly convinced that the public has a right to know," he said. "I was trying to figure out a way to allow that access and to protect the families' sensitivities. I think I did that."

Morris had the opportunity to attend Rolling's execution but decided against it. While some were frustrated that it took 16 years to execute someone who had admitted his guilt, Morris said he believed it showed that the system works. "My attitude is that if you're going to have a death penalty, then you have to do it right," he said.

Spencer Mann, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office at the time of the killings, attended the execution and said it was "anticlimactic" compared with the violence experienced by the victims. He said he also was disappointed that Rolling sang a gospel hymn rather than offer apologies before being executed by lethal injection.

Mann, who is now an investigator and spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, said the attention to the killings gets a little less with each passing year. But while he said students might not know about the events of August 1990, they forever will be remembered in the wider community.

"I think the impact is greater on the permanent Gainesville residents than the students, because it was part of the fabric of our history," he said.

Death-row inmate John Huggins declares himself competent

John Huggins, who killed Carla Larson in June 1997, has been fitted with a device that will deliver an electric shock if he gets out of control.

By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel

6:08 PM EDT, August 23, 2010

Death row inmate John Huggins declared himself competent Monday and reiterated his opposition to his own lawyers while sitting next to them in court.

Huggins, who was forcibly removed from his cell to attend Monday's hearing, also announced he has filed an ethics complaint against the judge in his case, Orange-Osceola Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry.

Monday was the first day of a lengthy evidentiary hearing for Huggins, who refuses to participate in his own defense while questions about his competence linger. The hearing is expected to run through Wednesday.

Huggins killed 30-year-old construction engineer Carla Larson in June 1997. Her body was found near Walt Disney World.

Now, Huggins, 48, also refuses to meet with court-appointed experts to evaluate his competence.

"I am competent," Huggins told Judge Perry today. "My mental condition is sound and always has been sound."

However, a psychologist hired by his legal team said Huggins has a history of mental illness and has raised doubts about his competence to assist his counsel in his post-conviction relief motion.

Perry repeatedly asked Huggins if he would agree to meet with a court-appointed doctor and Huggins repeatedly – and respectfully – declined.

Huggins on Monday briefly alluded to his belief in a conspiracy against him, involving his ex-wife and Oklahoma City, but he did not elaborate. Ultimately, Perry will rule whether Huggins should receive a new trial, get a new penalty phase or remain on death row, heading for execution.

But Huggins' repeated refusals to cooperate have left Perry asking both sides for answers on how to proceed. Perry already ruled that issues covered during this week's hearing do not require Huggins' input.

But on Monday he said future topics will likely require his participation and a firm determination regarding his competence.

"Maybe this is the first time this has happened. I doubt it," Perry said. "At some point we're going to have to discuss this issue."

Meanwhile, Huggins has been fitted with a "REACT belt,'' a stunning device that will deliver an electric shock if he gets out of control.

Recently, Huggins refused to leave his cell and appear via video conference call for a hearing intended to deal with his request to fire his legal team.

Huggins' defense attorney has argued his hearing should be delayed until the question of Huggins' competence can be settled.

Yet Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton on Monday said Huggins appeared lucid and understanding of what was going on. He offered one explanation for Huggins' lack of cooperation: "It's not in his [Huggins'] best interest to make this easy," he said.

Anthony Colarossi can be reached at or 407-420-5447.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Case highlights Fla. death penalty law

ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 16 (UPI) -- If the murder trial of Casey Anthony ends in a conviction it will bring Florida's "hybrid" death penalty into the case, legal experts say.

Anthony is accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter Caylee Marie, whose remains were found near the family home in 2008, the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported Sunday.

If convicted, the jury will recommend a sentence -- either the death penalty or life in prison -- but Florida is one of only three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that allow judges to decide against a jury, the newspaper said.

In 30 states, a jury must vote unanimously to sentence someone to death. A vote of 11-1 for death in those states means a mandatory life sentence, whether the judge agrees or not.

In Florida, however, an 11-1 vote for death would be a strong show of support for a death sentence and judges would normally be inclined to rule that way, experts say.

But under the state's "hybrid" system they are not required to, and are free to ignore the jury's penalty decision.

The system has been "an area of controversy," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

"I don't think the average person realizes Florida is that different," Dieter said. "In all of those [other] states, the judge can't state, 'I'm going to impose death anyhow [despite the jury's sentence].'"

Man, 22, will serve life in prison for robbery conviction

Michael D. Reed Jr. was given the max sentence because of his history of committing crime.

Published: Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:12 p.m.

An armed robbery has earned a Gainesville man a sentence of life in prison because of his history of committing crime, a prosecutor said.

Click to enlarge
Michael D. Reed Jr.

Michael D. Reed Jr., 22, got the sentence after a jury convicted him of armed robbery and other charges for his role in an attack in May 2009.

Reed and two other men used weapons to demand cash from a man outside a home and then fled, leading police on a chase at speeds of 85 to 90 mph from Gainesville to Alachua.

Alachua police deployed stop sticks to puncture all four of the vehicle's tires. The gold Saturn stopped in the 9600 block of U.S. 441, and police apprehended all three suspects.

Reed's co-defendants - Rama T. Thomas Jr., 22, and Blair Brandon Boyd, 22 - accepted plea deals, and Assistant State Attorney Omar Hechavarria said Reed was offered one that would have gotten him a sentence of 20 years.

However, Reed chose a trial and was convicted of robbery with a firearm while masked, fleeing and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer, driving while license suspended, resisting arrest without violence, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and giving a false name to a law enforcement officer.

All three defendants had been released from prison within five months of the robbery. Hechavarria said Reed drew the life sentence because of a law dealing with criminals who commit new offenses after they've been released from prison.

