JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Two Jacksonville men who were convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1976 are now walking free.
The convictions and life sentences have been vacated as the result of an investigation done by the local State Attorney’s Office new Conviction Integrity Review Division. This CIR was the first established in Florida, and this is the first time their work has resulted in someone walking free.
“Justice encompasses seeing that the correct result occurs, ensuring that the guilty are convicted and appropriately punished, and ensuring that the innocent are not,” says the CIR report for this case.
In this case specifically, the two men involved -- Hubert Myers and Clifford Williams Jr. -- were serving life sentences for a 1976 double shooting where one woman died and another survived. Williams was 34 years old at the time, and his nephew, Myers, was 18 years old.
Not only are there several dozen people who vouched for the pair’s presence at a nearby party at the time shots were fired, but a different man reportedly confessed to the shooting, and ballistic evidence disputes the surviving victim’s account of events. The CIR Investigation notes that the victim’s account was the only foundation for the arrests.
The man believed to have actually been responsible for the shooting has since died, as has the surviving victim.
“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 of the guilt of the defendants,” says the investigative report.
A judge on Thursday vacated their convictions and sentences, saying it’s what justice demands. Williams and Myers shook hands and then shared a long hug, before emotionally going to reunite with family who crowded in to the courtroom to watch everything take place.
The shooting happened on Morgan Street, which is a few blocks west of Myrtle Avenue North and just north of West Beaver Street, in the New Town area. The two victims were dating, and they were sleeping in the same room when the shooting took place in the early morning hours of May 2, 1976. Jeanette Williams -- who is not related to Clifford Williams -- died instantly, but her girlfriend survived and was able to get outside and get someone to drive her to the hospital.
Myers and Clifford Williams were at a nearby birthday party at the time of the shooting, according to the CIR. Many people at that party told investigators they saw the men at the same time they heard shots being fired, but because the victim identified them as the suspects, the men were arrested.
The victim knew of the men because Williams had dated a former roommate of the deceased victim, even though he was married. That former roommate had gone to prison, but Williams continued to deal with rent and Myers would occasionally stay in the apartment. Because of that continued presence, both the deceased victim and her new girlfriend -- the surviving victim -- were familiar with the men.
Williams was a known heroin dealer, who owned a pool hall that Myers managed and who had had several prior encounters with police. While a motive for the shooting was not presented at trial, the CIR says the surviving victim was known to be a prostitute and drug user who would rip off drug dealers. The report says it appears a drug debt was one working theory, although the victim’s written statement apparently said it was over some missed rent.
The first trial -- which happened just a few months after the arrests -- resulted in a mistrial, because of an error. The second trial took place in September, and both men were found guilty. The jury recommended life in prison for both men, but the trial court overrode that decision for Williams and sentenced him to death. The Florida Supreme Court later overturned that and sentenced him to life, saying there were not enough aggravating factors to support a death sentence.
Since their arrest and through Thursday, both men have maintained their innocence.
Inconsistencies in the evidence
The CIR notes that the arrests were based almost entirely on the identification by the surviving victim, however there were inconsistencies among her statements over time and conflicts between her statements and the evidence.
First, the victim told investigators there were two shooters who both fired guns, because she saw the muzzles flash. Those shooters were inside of her bedroom and both emptied their guns, according to the victim.
Ballistics testing supports that only one gun was fired that night, and the defendants did not have gunshot residue on them. Additional evidence on scene supports that the shots were actually fired from outside of the apartment, through the bedroom window. That evidence includes the direction of tears in the screen the shots came through, the position of shattered glass in the room, and the path of the bullets through the bodies of the victims. Sound testing was also conducted to show that the shots would not have been heard at the nearby party, if they had been fired inside of the bedroom, as opposed to outside of the window.
Because of this, the CIR notes that the testimony is not only uncorroborated, but contradicted by the evidence. It appears investigators “grappled” with the inconsistencies, according to the CIR, but shifted to a posture around the shooter setting up the scene to make it appear the shots were fired from the window.
Many people also told investigators that they specifically remember seeing Williams and Myers at the party at the time the shots were fired. Additionally, they remembered Williams going outside after the shots to see if there was anything visible outside of where they were. He then reportedly came back inside and the party continued until someone else told them about the nearby police presence.
Additionally, the CIR says another man confessed to several people about the shooting, although that man died in 1994. In addition to those reported confessions, investigators confirmed his presence at the scene through various witness and police accounts.
There were also overall inconsistencies in how Williams and Myers acted at the scene, and how that compares to what a guilty person would do. For example, both men went to the scene when police got there, as did many people who were at the nearby party. The report says that Myers actually identified the deceased victim for police, but then stayed on the scene -- whereas if he had committed the shooting and realized one of the victims had survived, he likely would not have. He was also described as seeming genuinely distraught about the victim. Additionally, the report notes that Williams was arrested first, and specifically told Myers to contact his attorney. If the men had committed the shooting together, Williams could have expected Myers to soon be arrested as well, and therefore wouldn’t have given him something to do. Myers would also not have likely stayed on scene once he saw Williams get arrested, if he feared his own arrest.
The CIR says the defense attorneys didn't try to dispute how the shooting occurred, only who committed it. They built a strategy around discrediting the victim's identification by discrediting her, and determined the best way to do that was to perform the first and last closing arguments. Under trial rules at the time, that could be done if the defense did not present witnesses or enter evidence, so that is what happened in this case.
As such, the physical evidence that contradicted the victim’s testimony and the alibi witnesses were never presented to the jury.
“The trial strategy does not appear well reasoned given the plethora of witnesses and evidence available for the defendants’ case in chief,” the CIR Report says.
Some questions are raised in this report about the defense counsel, including that they never apparently followed up on a claim that there was an eyewitness who reported seeing a shooter at the scene. Judge Cox made it clear in court that this change in the convictions and sentences is not a ruling on the effectiveness of counsel. She went further to say that everyone who has been involved in this case, from inception to present, is well respected, and this does not change that.
The Conviction Integrity Review Division started in early 2018 as an initiative of State Attorney Melissa Nelson. A letter from Myers to the State Attorney’s Office initiated the review, and when they uncovered legitimate questions, they launched a formal investigation. That investigation has led to their belief that Myers and Williams would not be convicted, if the case had been presented to a jury today. Beyond just finding substantial reasonable doubt of their guilt, the CIR Report shows there was evidence to contradict it outright.
The CIR issues a recommendation to an Independent Audit Board at the conclusion of its investigation, and that Board verifies that the recommendation is supported by credible and substantial facts. The five-member panel made that determination in this case, which then put it to Nelson for a final decision. She was in court today along with the CIR Division Director Shelley Thibodeau to represent that State and hear the judge make the formal ruling.
“Although there is no definitive proof of innocence, such as DNA evidence, the panel agreed that there was sufficient credible evidence to support a finding that the defendants are, in fact, 'probably' innocent of the charges,” the Report says.
The Division was contacted by 204 people in 2018, according to the State Attorney’s Office. Sixty-eight people did not meet the criteria for further review, and the rest received petitions to inquire about a formal investigation. Of those, the State Attorney’s Office says 60 submitted the petitions and 14 investigations were launched.
Six investigations by the CIR Division resulted in a denial. This is the first to lead to vacated convictions.
Cox Media Group