Lawyers: DNA test exonerates Manatee man

BRADENTON — New DNA testing has revealed that a Manatee man convicted of a 1992 kidnapping and rape should be released from prison because he is innocent, his lawyers said Monday.

The life sentence of Derrick Williams, of Palmetto, should be vacated based on new DNA testing, attorneys with the Innocence Project of Florida say. They plan to hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. today in a courthouse courtyard in advance of filing a motion with the Manatee clerk of court.

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.

Testing of DNA on a shirt entered into evidence during Williams’ trial — which the victim claimed her attacker was wearing at the time of her rape — excludes Williams, said Innocence Project attorney Melissa Montle.

“The DNA excludes Derrick Williams and absolutely exonerates him,” Montle said.

The Innocence Project entered Williams’ case in July 2009, when it asked a Manatee County Circuit Court judge to allow DNA testing.

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.

The rest, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, were destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room in 2001.

After the press conference, during which Williams’ family members are expected to speak, Williams’ attorneys will file the motion with the Manatee clerk of court, and deliver by hand a copy to the Manatee State Attorney’s Office.

Montle said the project sought a meeting to discuss with Manatee prosecutors the new DNA findings but were rebuffed.

That’s because the state plans to fight in court the motion to vacate Williams’ sentence, according to Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky.

“Our meeting will be held in a court of law,” he said.

The presence of DNA other than Williams’ on the shirt does not exonerate him of the crimes, Brodsky said.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Monday that other evidence implicates Williams, including the victim pulling his picture out of a photo lineup.

Brodsky declined to discuss the facts of the case, citing the pending motion. But court documents filed by the state in response to the Innocence Project’s request for DNA testing say the genetic material on the shirt is not enough to prove Williams innocent.

“Even if DNA foreign to the defendant and victim were found on the T-shirt or the pantyhose, that fact alone would not exonerate the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Spencer Rasnake wrote in the state’s response. “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’s identity.”

Innocence Project attorneys countered, saying they wanted to test the shirt’s collar and armpits, areas that were less likely to pick up stray DNA.

Both sides ultimately settled, and Manatee County Circuit Judge Debra Riva ordered the DNA testing in March of this year, court records show. Montle said the project had hoped that the state would not ask for a hearing on the motion expected to be filed today.

“We hope we won’t have to go there, we hope the state does the right thing,” she said.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project are not only taking aim at the state’s case against Williams, but Montle also expressed concern over the destruction of evidence during the flood of the sheriff’s evidence room. In the flood, several pieces of evidence in Williams’ case were destroyed.

Montle claims sheriff’s officials did little to salvage evidence lost in the flood, including items from Williams’ case.

“Our concern started to grow when we received the whole list of everything lost in literally thousands of cases,” Montle said. “There was no apparent effort to see if some of it would be salvageable.”

Steube denied that.

“We made every effort to find any evidence that could be recovered. We were very upset that the evidence was lost to an event we had no control over,” the sheriff said.

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project has informed Williams, who is incarcerated in a Hardee County prison, that the testing excluded him as the source of the DNA on the shirt.

“He was emotional, happy and thrilled. Now he is just waiting for the state to do the right thing,” Montle said.

Also expected at today’s news conference is James Bain, who spent 35 years in Florida prisons before he was exonerated in December after DNA evidence showed he was innocent of a 1974 rape.

The Innocence Project also was involved in that case.