"It means that if you are convicted of an enumerated crime, which robbery with a firearm is, that you will get the maximum sentence," Hechavarria said. "Robbery with a firearm is a life sentence, so the judge had no option but to give him a life sentence."

Hechavarria added that Reed will not be eligible for parole.

South Florida detectives and prosecutors discuss best ways to fight sex crimes

By Linda Trischitta

Sun Sentinel

Updated: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

Posted: 9:28 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

BOCA RATON The bad news: The sex crimes unit is one of Broward State Attorney Michael Satz's fastest-growing departments.

The good news: Detectives and prosecutors are getting together to discuss how to build successful cases.

Forty-five South Florida investigators, victims advocates and prosecutors began a three-day conference Tuesday in Boca Raton, hosted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

The meeting has speakers from the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other law enforcement agencies who will discuss sex crimes, human trafficking, Internet investigations and abducted children.

Stacey Honowitz, supervisor of the Broward State Attorney's Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit, shared tales from past cases of how difficulties with witnesses and prominent suspects and other stumbling blocks were resolved.

She also revealed some felons' methods, including one who impersonated a doctor to molest a child in a hospital bed, and another who chose autistic children as his targets because they cannot easily communicate abuse.

She called pedophiles "master manipulators" of mothers and their children, and of employers who are not inclined to make criminal background checks.

"The single mom is the perfect target because she's desperate to have a male role model in their lives," Honowitz said.

The abuse is frequently structured as a game between adult and child, she said.

"They do it to make it appear that what's going on is natural and beautiful and fun, and say to the child, 'If you tell your mommy, I won't be able to take you to the arcade,' " she said.

An author of two books on abuse for parents and children, with a third to be released this fall, Honowitz said education will help as a preventative, but it's not foolproof.

"No matter how often you tell a 4-year-old that someone shouldn't touch your privates, but [a pedophile] is taking them to Toys "R" Us or giving them cookies, they won't tell," she said.

She said the stigma of being a pedophile's victim is diminishing. She is seeing adult victims testify in cases decades later, despite the trauma of reliving the crime.

"That's why celebrities are coming forward, because they were molested by somebody and never got help," Honowitz said. "That's why our unit is growing, because people are realizing just how important this is."

Man who shot Chilean students found competent to stand trial

2010-08-03 14:03:12

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Dannie Baker, who is charged with killing two Chilean students and wounding three others more than a year ago, has been deemed competent to stand trial.

Public defender Lenny Platteborze told Walton County Circuit Judge Kelvin Wells on Tuesday that psychologists have said that Baker, 61, can go to trial.

“Dr. (James) Larsen has reviewed Florida State Hospital’s report and agrees he was extremely delusional at the time of the shooting, including believing he was the president of the United States and he was speaking directly to God,” Platteborze told Wells. “The state hospital ruled that his competency is very fragile and Dr. Larsen agrees with that as well.

“At this point, however, he is competent to proceed.”

Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore, who is prosecuting the case, asked Wells to review Larsen’s findings and rule on whether to go to trial.

Wells said he will review Larsen’s report and scheduled a pre-trial hearing for Oct. 21. In the meantime, Baker’s attorneys will collect evidence, Elmore said.

Wells ruled Baker incompetent in November 2009. Baker then was sent to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for testing and treatment.

Doctors at the hospital determined Baker was competent in May. He was taken to the Walton County Jail for additional testing to determine whether he could be tried for allegedly fatally shooting 22-year-old Racine Argandona and 23-year-old Nicholas Corp-Torres, and wounding three other students.

The students were visiting a friend at Summer Lake town home complex on Scenic Gulf Drive in Destin early on Feb. 26, 2009, when lawmen say Baker fired a rifle through one of the unit’s windows about 1:45 a.m.

Wounded were Sebastian Arizaga-Suarez, David Bilboa-Meza and Francisco Cofre-Fernandez.

Baker barricaded himself inside his town home in the same complex until he surrendered shortly after 6 a.m., according to Walton County deputies.

He is charged with two counts of premeditated first-degree murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, three counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm and shooting into an occupied building.

The three students who were wounded returned to Chile. Elmore said it is likely they will be called back to testify at Baker’s trial. He said the state will seek the death penalty.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Defense argues sloppy FBI work tainted 1993 race crime trial

By Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mark Kohut, left, and Charles Rourk are trying to get their convictions overturned in the 1993 attempted murder of a black tourist.
Mark Kohut, left, and Charles Rourk are trying to get their convictions overturned in the 1993 attempted murder of a black tourist.

TAMPA — On May 4, 1995, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the offense of attempted first-degree felony murder.

Six days later, a lower appeals court upheld the attempted murder convictions of two Lakeland men who committed Hillsborough County's most notorious hate crime.

In court Friday, defense attorneys argued that Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk received life prison sentences for a crime that for a small window in the state's history did not exist.

The men, who maintain their innocence, want their convictions overturned and a new trial.

"The sentence is illegal if the crime was nonexistent," said Assistant Public Defender Robert Mactavish, who represents Rourk.

Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco took the issue under advisement Friday after a two-day hearing.

Though she did not rule, the judge seemed to put stock in case law that favors the defendants.

If Kohut, 44, and Rourk, 50, win relief, it would be the latest twist in a bizarre case that drew national attention.

On New Year's Day 1993, the white men kidnapped a black tourist from a Valrico shopping center, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

They laughed and yelled racial slurs as Christopher Wilson suffered burns on nearly 40 percent of his body.

The trial was sent to West Palm Beach because attorneys couldn't pick an impartial jury in Tampa. The lead prosecutor quit after a public dispute with his boss, Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe, who took over the case and was criticized for his eccentric courtroom behavior.

