TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A former Florida death row inmate imprisoned nearly 43 years for a crime authorities now say he didn't commit would collect more than $2 million in compensation under a bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate.
After their unanimous vote, senators rose to their feet and applauded as Clifford Williams, 76, stood in the visitors gallery above the Senate floor. He held his wife's hand and gave lawmakers a wave.
“We cannot give him back his time, but we can certainly help him to move forward. He deserves that opportunity,” Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson said before the vote. “Today we can be enablers of the hopes and dreams and desires Mr. Williams certainly thought about for 43 years.”
Williams and his nephew, Nathan Myers, were convicted of the 1976 fatal shooting of Jeanette Williams and the attempted murder of Nina Marshall in Jacksonville. Williams was at first sentenced to death and spent four years on death row before being resentenced to life in prison. Clifford Williams and Jeanette Williams weren't related.
No physical evidence linked the men to the crime. Marshall, who has since died, was the only witness and her testimony contradicted evidence gathered by investigators that has since called her credibility into question.
Several witnesses told investigators that the men were at a party down the street when the shooting happened, but defense attorneys called no witnesses and neither the alibi nor the contradictory forensic evidence were presented to the jury.
Both men were released from prison last March. Myers was eligible for $2 million in compensation under state law, but Williams isn't because he was previously convicted of two unrelated felonies. That's why lawmakers need to authorize the payment from the state's general revenue. A House version of the bill is ready for a full-chamber vote.
Gibson said she sponsored the bill to compensate Myers after meeting him and his family.
“When I met him, he was all smiles,” she said on the Senate floor. “Not a bitter sense at all. And I found that to be so encouraging and so uplifting for someone who spent 43 years of their life incarcerated for something they did not do. I can’t even imagine what that would be like ... When we make a mistake as a state, we have a duty to fix it.”
Williams displayed that same attitude after the vote, often smiling as he talked to a reporter about his experience. When the Senate finished for the day, several members congratulated him as they left the chamber.
“God blessed me,” Williams said about being taken off of death row. “He took and sent me out of that population.”
But his remaining time in prison was filled with pain.
“My mother and my father and four of my brothers died. Half my family died, but I thank God I got spared,” Williams said. “It's a blessing, man. I made it. I made it."