Chicago Tribune

Jailed 24 years, freed by DNA
Innocence Project key to exoneration in Louisiana rape case
By Maurice Possley; Chicago Tribune staff reporter
March 7, 2005

JONESBORO, La. -- In May 1981, when Michael Williams was 16, a jury here rejected his claim of innocence, deliberating for less than an hour before convicting him of the savage beating and sexual assault of his math tutor.

Arrested, tried and convicted in just three months, Williams was sentenced to hard labor for life with no possibility for parole and dispatched to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, one of the nation's most notorious and deadly prisons.

At times the institution lived up to its reputation. In one incident, Williams said, he was stabbed 16 times.

Now, nearly 24 years after his arrest, independent DNA tests by three laboratories, including the Louisiana state crime lab, show what Williams has long contended: He is not the man who committed the crime.

DNA tests on genetic evidence found on the victim's nightgown and sheets produced a male profile different from Williams' profile. Williams will be the 159th person to be exonerated by DNA, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit group that investigates suspected wrongful convictions.

"The test results show what Michael has said from the day he was arrested--that he is innocent," said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney at the project.

Walter May, the district attorney in Jonesboro, said in an interview: "All the test results in this case have been consistent. All indicate that the genetic material does not come from Michael Williams.

"We are in the process of reaching a mutually agreeable method for securing his release from incarceration . . . on March 11," he said.

In January, Williams, his wrists and ankles shackled, was brought from Angola to the courthouse in Jonesboro so Jackson Parish sheriff's deputies could swab his mouth to obtain DNA for the state crime lab's tests.

Afterward, Williams said: "I'm glad it's finally coming to this point. All these years, I knew I wasn't the one. I believe there is a power greater than me and that has been helping me all these years, keeping me together."

He described how, in 1995, he watched the murder trial of O.J. Simpson with fascination and curiosity. What, he wondered, was this DNA that the lawyers--and in particular, a defense attorney named Barry Scheck--were talking about?

Three years later Williams began writing to Scheck in New York at the Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate dozens of inmates, and asked for help.

In one letter, according to Potkin, Williams wrote, "I've been here almost all my life for a crime I did not commit nor know anything about and from the look of it, I'll die here."

Among those who have followed the case with particular interest is Douglas Stokes, the lawyer who was appointed to defend Williams at his trial and who always has believed in his innocence. Stokes now works for the district attorney's office in Jonesboro, prosecuting felony cases.

"I have switched sides," Stokes said recently in his office. "But this is where the rubber meets the road. As a prosecutor, you have to be just as concerned that an innocent person might be wrongly convicted."

Last year, when the Innocence Project contacted the prosecutor's office about the case, Stokes said, "The inquiry was routed to me, and I said, `This is your lucky day. I was the one who defended the case.'"

A fortunate find

A search of the courthouse turned up the victim's clothes, which hadn't been thrown away, even though the last appeal in the case was decided years earlier.

"It was extraordinarily unusual for the evidence to be still around," Stokes said. "I was surprised to find it. As a person of faith, I think the Lord had his hand in this."

May, the district attorney, praised Ann Walsworth, the court clerk.

"Because of her work . . . evidence was maintained that one must believe that in many rural jurisdictions would not have been," he said. "No person would ever have anticipated 24 years ago that this evidence would have any great future value. It certainly has been of great benefit to justice."

At the time of the crime, Williams was living with his grandmother in Chatham, a sleepy town with a population then of about 700. In the fall of 1980 he was expelled from school and began attending night classes.

The victim, a resident of Chatham and a recent graduate of nearby Grambling State University, began tutoring him in math, but that lasted only a few weeks because they had an altercation, according to testimony at the trial. The victim's family had known Williams since he was a baby, the woman's father said in an interview.

The altercation was an argument that escalated into a physical incident in which the victim struck Williams with a laundry basket and a soda bottle.

Later that day, Williams was arrested at the victim's house after he threw rocks at the house and broke a window, according to trial testimony.