Prosecutors presented jurors with dual theories of attempted premeditated murder and attempted felony murder, which means the act was committed during the commission of another crime.

Jurors received instructions on both theories.

The verdict form, however, did not indicate which type of attempted murder jurors believed the men committed.

On Friday, Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow said there was overwhelming evidence of premeditation. He suggested that jurors may have thought Kohut and Rourk were guilty under both theories.

"But the point is, you don't know," Sisco said.

Crow questioned the timeliness of the men's quest.

"It's a nightmare to try and go back and re-create this case after 17 years," he said.

Sisco and defense attorneys cited case law that said a conviction for a nonexistent crime amounts to a fundamental error that can be raised at any time.

The Legislature reinstated attempted felony murder effective Oct. 1, 1996. But the state Supreme Court decision that abolished the offense temporarily applied to all cases that were pending on appeal at that time, including Kohut and Rourk's.

"It's tragic that it wasn't caught then and there," the judge said. "But it wasn't. So here we are."

Defense attorneys also argued Friday that shoddy work by an FBI agent who conducted the hair and fiber analyses in Kohut and Rourk's case discredited the state's entire investigation.

They said the judge should set aside the men's kidnapping and robbery convictions, along with the attempted murder charge.

An independent scientific review completed in 2001 found that the FBI agent's notes were written in pencil, not pen, lacked dates and contained abbreviations that were hard to understand.

The report concluded that the agent's testimony at trial was inconsistent with his lab notes.

"I think (the new evidence) would have further weakened this case and would have resulted in an acquittal," said Kohut's attorney, Daniel Hernandez.

Prosecutor Kristen Mendoza said the conclusions drawn by the defense were "based on large leaps of logic and reading more into this report than actually exists."

Mendoza said the issues raised in the review did not question the agent's findings and would not have affected the outcome of the trial.

The agent's lab tests revealed no physical evidence to link either Kohut or Rourk to the crime scene — a point the defense touted during the trial.

Sisco noted the irony of the current defense strategy Friday.

"You would be impeaching one of your star witnesses," she said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Death row inmate refuses to leave cell for hearing

By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel

12:21 PM EDT, July 30, 2010

Death Row inmate John Huggins refused to appear via video conference call at a hearing this morning that was originally intended to deal with his request to fire his legal team.
Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry questioned a corrections officer up at the state prison complex near Starke about Huggins. The officer said he refused to leave his cell and remained on his bunk this morning, when asked to go to another room to take part in the hearing, scheduled for 10:30.
Huggins' defense attorney, meanwhile, argued that an upcoming hearing on post-conviction appellate claims made in this case should be delayed until the question of whether Huggins is competent is settled.
But Perry insisted that a hearing long scheduled for next month will go on regarding certain claims, while the question of Huggins' competence is still being decided. Perry plans to spell out which claims will be heard in an order soon to be released. Some of those claims involve ineffective counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.
Perry said "this case is mired in quicksand" and said he can't know for sure if Huggins is refusing to cooperate with his lawyers because he is delusional or because he is trying to delay the process.
Also, Perry said he may compel Huggins to be transported to Orlando for that hearing whether he wants to attend or not.
The parties had some discussion about whether to hold the hearing, which may last a few days, at the prison in northern Florida. But ultimately Perry decided to hold it at the Orange County Courthouse because many of the witnesses are in and around Orlando and the trip to Starke would be an inconvenience for many involved.
"We will have it here," Perry said. "If he refuses to come...well, let me think about it. I think I will have him transported."
The inmate wants a new team of attorneys to handle the appeal of his conviction of strangling 30-year-old construction engineer Carla Larson in June 1997.
Her body was found partially buried near Walt Disney World.
There are lingering questions about Huggins' competence. He must be found competent to assist the legal team handling his case and challenging his death sentence.
But during a hearing earlier this month one of his attorneys told Perry that Huggins also wants to get rid of his legal team and refuses to meet with them.
"He wants other counsel," attorney David Gemmer said. "He's expressed that to us repeatedly."
Huggins himself has filed papers requesting that his legal team with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel be removed.
In October, Perry found Huggins competent to proceed. However, his legal team had another evaluation done by Tampa-based psychologist Richard Carpenter in November and that testing indicated he was not faking delusions to stave off his execution.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Family of prisoner hopes evidence will set him free

Family of prisoner hopes evidence will set him free
His conviction has weighed heavily on them for years

James Bain, center, who was recently released from prison after a wrongful conviction, attends a news conference to support the family of Derrick Williams, who was convicted in a 1993 rape. The Innocence Project says new evidence shows Williams did not commit the crime.

By Todd Ruger

Published: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 12:10 a.m.
( page 1 of 3 )

MANATEE COUNTY - Derrick Williams' relatives in Palmetto hope new DNA evidence that may exonerate him of rape and kidnapping charges will also clear their family name.

Click to enlarge
Inez Williams, Derrick Williams' mother, watches her family's children during the news conference. Her husband, Derrick's father, died years ago. Williams' niece said Tuesday that the family has faced ridicule and disgrace from the community since Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison 17 years ago. Some people acted as if the relatives were guilty, too.

"It's like gangrene, it just eats away at your skin," said Williams' niece, Tawanda Means, who fought tears as she read a prepared statement and answered questions from reporters.

After all other options, the family wrote the Innocence Project of Florida in 2007, asking for help in a 1993 case where Williams had always maintained his innocence.

The Innocence Project attorneys called Means on Sunday to say they believe a new test on a key piece of evidence is enough to prove Williams, 47, is innocent and release him from prison.

