Innocence Project demands release of Palmetto convict

BRADENTON — Dozens of relatives of Derrick Williams, incarcerated since 1993, met outside the Manatee County Courthouse this morning after The Innocence Project of Florida reopened his case, saying new DNA tests show he is not guilty of a 1992 kidnapping and rape.

Tawanda Means, Williams’ niece, spoke on behalf of the family, stating they are overjoyed and wait for the day Williams will be cleared of the charges and released from prison. They continue to rely on their faith, she said.

“He doesn’t want to sit there,” said Means. “He’s been saying he’s innocent the whole time. Bad things sometimes happen to good people.”

Williams, of Palmetto, was sentenced to life. Attorneys with The Innocence Project filed a motion with the Manatee clerk of court today, asking for Williams to be exonerated of the charges.

In March 1993, a jury found Williams, now 47, guilty of the rape and kidnapping of a woman Aug. 6, 1992, in a Palmetto orange grove. Williams maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and now the Innocence Project says it has the evidence to prove it.

His DNA was not collected from the collar of the shirt entered into the trial, his attorneys said.

Prosecutors initially opposed the request, saying there was little evidence — namely a T-shirt the assailant wore and the victim’s pantyhose, used to tie her wrists — still in existence.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky said the lack of DNA on the assailant’s shirt does not prove Williams’ innocence.

“We feel that a hearing is important,” Brodsky said.

The rest of the evidence, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, was destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room.

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

“It’s like gangrene. It just eats way 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 approximately 1,200 requests from prisoners and families asking for representation. The group uses DNA testing to check to see if prisoners are innocent of crimes they are convicted of.

“Without them, my uncle would have spent his life there,” Means said.

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