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