It was a day Williams' father, who died several years ago, had all but given up on. Means recalled him sitting in the yard, and thinking about how to fight the conviction, saying, "What can we do, we're not a wealthy family."

The family is elated, even though prosecutors say the new evidence does not exonerate Williams and have asked for a hearing on the case. The court battle to vacate Williams' conviction and sentence could take months, but the Innocence Project is confident in their case.

"I was like, 'Thank you, father, our prayers have been answered,'" Means said.

Williams has missed out on celebrating births and marriages with his family, Means said. Children in the family only know him through photographs.

But most importantly, he missed the death of his father, Means said. "My grandfather went to his grave without being able to say goodbye to his youngest son."

Williams' mother, Inez Williams, sat on a nearby bench during the news conference, content to watch children as the others stood in front of television cameras.

Among the crowd outside the Manatee County courthouse Tuesday were some of the seven people, including family members, who testified at the trial that Williams was eating chicken and drinking beer with them at the time of the rape.

"Seventeen years have gone by and nobody's listened to what they said," said Seth Miller, Innocence Project executive director.

Still, Means said she believes in the justice system and following the law.

"We fall short," Means said, "and none of us are perfect."

Police accused Williams of abducting a 25-year-old woman from her Palmetto home, forcing her into her car and driving her to an orange grove to rape her.

The case was largely based on the victim's identification of Williams, but her description of her assailant differed from Williams and her story had several inconsistencies. Misidentification is often the cause of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the Innocence Project said.

The woman escaped from the rape with her attacker's gray shirt. She identified Williams as her attacker, and Williams' girlfriend said he left that day with a gray shirt and returned with a red one.

At the time of his arrest, Williams offered to give blood and saliva samples. But there was no sperm found to compare the genetic material, and DNA techniques used to find samples on evidence were not known then.

The gray shirt was retested for DNA evidence this month, and it showed Williams did not leave the sweat and skin cells left on the back collar of the shirt, the Innocence Project says.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Innocence Project demands release of Palmetto convict

Innocence Project demands release of Palmetto convict


Read more:

BRADENTON — Dozens of relatives of Derrick Williams, incarcerated since 1993, met outside the Manatee County Courthouse this morning after The Innocence Project of Florida reopened his case, saying new DNA tests show he is not guilty of a 1992 kidnapping and rape.

Tawanda Means, Williams’ niece, spoke on behalf of the family, stating they are overjoyed and wait for the day Williams will be cleared of the charges and released from prison. They continue to rely on their faith, she said.

“He doesn’t want to sit there,” said Means. “He’s been saying he’s innocent the whole time. Bad things sometimes happen to good people.”

Williams, of Palmetto, was sentenced to life. Attorneys with The Innocence Project filed a motion with the Manatee clerk of court today, asking for Williams to be exonerated of the charges.

In March 1993, a jury found Williams, now 47, guilty of the rape and kidnapping of a woman Aug. 6, 1992, in a Palmetto orange grove. Williams maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and now the Innocence Project says it has the evidence to prove it.

His DNA was not collected from the collar of the shirt entered into the trial, his attorneys said.

Prosecutors initially opposed the request, saying there was little evidence — namely a T-shirt the assailant wore and the victim’s pantyhose, used to tie her wrists — still in existence.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky said the lack of DNA on the assailant’s shirt does not prove Williams’ innocence.

“We feel that a hearing is important,” Brodsky said.

The rest of the evidence, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, was destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room.

Means said her family has been the subject of ridicule and has had their named dragged through the mud since Willliams’ conviction.

“It’s like gangrene. It just eats way and eats away at your skin,” Means said. “What is it that we can do? We’re not a wealthy family, but we have a lot of love here.”

The family wrote to the Innocence Project in 2008 asking for help. Each year, the organization receives approximately 1,200 requests from prisoners and families asking for representation. The group uses DNA testing to check to see if prisoners are innocent of crimes they are convicted of.

“Without them, my uncle would have spent his life there,” Means said.

Williams has Served Over 17 Years for a Rape he Did Not Commit; Attorneys Call for Immediate Release

Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.

1100 East Park Avenue, Tallahassee, FL 32301

Telephone 850.561.6767 Fax 850.561.5077

For Immediate Release PRESS RELEASE

July 27, 2010


Seth Miller, Esq.: 202.341.2127

Melissa Montle, Esq.: 561.843.9304

DNA Testing Demonstrates Derrick Williams is Innocent:

Williams has Served Over 17 Years for a Rape he Did Not Commit; Attorneys Call for Immediate Release

Bradenton, Florida—On Monday, July 26, 2010, DNA Diagnostics Center, a nationally recognized forensic laboratory in Fairfield, Ohio, issued a report in the case of State of Florida v. Derrick Williams, which demonstrates Williams’ actual innocence of an August 1993 kidnapping and rape in Palmetto, Manatee County, Florida.

Upon an agreement by Williams’ attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida and the State Attorney, the court ordered DNA testing on the t-shirt worn by the assailant before the rape and left in the victim’s car at the end of the crime. The testing excludes Derrick Williams as the donor of the DNA on the inside of the collar of the assailant’s t-shirt, confirming that someone other than Williams raped the victim and left the t-shirt in her car. “After over 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the State should do the right thing and release this innocent man immediately,” said Williams’ attorney, Melissa Montle, staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF).

At Williams’ trial, the State made the assailant’s t-shirt the central piece of physical evidence against Williams, even though there was an indication even before trial that the shirt may have belonged to someone else. Before trial, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined that a “Negroid” hair found on the t-shirt could not have come from Williams. Williams was convicted when the jury failed to believe that scientific evidence or his unrefuted alibi evidence given by six different witnesses (he was at a family barbeque); instead relying on the inconsistent and contradictory eyewitness identification by the victim. “Today’s DNA results demonstrate conclusively that the victim was mistaken about who raped her and that Derrick is innocent,” said Montle.

