A Duval County circuit judge on Thursday ruled that an uncle and nephew should be set free after sitting in prison for more than four decades for a murder that prosecutors now say the men almost certainly didn’t commit, a rare finding that overturns the convictions of a 1976 trial in Jacksonville.
The order to vacate the convictions of Clifford Williams and his nephew, Nathan Myers, stems from a recommendation made by Florida’s first-ever conviction integrity review unit, set up by State Attorney Melissa Nelson in 2018.
At its heart, the recommendation found that defense lawyers for Williams and Myers failed to present evidence to the jury that would’ve contradicted the single eyewitness prosecutors relied upon to convict the men of murdering Jeanette Williams in her bedroom in 1976.
“There is no credible evidence of guilt,” the State Attorney’s Office report says, “and likewise, there is credible evidence of innocence.”
The men, who had been brought to Jacksonville for the hearing, were waiting Thursday afternoon for final processing after the court order. Myers was 18 when he was arrested; Williams was 33. Today they are 61 and 76.
“You’re getting out,” said Krista Dolan, a lawyer with the Innocence Project of Florida who the State Attorney’s Office asked to represent Myers, “and it’s a relief, and it’s exciting, and it’s wonderful, but it’s after [nearly] 45 years of wrongful incarceration.”
Myers’ and Williams’ convictions came in a 1976 trial that had brought together a who’s who of Jacksonville’s legal community:
James Harrison, a defense attorney who would later challenge and beat an incumbent judge with a tough-on-crime message before being named the city’s general counsel.
Cliff Shepard, a notably harsh trial judge who would later become chief judge over Duval, Nassau and Clay counties.
And Hank Coxe, a young prosecutor who would go on to become president of the Florida Bar and one of the most prestigious criminal defense attorneys in the state.
Despite those elite attorneys handling the case, the trial exposed a justice system that placed too much emphasis on a single eyewitness and not enough on the mountain of evidence that contradicted her, the State Attorney’s Office would later say.
“In foregoing the forensics, the state relied on the testimony of one individual,” the State Attorney’s Office report concluded, “and it is upon this testimony alone that these two men are serving life sentences, in the face of overwhelming contradictory forensic evidence and alibi testimony.”
‘I AM INNOCENT’
The 1976 case is the first to come out of a conviction integrity review unit in Florida. Just weeks after taking office, State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced her intention to create the unit, which prosecutors in Orlando and Tampa later emulated. The idea behind such units is that prosecutors have a duty to continue investigating innocence claims even after a defendant is convicted.
The trial is in many respects a perfect illustration of the need for conviction-integrity units.
After reading a story in January 2017 about Nelson’s plans to create such a unit, Myers wrote her a four-page letter arguing his defense lawyer didn’t put forward dozens of alibi witnesses who said he wasn’t at the shooting.
Myers said while in prison he used records requests to find out forensic analysts had evidence the shooting couldn’t have occurred the way an eyewitness said. Near the bottom of the letter, he also mentioned the confession of another man who had later said he was responsible for the murder.
“I can only pray for the assistance of the Conviction Integrity Unit to prove I am innocent of having committed the crimes I was wrongly convicted of,” Myers wrote. ”... I was 18 years of age at the time of these crimes. Today, I am 59 years old — having spent forty-two years in prison for a crime I did not and could not have committed.”
Conviction Integrity Review Director Shelley Thibodeau was hired a year later to investigate claims like these, and as she would write in the report last month, every step along the way, she only found more evidence that pointed to Myers’ innocence.
A CASCADE OF EVIDENCE
The only thing that ever tied the two men to the murder was the testimony of Nina Marshall, who survived being shot in the neck that early morning. She was Jeanette Williams’ girlfriend and was lying in bed next to her at the time of the shooting. Marshall later died in 2001.
But hours after being shot in the neck, Marshall said Nathan Myers and Clifford Williams came into the bedroom and fired two guns at the women.
That testimony launched the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the two men. Police never found physical evidence, and prosecutors never presented any in court that would bolster her account.
But Thibodeau found a cascade of evidence, never presented to a jury, that contradicted Marshall’s testimony.
From the moment investigators arrived on the scene, they questioned how the shooting could’ve occurred inside the room. Yet with an eyewitness statement, police and the prosecutor looked past the evidence.
The forensics pointed to the bullets coming from one gun, fired from outside and through a window, rather than from inside by two guns, like Marshall had said.
Plus, dozens of attendees of the birthday party were adamant the men were with them.
And during the years the men spent in prison, Thibodeau would later find, investigators had missed a confession, one that tied the murder to another man who police had dismissed as a possibility likely due to a misunderstanding from written testimony.
When police first came to Morgan Street to investigate the death of Jeanette “Baldie” Williams, homicide detectives noticed the glass window next to the bed had a hole in it, with glass shattered onto the bed. There was residue around the window, holes in the window curtains, and the window screen was pushed from the outside to the inside.
