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 www.FloridaInnocence.org.
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.