According to the Innocence Project of Florida, witness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to 75% of the 255 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing nationwide.

Other important physical evidence, including the victim’s rape kit and the foreign “Negroid” hair from the assailant’s t-shirt, were improperly stored and unlawfully incinerated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MSO) in late 2003. Internal MSO memos indicate that, as early as 1996, leadership at MSO was made aware of poor climate control and mold issues in one of its storage facilities. Yet it never made any effort to move the evidence, examine it, or determine whether any pieces of evidence were salvageable. Instead, the evidence in the case of Derrick Williams and nearly 4,000 other criminal cases was summarily destroyed by mass incineration.

MSO denied the evidence damage and destruction to the press. It never informed defendants or defense attorneys in these cases about the destruction. The mass destruction was only revealed through the vigorous eighteen-month investigation of the Williams case by the Innocence Project of Florida. “The State simply threw away important evidence in Derrick William’s case and in thousands of other cases, and then pretended like it never happened. We now know that Derrick is innocent. How many others will never get the chance to prove their innocence because of this debacle?” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

For his part, Derrick Williams has been a model citizen in the Florida prison system. During his wrongful incarceration, he earned a GED and was an inmate supervisor for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE) refurbishing Department of Corrections vehicles and fire trucks for first responders nationwide. When informed of the results, Williams said, “It makes me extremely happy that it’s finally coming to an end. The results prove what I have said all along—I am innocent.”

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. IPF’s website is



Statement of Facts: State of Florida v. Derrick Williams

On March 19, 1993, Derrick Williams was convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, grand theft auto, and two counts of battery and was later sentenced to life in prison by the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County, Florida. Exactly 17 years later, on March 19, 2010, that same Court granted DNA testing of biological material on the assailant’s t-shirt. On July 26, 2010, a report was issued revealing DNA results that demonstrate Williams’ actual innocence.

The DNA: New DNA results reveal that DNA from the assailant’s skin cells and sweat on the inside collar of the assailant’s t-shirt came from someone other than Williams, thus confirming that someone other than Williams committed the kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, grand theft auto, and batteries, and left his t-shirt in the victim’s car. Williams’ attorneys, the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”), requested this DNA testing in 2009 and the State Attorney for the Twelfth Circuit agreed to the testing. The testing was paid for by IPF and performed at DNA Diagnostics Center, a private lab in Fairfield, Ohio.

The Crime: After she arrived home from work on August 6, 1992, the victim was kidnapped in her own car by an unknown black male and taken to a nearby orange grove where she was raped in the back seat. Before the rape occurred, the assailant removed the t-shirt he was wearing and told the victim to cover her face with the shirt. When the assailant exited the car to open the trunk, she escaped and drove home with the assailant’s t-shirt still in the car. Law enforcement collected the t-shirt for processing.

Williams was known to law enforcement in the area for property crimes leading them to include him in the photo line-up shown to the victim. Contrary to sound police procedure, two photos of Williams were included in the same photo line-up. After viewing the lineup with the suggestive double photo inclusion, the victim identified Williams as her attacker. Although Williams had an alibi, never confessed to the crime, and always maintained his innocence, police arrested him.

The Trial: The State’s case was based largely on the victim’s identification of Williams as her assailant and on evidence linking the t-shirt left in the car to Williams. In addition to the State’s evidence, the Defense called 7 alibi witnesses, including Williams himself, who were all sure that Williams was at a family barbecue at the time of the offense.

(1) Victim’s Misidentification: The traumatized victim was inconsistent with her description of her assailant and her description of how well she was actually able to see him. In fact, her best opportunity to see her assailant was when she first drove up to her house with her window cracked and he was standing on her porch 20 feet away. After that glimpse, her view was completely obstructed for the remainder of the crime—he had her in a head lock in the car before the rape and his t-shirt was used to cover her face during the rape. The victim’s physical description of the assailant also did not match Williams’ appearance. She initially described her assailant as between 5’6” and 5’8” with a scar on his gut whereas Williams is 5’11” and has a scar on his back. At trial, the victim changed her testimony to eliminate this discrepancy by stating that she did see a scar on her assailant’s back, even though she had testified unambiguously at her earlier deposition that she never saw her assailant’s back.

Even more telling was law enforcement’s preparation of a photo line-up which included 2 photos of Williams. This type of double photo inclusion is improper and inherently suggestive. After viewing the photo line-up with 2 photos of Williams, the victim identified Williams as her attacker, but was admittedly only 80% sure it was him. After a subsequent live line-up, she stated she was positive Williams was the perpetrator. DNA results now prove that someone other than Williams left the t-shirt in the victim’s car during the rape and that the victim’s tainted identification of Williams as her rapist was a mistake.

(2) The Assailant’s T-Shirt: The State’s Key Piece of Physical Evidence: It is undisputed that the t-shirt on which DNA testing was performed belonged to the assailant. More specifically, it was the State’s theory at trial that the assailant who raped the victim was wearing the t-shirt when he first met her and kidnapped her, took the t-shirt off and covered her face with it to prevent her from identifying him during the rape, and inadvertently left the t-shirt in the victim’s car when she managed to surprise him and escape. The State then attributed the t-shirt to Williams in order to convince the jury that he was the assailant. The victim herself identified the t-shirt as the assailant’s and it was admitted into evidence as State’s Exhibit 9A. In addition, Williams’ girlfriend made a pretrial statement saying that Williams owned a similar shirt but repudiated that statement at trial. The State continued to contend that the t-shirt belonged to Williams even though a “Negroid” hair extracted from the shirt, according to FDLE, could not have originated from Williams. DNA results now prove that the State’s theory that Williams was the assailant and left the t-shirt in the car, along with the evidence used to prove this theory, was simply wrong.

