innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Perserverance pays off

This article appeared in Georgia's Macon Telegraph on January 26, 2007:

Perseverance pays off
Midstate law student plays key role in exonerating man convicted of rape, kidnapping


By Phillip Ramati
TELEGRAPH STAFF WRITER


For Ashley Tyson-Mackin, it started with a gut feeling.

The 24-year-old Jones County native was combing through files last January as part of her internship with the Georgia Innocence Project, looking at dozens of the more than 2,600 letters sent by convicted criminals asking the agency to re-examine their cases.

Tyson-Mackin came across the case of Willie O. "Pete" Williams, convicted of aggravated sodomy, kidnapping and rape in April 1985. That's when she started to believe the Innocence Project had a genuine shot at making a difference.

"The prisoners write in, and there are thousands of files we slowly go through," Tyson-Mackin said. "The best case is when (the crime committed) is stranger-on-stranger and there's mistaken identification involved.

"When I talked with his defense attorney ... Willie was one of the few clients he knew was innocent, and the case really upset him."

Tyson-Mackin, a Georgia State University law student at the time, ended up downloading a picture of Williams and taping it to the door of the project's Atlanta office, telling anyone who would listen that Williams would be the next person exonerated.

"I just had this gut feeling," she recalled. "I knew this was our next exoneree. I just knew it."
Georgia Innocence Project director Aimee Maxwell said she loved the enthusiasm.

"She kept us all enthusiastic," Maxwell said.

But a gut feeling of innocence and being able to prove it in court are two entirely different things.
Williams was convicted almost entirely because of the eyewitness testimony of the victim. The prosecution's case was strengthened when a second woman was able to fight off her attacker five days later and identified the police sketch of the suspect from the first assault as the same attacker.

When the original victim testified at the trial, Tyson-Mackin said the woman told the jury that she was "120 percent" certain her attacker was Williams. Though a rape kit was used during the investigation, DNA testing hadn't yet been developed, which could have been used to prove Williams' guilt or innocence.

Tyson-Mackin needed to find the DNA evidence after nearly 22 years, a monumental task because most evidence from closed cases during that era is usually junked.

"Actually finding the evidence is literally like finding a needle in a haystack," Maxwell said. "It's miraculous, particularly in this case, because the GBI did purge the evidence and sent it back to the original counties. But they had saved some swabs from some rape kits. Nobody knew why they saved those particular swabs, because they end up making slides and usually the first thing they throw out is the swabs."

But even having DNA evidence didn't mean a jackpot for Williams and the project. Because of the high cost of DNA testing, first a judge needed to sign off on it, because the project is a not-for-profit agency with limited resources.

In addition, the sample was one in a long line of other DNA samples awaiting testing at the GBI crime lab.

But finally after more than a year's work on the case, the project got the news it had been waiting for for so long: The DNA test exonerated Williams.

Williams emerged from Fulton County Jail on Tuesday night a free man, greeted by friends and family. Had the Innocence Project been unable to help him, Williams would not have been eligible for parole until 2021. Assuming he had been granted parole at that point, he would have spent almost 36 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Williams became the sixth Georgia prisoner to be exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence. He became the Georgia Innocence Project's third success story since it was formed in 2003, Maxwell said.

Williams was at a loss for words when he was first released.

"I can't even explain," he told the Associated Press.

Maxwell credited Tyson-Mackin's work ethic and perseverance as being a big part of the project's success with the case.

"Ashley is a bundle of energy," Maxwell said. "She was Pete's biggest advocate. She just truly believed in him. She did an excellent job investigating the case. She was an exceptional intern, very enthusiastic, very committed."

Tyson-Mackin has never met Williams face to face, but hopes to do so when she attends Williams' hearing, likely in mid-February. Technically, Williams has been released on his own recognizance but must still have his record wiped clean by the court.

The project's work with Williams is far from done. Part of the project's function is to help people reintegrate into society through counseling and help them to find work.

Tyson-Mackin said Williams likely would get sizable compensation for his time in prison, though he could never get back the years he lost. She said the state has compensated other exonerees in the past for wrongful imprisonment.

"We hope he gets taken care of," she said. "I once worked out that if he had made $7.50 an hour during all those years, he'd have had $500,000 in earnings. But how do you compensate someone for those lost opportunities - getting married, having children, having a job, missing Christmases?"

Tyson-Mackin used to go to court with her grandfather, Weyman Roberts, in Jones County when she was as young as 6 or 7. Though Roberts wasn't an attorney, he was fascinated with what was going on in Jones County, and Tyson-Mackin fell in love with the courtroom.

After graduating from Jones County High School, she attended the University of Georgia as an undergraduate student. Having since earned her law degree from Georgia State, Tyson-Mackin got married in September and lives in Macon. She's preparing for the bar exam next month.

She also has seen the courtroom from the opposing side, having worked as an intern with the Houston County District Attorney's Office after finishing her time with the Innocence Project.

Once she passes the bar, she said she is going to work for the Fricks law firm, where she will do real estate law and family law as well as criminal work.

But she acknowledges she may have a hard time topping her work on the Williams case.

"To know you were involved with saving his life, to know that he was going to be (in prison) until at least 2021 - that's really cool," she said. "He's a super nice guy. To help somebody like that is awesome."

To contact Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334 or e-mail pramati@macontel.com.

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