Atlanta Journal Constitution

Group: DNA clears man in 1985 rape
Lawyers call for release of imprisoned Atlantan; Fulton DA reviews case

By BILL TORPY, BILL RANKIN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/20/07

DNA evidence has cleared an Atlanta man who has served 21 years in prison after being convicted of raping and kidnapping a woman at a Sandy Springs apartment complex in 1985, the man's lawyers said Friday.

Willie O. "Pete" Williams, who is now 44, was convicted largely on the eyewitness testimony of the rape victim and of another woman who was assaulted — though not raped — a few days later in the parking lot of another Roswell Road complex.

After his arrest, on the witness stand and throughout his two decades in prison, Williams has maintained his innocence. He was first notified of the new DNA test results on Friday in the southeast Georgia prison where he is incarcerated.

No hearing date has been set to decide if or when he will be released, said Lisa George, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Innocence Project. Right now, Williams is not eligible for parole until 2021.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said Friday evening that he was aware of the new DNA test results. He said his office was reviewing the case to determine if there was other corroborating evidence against Williams and that he would make a decision on Monday what to do next.

"If it turns out the circumstances are such he did not commit the crime, we don't want to keep him in jail any longer," Howard said. During Williams' sentencing in September 1985, his trial attorney, Michael Schumacher, told the judge his client "has continued to maintain this is a case of mistaken identity."

Fulton Superior Court Judge John S. Langford Jr. responded, "I haven't seen many cases with any stronger eyeball identification." He then sentenced Williams to 45 years for the rape. Williams was not charged in the assault.

During the trial, the 21-year-old rape victim was asked to point out her attacker in the courtroom. She identified Williams.

"Is there any doubt in your mind?" the prosecutor asked.

"No, sir, not at all," she said.

"On a scale of one to a hundred, how sure are you?" the prosecutor asked.

"One hundred and twenty," she said.

The Innocence Project, with the help of volunteer lawyers Bruce Harvey and Sandra Michaels and Georgia State University law student Cliff Williams, found the rape kit evidence used at the trial and obtained a court order to have it tested. They learned this week that DNA tests performed by the GBI cleared their client of the crimes.

George said Innocence Project members believe they know who actually committed the sexual assaults. Another man was arrested for three similar attacks in parking lots nearby in the months after Williams was arrested. The man pleaded guilty to the offenses, was sentenced to four years in prison and has since been released, George said.

George said there is rape kit evidence available from the other man's trial, and she urged authorities to conduct DNA tests.

On Friday, members of the Georgia Innocence Project went to the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in Folkston to tell Williams the news about the DNA.

"We were so excited to get there and tell him," George said. "But when we told him the news, he was so calm. That's because he's known the truth about this for almost 22 years."

If formally cleared, Williams would be the sixth Georgia man cleared of a sexual assault in the past eight years.

Authorities have maintained that, on April 5, 1985, Williams sexually attacked a woman who had just pulled into a Sandy Springs apartment complex shortly after 11 p.m. As she got out of her car, a man approached and asked if she knew a resident named "Paul." When she tried to close her door, the man put a gun to her head and ordered her to move over.

He then drove the car to a dead-end street area near the apartment complex where he raped and sodomized her. Afterward, he drove her car back to the parking lot and ran away.

Because the victim's description of her assailant was so vivid, police arranged for her to meet with a sketch artist four days later for a composite drawing of the suspect.

Later, in court, the woman testified about how sure she was of the description: "I do very much remember the nose, the eyes, face shape, the hair, the clothes, everything."

On April 10, 1985, another woman at a Roswell Road apartment complex about 6 miles away was also attacked. The attacker put a razor blade to the woman's throat and tried to undress her. But the woman resisted and managed to get him to stop. Shown the composite drawing of the man who committed the earlier rape, the woman immediately identified it as a sketch of her assailant, according to court records.

About three weeks later, Williams was a passenger in a car stopped for a traffic violation on Roswell Road. The officer making the stop said Williams closely resembled the man in the composite drawing and arrested him.

Soon afterward, both victims identified Williams as their assailant in a photographic lineup, and they later identified him at trial. The jury took 7 1/2 hours to convict him, a point that made Williams' attorney at the time insist "it was a close case."

The trial attorney, Schu–macher, noted that the case "depended entirely on eyewitness identification, a process noted for its inherent fallacies."

Schumacher fought the introduction of the second victim's testimony, saying it would prejudice a jury. But the judge allowed it as a "similar transaction," a legal term to show a defendant's course of conduct.

During a hearing following the conviction, Schumacher questioned the prosecutor, telling him the names of three women who were attacked in that area in May, June and July 1985. Did the prosecutor ask those victims to testify, Schumacher asked. The prosecutor said he did not know of those attacks.

That Fulton County prosecutor was Fredric Tokars. Tokars, who later became an Atlanta judge and criminal defense attorney, is now serving two life sentences, one for the murder for hire in Cobb County of his wife, Sara, in November 1992 and another for a racketeering conviction on related charges.

Willie "Pete" Williams
Willie "Pete" Williams

OTHER RECENT GEORGIA CASES

Calvin Johnson

Year of incident: 1983
Charge: Raping a woman in College Park
Convictions: Rape, aggravated sodomy, and burglary
Sentence: Life plus
Year of conviction: 1983
Year of exoneration: 1999
Sentence served: 16 years
Today: Serves on the boards of directors of the Georgia Innocence Project and the original Innocence Project in New York. He works as a supervisor for Atlanta's Metropolitan Rapid Transit Authority.

Clarence Harrison
Year of incident: 1986
Charges: Rape, robbery, kidnaping in Decatur.
Convictions: Rape, robbery, kidnaping
Sentence: Life plus
Year of conviction: 1987
Year of exoneration: 2004
Sentence served: 17 years
Today: Works as a security guard and takes classes at Emory University, working toward a paralegal certificate.

Robert Clark
Year of incident: 1981
Charges: Rape, kidnaping, armed robbery in East Atlanta
Convictions: Rape, kidnaping, armed robbery
Sentence: Life plus
Year of conviction: 1982
Year of exoneration: 2005
Sentence served: 24 years
Today: Works in construction, has acquired a car, has just rented his first apartment on his own and is learning to use a computer. He is also working to re-establish relationships with friends and family and build a solid future.

Douglas Echols
Year of incident: 1986
Charges: Rape, kidnaping, robbery in Savannah
Convictions: Rape, kidnaping, robbery
Sentence: 5 years
Year of conviction: 1987
Year of exoneration: 2002
Sentence served: 5 years

Samuel Scott
(along with Echols)
Year of incident: 1986
Charges: Rape, kidnaping, robbery in Savannah
Convictions: Rape, kidnaping, robbery
Sentence: Life plus
Year of conviction: 1987
Year of exoneration: 2002
Sentence served: 15 years
Now: Married, homeowner, partner in pressure-washing business

Sources: The Innocence Project, The Georgia Innocence Project, other news sources;

Research by Sharon Gaus / Staff


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