(3) Williams’ Alibi: In his defense, 6 witnesses, including family, friends, and neighbors, provided unrefuted testimony that Williams was at a barbecue at his mother’s house when the crime occurred. In addition, Williams took the stand in his own defense and testified that he was at the barbecue, he did not commit this crime, and the assailant’s t-shirt did not belong to him. DNA results now prove Williams’ alibi to be credible and his claims of innocence to be true.

Unlawful Destruction of Evidence: In addition to the assailant’s t-shirt, an abundance of other evidence was collected by law enforcement after the crime. This other evidence also could have been DNA tested to reveal the rapist’s identity and included (1) the victim’s rape kit, which contained semen; (2) floor mats from the victim’s car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; (3) Negroid hairs extracted from the assailant’s t-shirt; (4) Negroid hairs extracted from the car’s vacuumings; (5) the assailant’s white cloth left in the car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; and (6) the victim’s clothing worn during the rape. Unfortunately, each of these items (along with evidence from thousands of other cases) was negligently stored by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (“MSO”) in a storage unit that flooded. According to internal memos, the possibility of major water damage was known to MSO as early as 1996. MSO incinerated each and every single piece of evidence in this water damaged storage unit in 2003, without first performing a thorough review to determine the extent of the damage and whether evidence was suitable for future storage, and without notification to defendants or their counsel affected by the damage.

Conclusion: Unfortunately for Mr. Williams, who has spent 17 years in prison, this DNA evidence did not exist at the time of his trial. Now that the key piece of physical evidence has been analyzed using modern science, DNA testing proves that skin cells and sweat on the inside collar of the assailant’s t-shirt belong to someone other than Derrick Williams. Thus, the assailant’s t-shirt, which was once the lynchpin of the State’s case linking Williams to the crime, is now actually powerful, affirmative evidence of innocence.


Derrick Williams: Unlawful Destruction of Evidence

The Manatee County Sherriff’s office (“MSO”) destroyed evidence in thousands of Manatee County criminal cases, due to its improper storage and mishandling of the physical evidence.

During its routine investigation and review of Derrick Williams’ case, the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”) discovered that much of the evidence had been destroyed under mysterious circumstances. It appeared that MSO had not been open and honest about the circumstances which surrounded the destruction of evidence in Williams’ case. In addition, MSO would not produce the required contemporaneous documentation regarding the destruction.

Specifically, IPF sent its first formal public records request regarding evidence in Williams’ case on August 4, 2008 and received no response. On September 29, 2008, IPF called MSO in an attempt to follow up on the request and locate the evidence. At this time, IPF was told by the supervisor of the property room at MSO that MSO was not in possession of any evidence in the Williams case. MSO provided no documentation to prove this claim. On October 30, 2008, IPF was able to reach the supervisor of the MSO Crime Lab who stated that any and all evidence and destruction orders would be in the possession of the property room. So, on November 3, 2008, IPF followed up with the supervisor of the property room who on this date stated that the Williams evidence was either destroyed or in “the boxes” but that these “boxes” were in the process of being moved and it would be months before she could locate “the boxes” or the destruction orders for the Williams evidence. Unwilling to wait months, IPF sent a renewed public records request on November 25, 2008, laying out the conflicting information received up to that point from MSO.

On December 5, 2008, IPF received a written response from Major Keith Stewart at MSO stating that it was possible that the Williams evidence was destroyed when the entire contents of one MSO storage unit, the First Union Bank vault (“vault”), was lost due to water and mold, but this had not yet been determined. This was the first that IPF had heard about possible water damage. The Major also stated that if it was discovered that the evidence was indeed destroyed by the water damage, documentation would be provided to IPF. A second response from Major Stewart was received on the same date, December 5, 2008, stating that the Williams evidence was indeed in the vault that was damaged by water and mold and any and all evidence in that facility was completely destroyed. This destruction of an entire MSO storage facility occurred between the months of November and December 2003 by burning the evidence in an incinerator.

In response to Major Stewart’s second letter purportedly confirming the destruction of the Williams evidence, IPF sent another letter on December 19, 2008 requesting proof of destruction pursuant to Florida Statutes and requesting a complete list of all of the evidence that was destroyed in the Williams case. On December 23, 2008, still troubled by this purported mishandling and destruction of valuable evidence, IPF followed up with a written request to MSO specifically for contemporaneous destruction orders, an itemized list of evidence destroyed, written confirmation that a thorough search for the evidence was performed, and a complete list of all of the cases in which evidence was destroyed in November-December 2003.

On January 2, 2009, IPF received a response from MSO General Counsel acknowledging receipt of the recent requests and promising to continue to work to provide the requested documents and information. During a call with MSO General Counsel on January 21, 2009, IPF learned that all of the requested information was in existence and would be put together within a few weeks. On February 25, 2009, MSO General Counsel provided IPF with the Williams’ case file and documentation regarding the destruction of the Williams evidence. On this date, IPF was assured that it would receive a complete list of all cases in which evidence was destroyed due to water damage in the vault once it was compiled. MSO provided this list of thousands of cases on March 18, 2009. After over a year and a half of haggling, IPF received all of the information it requested from MSO. During this same timeframe, MSO was patently denying to the press that a flood or water damage occurred in any of its storage facilities and apparently failed for over five years to notify anyone outside of MSO that the mass destruction of evidence occurred.

