If we go by television’s fictional world of law and order and CSI ingenuity at cracking cases, we may think that the criminal justice system is foolproof and that the presumption of innocence is merely a formality.
Unfortunately, the system contains flaws, and innocent people do get wrongly convicted. There is bad defense lawyering, eyewitness misidentification, prosecutorial misconduct, loss of evidence, chain-of-custody problems, unreliable scientific testing and other issues underlying a body of wrongful convictions.
Fortunately, for people in our state, there is the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF). The IPF has labored to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted people and has secured the release of 13 Florida men after DNA testing proved their innocence. Collectively, those men spent 259 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
In 2011, Derrick Williams was the 13th person exonerated in Florida through the IPF, having served 18 years for crimes he did not commit. He was convicted of kidnapping, sexual battery, robbery, grand theft motor vehicle, and battery following a violent attack on a Florida woman where the assailant drove her from her home to an orange grove and raped her. She escaped. Law enforcement collected her clothes, clothing left by the assailant, and a rape kit. None of it was tested for DNA. Derrick Williams did not fit the physical description given by the victim. The photographic lineup was unfairly suggestive. The assailant’s hair left on a shirt was inconsistent with the accused’s hair. Derrick Williams had multiple witnesses who provided an alibi, having seen him at a barbecue at the time of the kidnap-rape. Nonetheless, he was convicted of the charges and imprisoned solely on the victim’s flawed eyewitness identification.
The IPF sought the physical evidence in the case for DNA testing. Unfortunately, much of it had been destroyed due to the passage of time, including the hair and rape kit. However, the assailant’s shirt had been preserved, and a DNA test of it excluded Williams as the assailant. Derrick Williams was exonerated and finally became a free man.
Derek Byrd, of The Byrd Law Firm, volunteered pro-bono to assist the IPF in representing Mr. Williams. Mr. Byrd was at the prison the night Mr. Williams was released from prison.
Carelessness, mistake, mishandling of evidence, bias, rush to judgment all contribute to wrongful convictions. If you know someone who was unjustly convicted of a crime where further review of the evidence is likely to exonerate him, contact an unrelenting, aggressive defense attorney to talk about post-conviction remedies.