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Family rallies to proclaim Palmetto convict's innocence (with video)

MANATEE — He doesn’t know some of the youngest members of his family. He never got the chance to say goodbye to his father.

Derrick Williams, 47, has been in prison for the past 17 years, serving a life sentence after he was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman Aug. 6, 1992 in Palmetto.

But Williams has always maintained his innocence. Now, based on new DNA testing of the two remaining pieces of evidence in the case, the Innocence Project of Florida agrees.

Attorneys with Innocence Project of Florida, a legal non-profit organization dedicated to proving prisoners’ innocence through DNA testing, filed a motion Tuesday to vacate Williams’ conviction. Innocence Project paid for the DNA testing at a private lab in Ohio.

“My grandfather went to his grave without being able to see his youngest son for the last time,” said Tawanda Means, Williams’ niece, who spoke on behalf of the family at a press conference Tuesday outside the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Instead of attending the funeral, Williams had to write a letter, which was read aloud at the service and placed in his father’s casket.

His youngest relatives are strangers.

“They don’t know Derrick. They don’t know what it’s like to give him a hug,” Means said. “They don’t know what it’s like to see him face to face.”

A re-opening of the case could also have a big effect on the life of the victim.

Cathy Wilson, a licensed mental health counselor and manager of the rape crisis program at Manatee Glens, said while rape survivors often move forward, they never forget the trauma they experienced.

“For anyone who has had a case overturned, that can bring them back to that night ... and really create difficult times for them to deal with,” Wilson said. “I don’t think anyone wants someone to go to prison if they aren’t guilty. If this is the person who hurt her, though, it could be really hard to take.”

Prosecutors plan to ask for a hearing and have 30 days to reply to Williams’ motion. It’s possible Williams could be acquitted or the case could be re-tried.

“We’ll be very happy to prove all of this in court if that’s what it takes,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project.

Williams was convicted in 1993 of abducting the woman as she parked her car at her Palmetto residence Aug. 6, 1992.

The woman was forced into the passenger seat of her vehicle. Her attacker drove to 49th Street East, parked between some trees in an orange grove and told her to remove her jewelry before ordering her to the back seat, court documents show.

The woman tried to talk the attacker out of what he was doing, but he became enraged and started beating her with his fists. He went on to tie her up using her pantyhose.

He got out of the car with the engine running. The woman was able to free her hands and get behind the wheel to drive away, documents show.

Williams was arrested after the woman picked his photo out of a photo pack that contained his picture twice by mistake.

Evidence collected in the case included a rape kit, the assailant’s T-shirt, the woman’s pantyhose used to bind her, the woman’s jacket, hair from the T-shirt, and the victim’s blood, saliva and hair samples collected for comparison, according to documents.

But most of the evidence was destroyed while it was in storage at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office from water and mold. The damaged evidence from several thousand cases, including Williams’, was discovered in July 2001 and later destroyed using an incinerator in 2003, according to the motion.

The only items available for testing were the victim’s pantyhose and the assailant’s T-shirt.

Those items were held by the clerk of courts office because they were entered into evidence, Miller said. New DNA testing was ordered on the items March 19 and was completed on Monday. Evidence tested included skin cells and sweat from the inside collar of the assailant’s shirt, according to the motion.

Lab results from Florida Department of Law Enforcement also showed Williams’ hair sample was “microscopically different” compared to the hair found on the assailant’s shirt, according to a report dated March 1993.

Williams’ DNA was not found on the shirt, but instead another male profile was found, according to the motion.

“Even if someone else wore the shirt, it wouldn’t remove his DNA,” Miller said. “Wearing that shirt on a hot summer day, you’re going to leave your skin cells and DNA on that shirt.”

But Chief Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky said the lack of DNA on the T-shirt does not necessarily prove Williams’ innocence.

“These items were susceptible to DNA transfer prior to the assault and any foreign DNA on the items would not prove or disprove the assailant’ identity,” prosecutors have argued, according to court documents.

The 1992 case wasn’t the first time Williams had been accused of abducting and raping a woman.

In June 1981, Williams was acquitted of charges he sexually assaulted an 18-year-old Palmetto woman who identified him through a photograph as her attacker.

She testified that she was abducted after two men stopped to help her fix a flat tire on her car in August 1980 in the 2300 block of U.S. 41. She said Williams and another man dragged her to their car and drove on Canal Road to a secluded area, according to sheriff’s reports. They threatened to beat her with a hammer if she screamed.

Jurors acquitted Williams, who was the only man charged in the case, because they felt there was not enough evidence.

At about the time of the rape conviction in 1993, Williams was also found guilty of several counts of forgery and grand theft for which he received a 3 1/2-year prison sentence.

In both rape cases, multiple family members provided alibis for Williams.

In the 1992 case, several family members told investigators Williams was at a family barbecue.

Means said her family has been the subject of ridicule and has had their names dragged through the mud since Willliams’ conviction.

“It’s like gangrene. It just eats away and eats away at your skin,” Means said. “What is it that we can do? We’re not a wealthy family, but we have a lot of love here.”

The family wrote to the Innocence Project in 2008 asking for help. Each year, the organization receives about 1,200 requests from prisoners and families asking for representation.

In Florida, a total of 12 prisoners have been exonerated through DNA evidence, Miller said. The Innocence Project of Florida, which began in 2003, aided with nine of those cases, he said.

During his incarceration, Williams has earned his GED and has been an inmate supervisor for Prison Rehabilitation Industries and Diversified Enterprises, which refurbishes fire trucks for first responders nationwide, according to the Innocence Project website.

Florida’s most recent DNA exonoree, James Bain, attended the press conference in support of Williams.

Bain was exonerated after he served 35 years in prison for a rape that took place in 1974. Bain has served the longest time by any of the 255 DNA exonorees nationwide.

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