Unfortunately, the information received by IPF proved that, indeed, the invaluable Williams evidence was destroyed by incineration due to improper storage and mishandling by MSO. This evidence included (1) the victim’s rape kit, which contained semen; (2) floor mats from the victim’s car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; (3) Negroid hairs extracted from the assailant’s t-shirt; (4) Negroid hairs extracted from the car’s vacuumings; (5) the assailant’s white cloth left in the car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; and (6) the victim’s clothing worn during the rape. IPF believed in Williams’ innocence and pursued DNA testing of the only 2 pieces of evidence still in existence—the assailant’s t-shirt and the victim’s pantyhose used as a ligature.

Not only was MSO’s avoidance of the truth and resistance to providing proper documentation a problem, but included in the documentation ultimately provided to IPF was proof that MSO knew of the possibility of water damage in the vault, yet did nothing to prevent it. In an internal MSO memorandum dated October 24, 1996, the supervisor of the property room noted the possibility of a major problem with water/sewage damage of evidence in certain areas. Yet, it appears that no action was taken to address this problem because in July 2001 the supervisor of the property room in two memorandums requested authorization to destroy evidence in hundreds of cases in the vault noting that “all of the cases” in the vault “have built up a lot of mold/mildew which is a hazard to your health.” It is disturbing to note that MSO requested destruction of this evidence without taking any steps to remediate the damage or move the evidence. On May 17, 2002, the property supervisor requested that photographs be taken of the damaged evidence in the vault in order to bolster the request for destruction. Again, the request was for photographs, not for retrieval or remediation of the evidence. On May 12, 2002, citing a non-functioning dehumidifier, an MSO memorandum stated that the evidence in the vault should be removed and disposed. Finally, an MSO memorandum dated October 16, 2002 noted that while “Operation Vault Clean-out” was to begin on July 23, 2002, a health problem required MSO to push the cleaning back to October 2002.

Never in any of these internal memoranda does anyone associated with MSO even consider that the evidence should be sorted through, that some of it may still be in good, usable condition, that some of it may be exculpatory, or that contemporaneous records should be made of its destruction. Nor do they consider notifying the criminal defendants or attorneys involved. Even after the public became aware of this improper and unlawful mass destruction of evidence, MSO downplayed the importance of the destroyed evidence and asserted that the destruction was harmless because all of the lost evidence was for cases that had already gone through the legal system. Derrick Williams’ case “had already gone through the legal system.” In fact, the State had knowledge of the existence of exculpatory evidence in the Williams case, namely a Negroid hair from the assailant’s t-shirt that FDLE determined before trial could not have originated from Derrick Williams, and still unlawfully disposed of this evidence as part of its mass destruction of evidence.

This improper storage and unlawful destruction affected thousands of Manatee County defendants. New DNA test results now demonstrate that one of them—Derrick Williams—is innocent. It is frightening to consider how many more are innocent but will be unable to prove their innocence due to this unlawful mass destruction of evidence in Manatee County.

Lawyers: DNA test exonerates Manatee man

Lawyers: DNA test exonerates Manatee man

By ROBERT NAPPER and DUANE MARSTELLER - Herald Staff Writers Buzz up!

BRADENTON — New DNA testing has revealed that a Manatee man convicted of a 1992 kidnapping and rape should be released from prison because he is innocent, his lawyers said Monday.

The life sentence of Derrick Williams, of Palmetto, should be vacated based on new DNA testing, attorneys with the Innocence Project of Florida say. They plan to hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. today in a courthouse courtyard in advance of filing a motion with the Manatee clerk of court.

In March 1993, a jury found Williams, now 47, guilty of the rape and kidnapping of a woman Aug. 6, 1992, in a Palmetto orange grove. Williams maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and now the Innocence Project says it has the evidence to prove it.

Testing of DNA on a shirt entered into evidence during Williams’ trial — which the victim claimed her attacker was wearing at the time of her rape — excludes Williams, said Innocence Project attorney Melissa Montle.

“The DNA excludes Derrick Williams and absolutely exonerates him,” Montle said.

The Innocence Project entered Williams’ case in July 2009, when it asked a Manatee County Circuit Court judge to allow DNA testing.

Prosecutors initially opposed the request, saying there was little evidence — namely a T-shirt the assailant wore and the victim’s pantyhose, used to tie her wrists — still in existence.

The rest, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, were destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room in 2001.

After the press conference, during which Williams’ family members are expected to speak, Williams’ attorneys will file the motion with the Manatee clerk of court, and deliver by hand a copy to the Manatee State Attorney’s Office.

Montle said the project sought a meeting to discuss with Manatee prosecutors the new DNA findings but were rebuffed.

That’s because the state plans to fight in court the motion to vacate Williams’ sentence, according to Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky.

“Our meeting will be held in a court of law,” he said.

The presence of DNA other than Williams’ on the shirt does not exonerate him of the crimes, Brodsky said.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Monday that other evidence implicates Williams, including the victim pulling his picture out of a photo lineup.

Brodsky declined to discuss the facts of the case, citing the pending motion. But court documents filed by the state in response to the Innocence Project’s request for DNA testing say the genetic material on the shirt is not enough to prove Williams innocent.

“Even if DNA foreign to the defendant and victim were found on the T-shirt or the pantyhose, that fact alone would not exonerate the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Spencer Rasnake wrote in the state’s response. “These items were susceptible to DNA transfer prior to the assault and any foreign DNA on the items would not prove or disprove the assailant’s identity.”

Innocence Project attorneys countered, saying they wanted to test the shirt’s collar and armpits, areas that were less likely to pick up stray DNA.

