2 men wrongfully convicted of 1976 murder freed after 43 years behind bars
(ABC NEWS) There were bullet holes in the window screen and the curtains, but the main witness said the two shooters were inside and at the foot of her bed.
The witness said she saw the muzzle flashes from two guns, but ballistics testing said that the bullets at the scene were fired from only one gun.
People at a nearby party said they heard the gunshots, and if the shots were fired inside the bedroom, auditory testing said that wouldn't have been possible.
And there were dozens of people at that birthday party down the street from the shooting that would have testified that the suspects were at the party -– therefore providing an alibi- – that weren’t called as witnesses during the trial.
But these pieces of evidence and the shifting story of the witness were not considered during a two day trial in 1976, and two men landed in jail as a result. One was sentenced to death, and the other was sentenced to life in prison.
On Thursday, they walked free after a review of their case prompted the newly-formed Conviction Integrity Review (CIR) division of the State’s Attorney’s Office in Florida determined that they “no longer has confidence in the integrity of the convictions or guilt of the accused,” according to a report on the state's investigation.
Clifford Williams, who is now 76, and his nephew Nathan Myer, who is 61, had their convictions vacated. The last time they were free men, they were 33 and 18-years-old, respectively.
They each spent 43 years behind bars for a murder that not only did they not commit, but that someone else had confessed to years after the killing.
“I feel very happy, and very sad that it took 43 years,” said Margaret Good, the attorney who represented Clifford Williams during his appeal.
Good, who retired from law last year, said that she “had just started in the public defender’s office” months before she was assigned his case. She told ABC News that because various evidence -– including the ballistics data and witness testimony -– was not presented in the original trial, it was not part of the record and “in the appeal you only get what’s in the record.”
The murder in question was the May, 1976 shooting death of Jeanette Williams, who was not related to Clifford Williams but was renting an apartment from him when she was murdered.
Nina Marshall, who some witnesses said was in a romantic relationship with Jeanette Williams at the time, was in bed with her and was also shot by the assailant but survived and escaped the apartment and flagged down a passing car to get help.
The case largely rested on Marshall’s account of the shooting to police -– which, investigators note in the report, “changed significantly over time.”
Marshall was the one that said that there were two shooters inside the bedroom, and subsequently identified Williams and Myers as the shooters. The report notes that prior to the shooting Williams was a “well-known heroin dealer and had a significant record.”
Both men have maintained their innocence throughout the process, including on the morning of the shooting.
At one point, Myers – a recent high school graduate whom witnesses said had received a scholarship to play football in college –- was offered a deal if he testified against his uncle, but declined it, according to the state report.
Myers was the one who ultimately got himself and his uncle out of jail. After reading a newspaper article in prison about the creation of a unit in Florida to review wrongful state convictions, he wrote a letter detailing their case.
In that letter, he also included a copy of an affidavit from a man who said that another person –- Nathaniel Lawson, now deceased – had confessed to the 1976 murder.
“I just can’t imagine that,” Good said of the idea that Myers knew that someone else had confessed to the crime, but they were still the ones being held legally responsible.
The CIR unit released a 77-page report on the case and their subsequent review, which includes the accounts of dozens of witnesses who were at the party when the shots rang out.
Those witnesses, according to the report, placed Myers and Clifford Williams at the party when the shots rang out. The report also included the account of the man who heard Lawson’s confession and the findings of the investigation which were able to independently place Lawson at the scene.
"While no single item of evidence, in and of itself, exonerates Defendant Myers or Defendant Williams, 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," the report states.
"It is the opinion of the CIR that these men would not be convicted by a jury today if represented by competent counsel who presented all of the exculpatory evidence that exists in this case fort the jury's consideration," the report states.
Myers thanked the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project of Florida, who filed the motion necessary for their charges to be cleared and who helped in their representation.
“I lost almost 43 years of my life that I can never get back, but I am looking ahead and will focus on enjoying my freedom with my family,” Myers said in a statement released by the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Florida is one of 33 states that compensate individuals who were wrongly imprisoned and subsequently exonerated. The state stipulates that individuals can receive $50,000 per year that they were wrongfully convicted but with a cap of $2,000,000. The compensation law excludes anyone with either one prior violent felony or more than one non-violent felony.
Myers will be eligible for such compensation, but Williams will not: The Florida Times-Union reports that Williams had two prior felonies before the 1976 shooting.