Northeast Florida State Attorney Melissa Nelson on Thursday asked the court to dismiss the 1976 murder sentences of two men after an investigation by her office concluded it no longer has confidence in the evidence of the case.
“As prosecutors we have a continuing post-conviction ethical obligation to pursue justice when we become aware of material evidence suggesting a conviction is not correct,” said Nelson at a news conference Thursday.
Nelson’s office said it’s the first ever conviction reversal brought by what’s called a conviction integrity unit in Florida.
Clifford Williams and his nephew, Herbert Nathan Myers, were cleared of the shooting murder of Jeanette Williams and attempted murder of Nina Marshall.
“I find the defendants’ motions are well founded. The state’s decision is well taken and justice demands granting this motion,” said Duval County Circuit Judge Angela Cox. “Both judgments of sentences in both cases are vacated.”
On May 2, 1976, Jeanette Williams, who is not related to the defendant, and her girlfriend, Nina Marshall, were shot while asleep in their bed that night. Williams instantly died, but Marshall stumbled out of her apartment, flagged down a passing car, and was taken to the hospital, according the state attorney’s report. Marshal later told police she was shot by Clifford Williams and Myers.
The state tried the defendants jointly two months later and sought the death penalty. But that resulted in a mistrial. With Marshall’s statement as the only evidence, the state managed to convict Williams, 32, and Myers, 18, in a second trial that lasted two days.
“I grew up in prison to be a man. I was a kid when I came to prison,” said Myers, who is now 60-years-old. “Once I came to prison I had to become a man.”
The two men, who were serving life sentences, had been incarcerated for the past 42 years. After decades of filing unsuccessful motions for post-conviction relief, Myers contacted Northeast Florida’s recently created Conviction Integrity Review (CIR) unit.
In early 2018, Nelson become the first state attorney in Florida to create a CIR, which reviews claims of wrongful convictions, in Florida. Since then the unit has been contacted by 204 people and has begun at least 14 investigations.
Nelson said Myer’s was among the first letters the CIR received, but it quickly stood out.
“Mr. Myers and Mr. Williams have presented claims of actual innocence that are corroborated and substantiated by credible evidence,” said Nelson. “These men would not be convicted on a jury today if the jury were presented with all the exculpatory evidence that the original jury did not hear.”
Related: Read the CIR report
Nelson said the state relied entirely on the testimony of Marshall. There was no physical evidence that linked Myers and Williams to the shooting. Additionally, according to the 74-page report, Marshall’s version of events was not corroborated - and hasn’t been corroborated since - “by any other testimony, physical evidence, or scientific evidence.”
The evidence contradicted Marshall’s testimony about what happened.
“The physical evidence indicates that the shooting occurred from outside and not from inside the bedroom as Marshall described,” said the report.
Additionally, the investigation concluded Myers’ claim was credible that a man named Nathaniel Lawson admitted to several people that he shot the women and regretted that the two men were doing his time. Lawson died in 1993 and never faced a trial.
CIR director Shelley Thibodeau sent her findings to an independent audit board made up of two former Fourth Judicial Circuit prosecutors, a retired public defender, a retired FBI agent, and a member of Jacksonville’s business community.
After reviewing the report, records, and documents, the board unanimously concluded there is not sufficient evidence that Williams and Myers are guilty.
Although there is no definitive proof of innocence, the panel found, “There was sufficient credible evidence to support a finding that the defendants, are in fact, ‘probably’ innocent.”
Williams, with a Bible in front of him, broke down as he talked about his mother dying while he was on death row.
As for Myers, he said, “It’s nerve racking right now, I am nervous,” adding,”I feel like I am still locked up.”
Myers said won’t truly feel free until he gets home and has a chance to settle down.