Both sides ultimately settled, and Manatee County Circuit Judge Debra Riva ordered the DNA testing in March of this year, court records show. Montle said the project had hoped that the state would not ask for a hearing on the motion expected to be filed today.

“We hope we won’t have to go there, we hope the state does the right thing,” she said.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project are not only taking aim at the state’s case against Williams, but Montle also expressed concern over the destruction of evidence during the flood of the sheriff’s evidence room. In the flood, several pieces of evidence in Williams’ case were destroyed.

Montle claims sheriff’s officials did little to salvage evidence lost in the flood, including items from Williams’ case.

“Our concern started to grow when we received the whole list of everything lost in literally thousands of cases,” Montle said. “There was no apparent effort to see if some of it would be salvageable.”

Steube denied that.

“We made every effort to find any evidence that could be recovered. We were very upset that the evidence was lost to an event we had no control over,” the sheriff said.

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project has informed Williams, who is incarcerated in a Hardee County prison, that the testing excluded him as the source of the DNA on the shirt.

“He was emotional, happy and thrilled. Now he is just waiting for the state to do the right thing,” Montle said.

Also expected at today’s news conference is James Bain, who spent 35 years in Florida prisons before he was exonerated in December after DNA evidence showed he was innocent of a 1974 rape.

The Innocence Project also was involved in that case.

DNA evidence may free man after 17 years

DNA evidence may free man after 17 years
T-shirt that was key evidence in prosecution could now exonerate him
Derrick WIlliams

By Todd Ruger

Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 12:54 a.m.

MANATEE COUNTY - The same gray T-shirt that helped put Derrick Williams of Palmetto in prison for life on a rape conviction in 1993 has resurfaced as the piece of evidence that may exonerate him.

A woman escaped from the rape with her attacker's gray T-shirt, and she identified Williams in court as the man who took off his shirt to cover her face during the attack. Williams' girlfriend also told the jury that he left home that day wearing a gray shirt but returned with a red one.

But on Monday, Williams' attorneys revealed that new DNA tests of sweat and skin cells on the inside of the shirt collar did not come from Williams. They say the results prove Williams is innocent, and that he has spent the past 17 years in prison on a wrongful conviction.

"The T-shirt has the DNA of the perpetrator, and it's not our guy," said Melissa Montle, staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida. "It's really, really good news."

Williams' attorneys will file motions today to vacate his kidnapping and rape convictions and life prison sentence. The new lab results sent to prosecutors Monday exclude Williams from being a contributor to a mixture of DNA found on the inside of the gray shirt's collar -- where skin and sweat from the wearer would collect.

Twelve people in Florida -- and 255 nationwide -- have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, which has advanced to allow testing on hair and even degraded substances since Williams went to prison, said Seth Miller, the Innocence Project executive director.

"We had another case just like this in Brevard County, and that gentleman was exonerated after 27 years in prison," Miller said. "We think we should have the same result here."

The Innocence Project called on prosecutors to immediately agree to release Williams. But a local prosecutor said the new evidence does not prove Williams' innocence, and said the state will ask for a hearing before a judge to discuss it.

Williams was informed of the results in prison and, according to the Innocence Project, said: "It makes me extremely happy that it's finally coming to an end. The results prove what I have said all along -- I am innocent."

Police accused Williams, now 47, of abducting the 25-year-old woman from her Palmetto home, forcing her into her car and driving her to an orange grove to rape her.

Williams testified on his own behalf at trial. Relatives told the jury he was eating chicken and drinking beer with them at a family barbecue at the time of the attack.

Labs create a profile from a suspect's DNA by using 13 locations on the DNA that are known to vary from person to person. It is then compared to a profile of DNA taken from evidence. Any difference in any one of the locations means there is no match and the suspect therefore could not have left the DNA.

At the time of his arrest, Williams offered to give blood and saliva samples. But there was no sperm found to compare the genetic material, and DNA techniques used to find samples on evidence were not known then.

That meant the case was largely based on the victim's identification of Williams, but her description of her assailant differed from Williams and her story had several inconsistencies. Misidentification is often the cause of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the Innocence Project said.

Law enforcement prepared a photo line-up that included two pictures of Williams -- which is inherently suggestive -- and the victim said she was 80 percent sure Williams was her attacker, the Innocence Project says.

The victim did a live line-up later and said she was sure it was Williams. Her best opportunity to see her attacker was with her car window cracked with the man on the porch 20 feet away -- she said he had her in a headlock or with the shirt on her head the rest of the time, the Innocence Project said.

The victim said her attacker was 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8 with a scar on his gut, whereas Williams is 5-11 with a scar on his back. She changed her testimony at trial to say the scar was on her attacker's back, even though she had told investigators she never saw her attacker's back.

The state also contended the shirt belonged to Williams even though the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had used a microscope to determine a hair extracted from the shirt could not have been Williams', the Innocence Project says.

The Innocence Project sought to test that hair and other evidence in Williams' case, such as the car's floor mats, the rape kit and the victim's clothing during the rape.

But those items were destroyed by the Manatee County Sheriff's office after a 2003 water leak in an evidence storage facility, along with evidence in about 3,600 other criminal cases.

Miller said there was a good chance they would have been able to find DNA evidence to test on those other items to help further show Williams' innocence.

That is important because if the conviction and sentence are vacated, the next step procedurally is a retrial. Prosecutors would not have much of the evidence from the case since it was destroyed.

At the time of his conviction, Williams was already a felon, and had been accused and acquitted of a rape years earlier.

A woman said two men abducted her car from the parking lot of a north Manatee County convenience store in 1980, drove her to an orange grove and raped her.

In that case, the woman identified Williams and another man as her attackers; the other man was in jail at the time of the rape and Williams' relatives said he was home sleeping at the time.