Wednesday, July 28, 2010
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.