Even though they recorded that evidence, and even though they’d send the window for testing — testing that would confirm gunshots went through the window from the outside— police and prosecutors chose to believe Marshall, who said she and her girlfriend were shot repeatedly from inside the cramped bedroom.
Even though ballistics testing said the six bullets came from a single revolver, police and prosecutors believed Marshall, who said the men fired two guns at the women.
Even though police found both men had no gunshot residue on their hands just hours after the shooting, no one trusted the about 40 witnesses who the two defendants said could testify that they were at a next door birthday party.
Instead, the prosecution rushed the case to trial two months after the shooting. Defense attorneys Jim Harrison and Keith Vickers never pushed for more time, and the defense attorneys ignored the evidence and ignored the alibi witnesses. They presented no witnesses and relied on a strategy focused around closing statements and making legal motions.
Then-Assistant State Attorney Hank Coxe offered Myers a plea deal — Coxe would later say he offered Myers five years if he testified against his uncle, but Myers remembered it as a two-year deal — but Myers refused to plead guilty.
When the case would later go to trial, Coxe would say the jury didn’t need to worry about the ballistics tests or gunshot residue or anything else. “When you have an eyewitness, you don’t need all that.”
The defense seemed to believe Marshall’s account was correct about how the shooting occurred. They only denied her account of who did the shooting.
Meanwhile, the prosecution framed the trial as a simple open-and-shut case for jurors, who seemed to agree. After two and a half hours, the jury found both men guilty.
“If I had lost a case like that, I might’ve quit,” said former Public Defender Bill White who reviewed the case as part of a State Attorney’s Office panel that recommended the office reverse the convictions. “I’m not sure [the defense attorneys] knew all the evidence. You don’t even have to look to the fact that someone confessed to the crime. This case stands on its own with the evidence that was available if defense counsel had used it and had pushed it. This was an easy case. But it was such a shame that we’re dealing with it 43 years later.”
Others said Harrison and Vickers were among the best defense attorneys in Jacksonville at that time. But White, who was defending death penalty cases at the same time, said that’s absolutely wrong. “They were good guys. They were not top of the line.”
While the jury wanted life sentences for the two men, Duval County Circuit Judge Cliff Shepard, who was the harshest judge in Duval County at the time according to an analysis of average sentences, overrode the jury and sentenced Williams to death, saying he could not “conceive of any more heinous, atrocious or cruel act than to enter someone’s home in the night while they are sleeping in their bed and shoot them to death.”
Since then, the men went through mostly fruitless appeals, though the Florida Supreme Court four years later overturned the death sentence, saying Williams should have gotten a life sentence like Myers.
Failed by their defense, it would take more than 40 years before prosecutors would circle back to help the men win their freedom.
By January 2018, when Thibodeau began her job leading the first-ever conviction review unit in Florida, she already had nearly 200 petitions from inmates across the state who had been writing the office with claims of innocence. But Myers’ was different. It was specific, and it included physical evidence.
Despite this case involving powerful attorneys — Coxe himself was instrumental in supporting Nelson’s election in 2016, while the two defense attorneys and the judge have since died — Thibodeau asked Myers to answer a series of questions to help her get an investigation started.
“I know you told me not to get my hopes up just yet, however for me the past forty-two (42) years all that I’ve been living on has been hope and faith that one day someone would take an interest in looking into my case,” Myers wrote her back. “And for your interest I thank you.”
During her investigation, Thibodeau discovered that another man who had been in the neighborhood that night, Nathaniel Lawson, told at least five people that he had killed Jeanette Williams and the two men in prison were innocent.
In interviews back in 1976, people said Lawson was at the scene at the time, and police even stopped the truck that Lawson was apparently in. But they only questioned two of the four people in the truck, and Lawson wasn’t one of them.
Thibodeau wrote the exhaustive report arguing that Williams and Myers were innocent.
“While no single item of evidence, in and of itself, exonerates Defendant Myers or Defendant Williams,” Thibodeau wrote, “the culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants.”
She then asked the Innocence Project of Florida and local lawyer Buddy Schulz to represent the men and use the report to file a motion to get the men released. Florida’s legal rules don’t allow prosecutors to file motions to vacate convictions.
And Nelson approached Coxe, who in an odd twist of fate was actually key to helping Nelson create the conviction review unit in the first place. Coxe said he believed the men should be released from prison, but he worried about the office calling them definitely innocent, a claim that he said goes too far.
Instead, the office’s report said there was substantial, credible evidence of innocence. There’s no legal definition of exoneration, but Myers’ and Williams’ case meets the definition of exoneration used by the National Registry of Exonerations.
Myers has been in prison so long that he married in 2005, despite never having spent a night with his wife outside of prison. He will move in with her in Orlando, while Williams will move in with a daughter in Jacksonville.
Social workers and therapists have already begun working with the two men to help them adjust to life outside of prison.
Myers might be able to get compensation from the state for the harm it did to him, capped at $2 million. But Williams, because he had two prior felony convictions, is barred from compensation under state law.
This story originally appeared at Jacksonville.com. It was shared to GateHouse Media's news sites in Florida.