Sarasota Herald-Tribune

DNA evidence wins Manatee rape conviction a second look

By Todd Ruger

Published: Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.

Derrick Williams
Derrick Williams

MANATEE COUNTY - The Innocence Project of Florida has a record of using powerful new evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, but that does not mean prosecutors give up easily.

Most of the time, state attorney offices will do what Manatee County prosecutors did in court Friday in the case of Derrick Williams -- fight to uphold a conviction that is years old, even as exculpatory evidence mounts.

"Nobody wants to think they or their office could have had a part in wrongfully convicting somebody," Florida Innocence Project Executive Director Seth Miller said. "The more notoriety we have, that creates more reluctance because of the result we're seeking."

The project says new DNA evidence on a key piece of evidence -- a gray shirt -- proves Williams was wrongfully convicted of a rape in Palmetto in 1993.

But prosecutors argue the evidence at trial was so overwhelming that DNA tests would not have affected the jury's guilty verdict.

Some inmates have had prosecutors deny their requests for DNA tests repeatedly, until the Innocence Project gets involved.

Friday's hearing cleared up some last legal issues before a main hearing scheduled for March, which will determine if Williams should be exonerated, face a retrial, or have his appeal denied.

Police accused Williams, now 47, of abducting the 25-year-old woman from her Palmetto home, forcing her into her car and driving her to an orange grove to rape her.

Williams testified at his trial; relatives told the jury he was at a family barbecue at the time of the attack.

Williams immediately offered to give blood and saliva samples, but no sperm was found to compare the genetic material, and DNA techniques used to find samples on evidence were not known then.

So the case largely was based on the victim's identification of Williams, but her description of her assailant differed from Williams and her story was inconsistent. Misidentification is often the cause of wrongful convictions, the Innocence Project said.

Innocence Project involvement brings extra publicity to appeals, and has led to a reputation for taking strong cases with new physical evidence such as DNA.

The Innocence Project called on prosecutors to immediately release Williams last year.

But revelations over new evidence do not automatically mean prosecutors will relent and agree to release inmates.

"The prosecutor is supposed to do justice," said Chip Thullbery, a spokesman for Polk County State Attorney's office, where the Innocence Project overturned James Bain's rape conviction after 30 years.

"If justice means upholding the jury's verdict because the defendant is making a frivolous objection, that's what the prosecutor should do."

On Friday, Manatee County prosecutor Spencer Rasnake fought to prevent the Innocence Project from using the original police records from Williams' case to argue for his freedom.

Rasnake said the appeals based on new evidence are "difficult to do."

But in this case he does not think the new evidence would have changed the result at trial.

The Innocence Project says those records contain incorrect information and evidence of sloppy police work.

Rasnake says those materials were available during Williams' trial in 1993, and are not generally admissible at a trial, so they should not be used to overturn the conviction.

The judge will decide the issue before the March hearing.

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice