Monetary award to wrongly imprisoned man is a landmark for FL’s conviction review process

Clifford Williams, at the podium, and his wife, Leatrice, stand with supportive relatives, lawmakers and attorneys. He was released from prison with the help of Florida's first conviction integrity review unit, established by 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson. Photo: Laura Cassels

Clifford Williams, a Jacksonville man wrongly imprisoned for 43 years for a murder he did not commit, was granted $2.15 million in compensation from the state of Florida this month in a landmark case reflecting the work of a new kind of prosecutor.

In 2018, Melissa Nelson, state attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit, based in Jacksonville, established Florida’s first conviction review unit, whose mission is to look at convictions involving credible claims of innocence. Her team’s work set Williams free after 43 years in prison, including five on Death Row.

Since then, four other circuits in Florida have established conviction review units: the Broward County-based 17th Judicial Circuit, the Orange County-based 9th Judicial Circuit, the Hillsborough County-based 13th, and the Palm Beach County-based 15th.

A legislative effort (SB 260) to require all 20 of Florida’s judicial circuits to operate conviction integrity review units failed during the 2020 session.

There are now 61 such units across the country, including 22 established since Florida’s first one. They have led to the exonerations of 427 wrongfully convicted people so far, including 23 this year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law.

Nelson chose attorney Shelley Thibodeau to lead the 4th Circuit’s unit. By the end of 2019, the team had investigated Williams’ relentless claims of innocence, reviewed the evidence, and found the conviction to be deeply flawed.

Thibodeau concluded that Williams was innocent. She recommended the convictions against Williams and his nephew, co-defendant Hubert Nathan Myers, be overturned, and a judge concurred.

The men were set free on April 5, 2019.

Williams, 33 when he was charged with the 1976 murder of a Jacksonville woman, emerged from prison at the age of 76. Myers, then 18 and charged in the same murder, was released at age 61.

Upon their release, Williams’ legal advisers — the Innocence Project of Florida and attorney George Schulz Jr. of Holland & Knight — helped him file a claim for wrongful incarceration, but it initially was denied because Florida’s “clean hands” provision disqualified claimants who had more than one felony conviction before the one at issue. Williams had served prison time on two prior felonies.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, filed a bill authorizing a $2.15 million payment to Williams regardless of the clean-hands provision, stressing that Williams was wrongfully deprived of 43 years of normal life. And she persuaded fellow lawmakers to support it.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on June 9.