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Daytona Beach News-Journal: The right thing to do for wrongly convicted

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The state of Florida kept Clifford Williams and Nathan Myers behind bars for 43 years, for a murder that neither committed. It’s hard to imagine the horror of watching a life slip away — the deaths of parents, the birth of children, the way the world has changed since that day in 1976 when the prison doors shut behind them.

For Myers, there may be a reconciliation of sorts. If he can navigate the narrow and twisted path laid out by the state legislature over the last 10 years, he may be eligible for up to $50,000 for each year he spent behind bars. There is no guarantee: The initial 2008 law granting compensation to victims of wrongful incarceration was (and remains) so restrictive that — despite dozens of overturned convictions in Florida — only four had managed to successfully claim anything through early 2017.

Williams, however, already knows his chances of being reimbursed for the lifetime that was stolen from him. Under current law: zero. That’s because, before he and Myers were arrested, charged and convicted in the 1976 murder of Jeanette Williams, Clifford Williams had two felony convictions.

What were the felonies? His own attorney isn’t sure. Neither is the attorney with the Florida Innocence Project who represented Myers. A report by the Fourth Circuit State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville refers to him as a “heroin dealer” in one place. In the original police report, there’s a fleeting reference to other cases, and in a transcribed deposition, the detective who arrested Williams says “there was a drug ring going on which Williams was apparently running.”

None of this changes the fact that Jacksonville police knew — from the night that Jeanette Williams was murdered — that dozens of people saw Clifford Williams at a party down the street. They knew another man had told several people he was the one who committed the murder. They knew their theory of the crime was wholly inconsistent with the physical evidence.

Yet Clifford Williams was arrested, convicted, sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. If not for current Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who courageously set up the state’s first office of “conviction integrity review,” Williams would still be behind bars.

Is that injustice worth nothing?

Lawmakers have tweaked the compensation law over the years. A 2017 law allowed a little more latitude for prior felonies — claimants could have one felony conviction, as long as it wasn’t violent, but no more.

Florida is the only state with such a “clean hands” provision, and it’s time to do away with it. If the evidence (or lack of evidence) is enough to warrant overturning a conviction, it should be enough to merit compensation.

If someone is deprived of liberty due to the state’s mistakes or misdeeds, their past should not matter. It’s the right thing to do.

-- The Daytona Beach News-Journal

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