In May, 1967, the white owner of a gas station in Orleans Parish, Louisiana was killed in a gun battle with several black men. Nineteen year-old Hayes Williams became a suspect in the murder after he was implicated by the real shooter, an acquaintance of his.
Williams claimed that he was near the scene of the attempted robbery and knew the participants, but had no role in the crime. In 1968, on the advice of his alcoholic defense counsel, Williams pled guilty to a crime he did not commit in order to avoid the death penalty. He was advised that he would serve about 10 years in prison, but under new sentencing guidelines William was sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, Williams became the plaintiff in a major law suit that led to reforms of Louisiana’s brutal Angola prison.
Eventually, a prominent New Orleans attorney took Williams’s case pro bono. In 1996, twenty nine years after his guilty plea, Williams’ conviction was vacated by the trial court in Orleans Parish because the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence, and he was granted a retrial. The district attorney’s office decided to dismiss the charges, and on May 15, 1997, Williams was released from prison.