He didn’t do it: Exoneree Clifford Williams files claim for 43 years of wrongful incarceration

'Clean hands' provision stands in the way of compensation

Clifford Williams speaks in the Florida Capitol, where he may be eligible for $2.15 million in compensation for his wrongful murder conviction. For 43 years, Williams maintained he was innocent, and a team of exoneration attorneys and conviction-review prosecutors helped him prove it. Photo: Danielle Brown

A Jacksonville man innocent of the murder for which he served 43 years in state prison is free and may receive $2.15 million in compensation from the state of Florida for being wrongfully incarcerated.

Clifford Williams, exonerated in March 2019 with help from Florida’s first conviction integrity unit, was in the Florida Capitol Wednesday to see his claim for compensation move smoothly through its first legislative committee.

Existing state law leaves Williams ineligible for any compensation, despite being wrongfully deprived of decades of liberty. His claim has several more committees to clear in the House and Senate before the compensation would be granted.

Rep. Kimberly Daniels, Duval County Democrat, is sponsoring a claims bill for Clifford Williams. She is flanked by Rep. Bobby DuBose, Democrat from Broward

“How much can you give a man for taking away 43 years of his life? How many dollars can replace the pain, the grief, and the torment he endured, being an innocent man behind bars? There is no way that House Bill 6507 can make up for the birthdays, the holidays, and the special moments that Mr. Williams missed with his family and friends over these years. House Bill 6507 cannot replace the nights Mr. Williams spent on a hard bed on Death Row,” said Rep. Kimberly Daniels, Democrat from Duval County, a leading sponsor of Williams’ claim bill, speaking at press conference in the Capitol Wednesday.

Williams thanked God for helping him stay sane and alive while he was in prison.

“I thank God for keeping us from dying in that prison,” he said of himself and his nephew, who was convicted with him and also exonerated. “It was rough. Your family comes to see you. When it’s time, they’ve got to go. You know they’re coming back. Then, a lot of people’s families didn’t get a chance … they died before [their imprisoned loved ones] got a chance to go back to court. My mother and father passed while I was back there.”

State Attorney Melissa Nelson created Florida’s first Conviction Integrity Review unit.

Williams and his nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers, were convicted of fatally shooting Jeanette Williams (not related to Clifford Williams) in her bedroom in 1976. Clifford Williams, sentenced to death, was 34 years old at the time; Myers, sentenced to life in prison, was 18.

Florida’s first conviction integrity unit, created in January 2018 by 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, investigated the men’s claims of innocence and unraveled the case made against them. The unit was created to investigate credible claims of wrongful convictions.

Lead investigator Shelley Thibodeau found the convictions of Williams and Myers were entirely based on the testimony of one eyewitness, the victim’s partner, with no forensic evidence to corroborate it. Her team confirmed that Williams and Myers had solid alibis and that a man named Nathaniel Lawson confessed he was the one who killed Jeanette Williams in a drug dispute. Furthermore, a post-conviction ballistics report showed the bullets that killed Jeanette Williams came from outside her house, not from inside her bedroom, as the eyewitness claimed.

Seth Miller, director of the Innocence Project of Florida, talks about the wrongful incarcerations of Clifford Williams, at right, and his nephew H. Nathan Myers. Lawmakers backing compensation for Williams include Rep. Kimberly Daniels, at right. Photo: Danielle Brown

Innocence Project of Florida attorneys Seth Miller and Krista Nolan represented Myers in overturning his  conviction, and Holland & Knight attorney George “Buddy” Schulz Jr.  represented Williams, all pro bono. Williams and Myers were set free in March 2019.

Miller, speaking at the press conference Wednesday, said, ” “I thought that when I turned 40 I would be done exonerating people who have been wrongfully incarcerated longer than I have been alive, but that is not the case still.”

Myers was eligible for compensation for his wrongful incarceration but Williams was not, being disqualified by a “clean hands” provision in state law, requiring that a claimant has no more than one prior felony. Williams had two.

House Special Master Jordan Jones, appointed to evaluate Williams’ claim, concluded on Jan. 18, “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” and would qualify for compensation if not for the clean-hands provision.

Williams seeks $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully behind bars, or $2.15 million, and free tuition and fees for him to attend school.

The claim further would release Jacksonville law-enforcement officers and prosecutors from liability for wrongfully convicting the men.

An identical claim is sponsored in the Senate by Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville. Legislation to remove the clean-hands provision from Florida’s compensation statutes is pending in both chambers.

Florida Phoenix reporter Danielle Brown contributed to this report.