Williams was sent to jail and released Feb. 5, 1981. While in jail, he wrote letters to the victim saying he was in love with her, and he also telephoned her, according to testimony.

On Feb. 20, 1981, Williams had an argument with the victim in a store, then left. That night he was seen with a friend at a church revival, and he later testified that he came back to his grandmother's home about 11 p.m. and went to bed.

The victim said she was awakened about 3:30 a.m. when she was struck in the head. For the next 20 minutes, she testified at the trial, her attacker beat her with a board and raped her three times. She said Williams was her assailant.

The victim called a female cousin, who came to the house shortly after 4 a.m. and found the bedroom spattered with blood. Muddy footprints were discovered outside the house under an open window.

The cousin called the victim's father, who came to the house and arranged for his daughter to be taken to a hospital, where she was found to have 11 broken bones in her hands and arms. Her father then went to the home of a justice of the peace and obtained a warrant for Williams' arrest.

He took the warrant to the home of a Jackson Parish sheriff's deputy in Chatham, and Williams was arrested at his grandmother's home about 9:45 a.m.

Three months later he went on trial. Jurors rejected his testimony that he was innocent, as well as evidence showing that the footprints didn't match his shoes. No physical evidence linked him to the attack.

Stokes made an impassioned plea to the jurors that the victim could have made a mistake and urged them to consider the lack of evidence.

Williams, for example, was arrested about six hours after the attack, yet he had no marks on his body indicating a struggle, no blood spots on him and he still had the clothes he was seen wearing the night before. No bloody clothes ever were found, Stokes noted.

In the end, Stokes said, there was no escaping the testimony of the victim who said she saw Williams' face and recognized his voice.

While mistaken identification has been noted as a major cause of wrongful convictions--playing a role in about 120 of the more than 150 convictions overturned by post-conviction DNA testing--this case is unusual because Williams was not a stranger to the victim.

Scheck said that it is possible that the victim was so traumatized by the attack that she made a mistake in identifying Williams as her attacker.

The victim, who now lives in another state, insisted at her home in January that she had not erred.

"There was no mistake," she said. Informed of the DNA test results, she said, "That can't be true."

Authorities plan to submit the genetic profile obtained from the evidence to the FBI's national DNA database of nearly 2 million convicted felons in the country to determine if there is a match.

Ignored for years

At the time of the crime, Williams was living with his grandmother because his mother had died. His father died while he was in prison in Angola. He has several brothers and sisters, none of whom have visited him for more than 15 years.

"It used to bother me. I was angry at first, but life goes on," Williams said at the courthouse in Jonesboro. "I learned to accept things as they come."

One of his brothers, Roger Williams, 50, still lives in Chatham.

"I am surprised," he said of the DNA results. "But I always thought he really didn't do it."

He says he never visited his brother in prison, but he did send money occasionally.

"I haven't seen him since he was a kid," he said. "I never thought he would get out. I'll be glad to see him."

While in prison, Michael Williams said he taught himself to sew.

"I sew gloves, sweat pants, sweat shirts," he said. "I watch television. I read the newspaper, the classified ads. I would like to get a job."

In his first letter to the Innocence Project, Williams wrote, "I am not asking for no hand outs, just a hand."

"I never gave up hope," he said. "That's the worst thing you can do--give up hope. Then, everything is gone."

Williams will live for three months in Baton Rouge as part of a program designed to help inmates return to life outside prison, and he plans to attend a symposium on eyewitness identification at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge on Friday, the day of his release.

Louisiana has no law allowing for compensation of wrongly convicted defendants. When Williams is released, prison officials will give him a check for $10.

"This is one of the most difficult cases we have had at the Innocence Project," Potkin said, referring to the potential difficulties Williams will face in adjusting to life outside prison.

"He was so young," she said. "He was thrown in prison when he was 16, subjected to 24 years of physical and mental abuse, cut off from the outside world, robbed of his adolescence . . . and was told he would die in prison. It is amazing that he endured. It is the triumph of the human spirit that he made it."

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