BY DARA KAM, NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Clifford Williams says he relied on his faith during more than four decades behind bars, including five years on Florida’s Death Row.
Williams, now 77, gives God the credit for his release from prison, after state prosecutors found he and his nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers, were wrongly convicted in the 1976 Jacksonville murder of a woman and the attempted murder of her girlfriend.
After almost 43 years in prison, Williams was set free last year. But his bid for justice continues.
$2.5 million sought
Under a Florida law passed in 2008, people who have been wrongfully imprisoned and who can prove their innocence are entitled to $50,000 for every year they were incarcerated, up to a maximum of $2 million.
The law, however, excludes people like Williams who had prior felony convictions.
House and Senate Democrats, the Innocence Project of Florida and one of Tallahassee’s most influential law firms – Holland & Knight – are trying to convince lawmakers to authorize what is known as a “claim” bill that would pay Williams $2.5 million for the time he spent locked up.
Vote and apology
Clasping a silver cane and clad in a bright yellow tie, a frail Williams was present at a House Civil Justice Subcommittee hearing Wednesday as the panel took up the proposal (HB 6507), sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville.
But Williams received more than merely the panel’s unanimous vote in his favor.
“I want to apologize on behalf of the state of Florida. We can never give back your time,”
House Civil Justice Chairman Bob Rommel, R-Naples, told Williams, adding that he promised to “work hard” to ensure that the measure is passed.
When asked by a reporter what he thought of Rommel’s apology, Williams said: “God had to touch his heart. He sees where the wrong has been made right, and I thank God for that.”
Shortly afterward, Williams joined Daniels and other supporters – including Innocence Project of Florida Executive Director Seth Miller and Holland & Knight lawyers Mark Delegal and Larry Sellers – at a news conference to tout the claim bill and a separate measure that would do away with the “clean hands” provision in state law that restricts “automatic” compensation to wrongfully incarcerated people who do not have prior convictions.
“How many dollars can replace the pain, the grief, and the torment that he endured, being an innocent man behind bars?” Daniels said. “How much can you give a man for taking away 43 years of his life?”
The unanimous approval of Williams’ bill at its first vetting “sends a message loud and clear that the Florida House of Representatives cares,” Daniels told reporters.
Williams’ exoneration was due largely to the Conviction Integrity Review Division established by State Attorney Melissa Nelson in the 4th Judicial Circuit, made up of Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. Nelson created the division after her 2016 election.
A review of Williams’ case revealed that “multiple credible alibi witnesses” were not called to testify during his 1976 trial, House Special Master Jordan Jones wrote in a report on the claim bill.
“I find that claimant has successfully demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, that he is actually innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted in 1976,” Jones wrote in the eight-page report.
While Williams’ felony convictions for attempted arson in 1960 and robbery in 1966 make him ineligible for the compensation allowed in state law, “the Legislature is not bound by that process and may pass this claim bill regardless of whether claimant could otherwise obtain relief,” Jones noted.
The approval of the claim bill Wednesday was just the first step in what could be a lengthy process; claim bills can take years to pass.
The Senate version (SB 28), sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, has been referred to a special master and three committees. But Williams remains hopeful that supporters’ efforts on his behalf will be fruitful.“I just trusted God for those 43 years,” he said. “We can’t rush him.”