Over four decades ago, a Florida prosecutor put Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew Nathan Myers behind bars for a murder they didn’t commit.
Last month, one helped set them free.
The reversal represents the culmination of the efforts of Florida State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s first-in-Florida Conviction Integrity Review unit, along with a pile of evidence suggesting the men’s innocence. Their release is a credit to Nelson’s vow to be a different kind of prosecutor.
Its rarity serves as an indictment of the broader state of prosecution.
The 1976 conviction of Williams and Myers for murder provided, in many ways, an emblematic case for the value of—and need for—conviction integrity review units. Premised almost entirely on a single eyewitness account, the two men’s guilty verdict came from a jury that never heard about contradictory physical evidence or alibis.
The later confession by a different man to the murders likewise came too late for the jury to hear.
Nelson’s creation of Florida’s first conviction integrity review unit provided the catalyst necessary to break decades of bad luck and worse outcomes for Williams and Myers. Led by a former defense attorney, this unit was able to sift through the evidence, present it to a neutral board for review, and ultimately use it to persuade a judge to vacate the convictions.
But the unit’s efficacy in this case belies its fragile existence.
After the state initially granted Nelson’s office $380,000 to support prosecutorial exoneration efforts, it later stripped away all but $41,000 of the funding. This attempt by state leaders to display fiscal savvy only betrayed a foolish shortsightedness.
That’s because conviction integrity units don’t just prevent individuals from unjustly languishing in prison; they can also save a tremendous amount of taxpayer money. After all, it costs almost $22,000 to incarcerate someone for a year in Florida.
A unit that’s able to exonerate even a handful of individuals each year can likely shave enough off prison costs to cover its budget and then some. How many government programs can say that?
Likewise, these units are well suited to avoid the other boogeyman of progress: personality politics. Their focus on cold cases increases the chances that many of the players and passions at the heart of these cases have long since left, making it more likely that disinterested parties are the ones making the critical decisions.
It’s relatively easy, for example, for Nelson to admit to errors that were made on a case that was tried while she was in preschool.
Of course, as its name implies, our justice system ought to be about something above money or politics—namely, justice itself. One of the great powers of prosecutors, and one in which they rightly take pride, is their discretion. Unlike defense attorneys who must zealously advocate for a client regardless of that client’s guilt, prosecutors can reverse their position when the facts warrant it.
Prosecutors should take advantage of this fact. Their job is not necessarily to get the “win,” but to get things right.
Prosecutions can be misguided, verdicts illogical and laws unjust. That’s because prosecutors, juries and legislators, like everyone else, are fallible. Admitting our capacity for error through acts like exoneration or retroactive sentencing reductions simply acknowledges our humanity.
That should be viewed a sign of strength, not weakness.
If the justice system is ever going to live up to its name, then it needs more prosecutors willing to pursue exonerations with the same fervor as convictions. The case of Williams and Myers represents a great first step in that direction for Florida.
Prosecutors and those who fund their work should ensure it’s nowhere near the last.
Lars Trautman is a Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute and a former prosecutor. He welcomes readers’ comments.