Willie Williams smiled but looked stunned as he emerged from Fulton County jail, more than two decades after he was jailed for a rape he did not commit.
He was the latest of around 192 people freed in the United States since 1989 because DNA tests applied to old evidence proved them not guilty, according to Eric Ferrero, communications director of the Innocence Project in New York.
“I always kept the faith …. I was (bitter) for about 10 years and then I just gave it over to the Lord,” Williams told reporters before his mother and family members whisked him away
As techniques involving DNA evidence become more sophisticated and can be applied to older and more fragile pieces of evidence, more and more convicts may get a chance to prove their innocence.
The bulk of those released to date were convicted between 1980 and 2000 and most had been serving long sentences for rape or murder, cases in which DNA evidence can be decisive.
“They come from all walks of life. They are disproportionately people of color, particularly African American and they are often poor and couldn’t afford the best attorneys,” Ferrero said.
Around 2.2 million people are in U.S. federal, state or local prison in the United States, according to Department of Justice statistics for 2005.
An estimated 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime against 17 percent for Hispanic males and 5.9 percent for white males, according to the statistics.
Williams was 21 when he was arrested for a traffic violation in Atlanta in April 1985 shortly after two brutal rapes in a suburb north of the city and was initially charged with giving a false address.
But when one victim later identified him in a police line-up he was also charged with rape, sodomy and kidnapping.
While he was in jail awaiting trial, three more near-identical rapes were committed but the district attorney rejected suggestions by Williams’ lawyer that his client should therefore be ruled out as a suspect, said Lisa George of the Georgia Innocence Project.
Despite having an alibi for one of the crimes, he was convicted when a victim testified in court she was 120 percent he was the attacker and he was sentenced to 45 years.
The Innocence Project was set up in 1992 at the Cardozo School of Law and handles thousands of cases from prisoners who claim they were wrongly convicted, said Ferrero.
In the long run the use of DNA evidence should reduce the number of wrongful convictions in rape and murder cases, Ferrero said.
Some get the chance for DNA testing that absolves them of guilt because of an unusual sequence of events.
In New York this month Roy Brown was freed from a 25-year murder sentence after using Freedom of Information Law documents to track down the real killer from his prison cell. Brown then wrote to him, saying DNA would prove his guilt.
Five days later that man lay down in the path of an oncoming train and DNA from his body eventually freed Brown.
The crucial break in Williams’ case came almost by chance when a law student intern at the Georgia Innocence Project turned up a swab from one of the victims that had not been DNA-tested, languishing in an evidence vault at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“I knew as soon as we had it that we had hit the jackpot. I didn’t realize he was innocent but I knew we would be able to determine one way or another,” said Cliff Williams, 27.
“The best chance of a claim of innocence being valid is when it’s a one-on-one attack and the victim doesn’t know the attacker personally. That increases the chance that it was a bad witness identification,” he said in an interview.
A motion was filed for a new trial and results of the DNA test proved he was not the attacker. Charges will be dropped at a hearing for a new trial, George said.
Only 21 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have laws to compensate people for the time they wrongly spent in jail, Ferrero said.
Prisoners set free after a wrongful conviction face the same difficulties as other ex-convicts, including finding work and dealing with relationships, said Dennis Dunn of the Atlanta Enterprise Center, which helps former prisoners rehabilitate.
“It’s pretty overwhelming for some (ex-prisoners) …. The biggest problem is getting back into the flow of society, how you deal with people in the free world,” he said, adding that family support often proved decisive.
For his part, Williams said he was starting to adjust to life in a world that had changed since 1985. One shock was seeing people using Cell phones — they were unheard of when he went inside. He was going to start looking for work.
“Being a man, our instinct is to stand on our own two feet,” he said.