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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

DNA frees man after 21 years

This article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 23, 2007:

DNA frees man after 21 years
Fulton district attorney agrees with Georgia Innocence Project; Willie O. Williams will be released from prison today.

By Bill Torpy
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Willie O. Williams will be released from prison today after serving more than 21 years for a crime he did not commit.

"We are convinced today Mr. Williams is not responsible for this," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced Monday at a brief news conference outside the courthouse in Atlanta.

Deputies will retrieve Williams from the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in South Georgia and drive him five hours to Atlanta, where he will be processed at the Fulton County jail and released on a recognizance bond. Howard said Williams, 44, has been a model prisoner and will be officially cleared within two weeks.

Williams was convicted of raping a woman on April 5, 1985, in Sandy Springs based on eyewitness testimony of the victim and another woman who was attacked five days later.
But DNA tests conducted on behalf of the Georgia Innocence Project indicated last week that Williams did not commit that rape. Howard reviewed the group's data before making Monday's announcement.

Upon hearing the news, Michael Schumaker, Williams' defense attorney from 1985, said: "DNA doesn't lie. What can you say? The system worked."

Schumaker said he was troubled by the case for years.

"Thank God for the Innocence Project," he said. "Thank God for the character of Mr. Williams, who sat there for 21 years knowing he's innocent."

Howard said his office has started an investigation "to find out who committed this crime. We hope to take this person into custody."

Prosecutors on Monday asked GBI Crime Lab technicians to search the lab's vault for a rape swab from a separate attack that occurred in June 1985, according to Ted Staples, manager of forensic biology section at the crime lab.

Prosecutors want to use the swab to get a DNA sample of a convicted rapist who has since been released from prison. They will see if that DNA matches samples collected from the rape kit in the Williams case. That DNA technology was not available at the time of the crimes.

Another man was convicted of a similar rape at a nearby apartment complex that occurred June 17, 1985, when Williams was already in jail. The second man's name was brought up as a suspect in court by Williams' defense attorney 20 years ago, and Georgia Innocence Project officials had asked prosecutors to match samples from the two cases.

In the April 1985 rape that Williams was convicted of, the victim was approached by a man as she tried to get out of her car in a parking lot at an apartment complex on Roswell Road. The man put a gun to her head and ordered her to move over. He then drove to a nearby dead-end street, where he raped and sodomized her. Afterward, he drove her car back to the parking lot and ran away.

The man suspected by the Georgia Innocence Project lived on Roswell Road. In the June 17, 1985, attack, the man sneaked up on the victim in a Roswell Road apartment parking lot, forced open her car door, held a pistol to her, drove her to another area and raped her. After the attack, the man drove her back to her complex and fled. The man pleaded guilty to that attack and was sentenced to four years.

Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project, said DNA tests of the June 1985 rape and the Williams case could fairly quickly determine if the other suspect committed the other crime.

Asked if prosecutors were looking at the June 1985 rape sample, Howard nodded yes and said, "We're looking at all the circumstances. It might be one of the circumstances."

On Saturday, Howard said the victim of the April 1985 rape remained convinced Williams was her attacker. He did not address that Monday.

Maxwell said a new suspect can be charged in the Williams case because the statute of limitations on rape is renewed when new evidence comes to light.

Williams was victimized by a confluence of bad circumstances in 1985, including the victim telling a jury that she was certain he was the rapist.

But two decades later, Williams benefited from a different set of circumstances that allowed the evidence to still exist.

In the late 1990s, the crime lab purged evidence, returning some to police agencies, Staples said. But for some reason, the rape swabbings from the 1980s were not returned. Those boxes were later marked to be destroyed, Staples said. But again they were not, and the GBI kept them after a 2003 state law mandated that DNA evidence be kept to free those wrongly accused and to find criminals in unsolved cases.

Maxwell, of the Georgia Innocence Project, stood near Howard's news conference with Cliff Williams, a Georgia State University law school student who did much of the legwork in retrieving the Williams case evidence.

"Holy cow, I didn't expect [Williams' release] this quick," said Maxwell, who said she was going to bring Williams back to her office today and —- among other things —- "introduce him to the world of $4 Starbucks coffee."

She lauded Cliff Williams —- no relation to Willie Williams —- for his dogged work in the case. "Before he ever becomes a lawyer, he's already done the best thing he's ever going to do," she said.

He smiled and said he would be on hand for Willie Williams' release. "I'll miss class tomorrow," he said.

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