Between 2000 and 2005, Antonio Williams of Birmingham, Alabama, regularly visited his young daughter at the home of her grandfather, who had custody of the girl. The child’s mother had three other children as well, all of whom lived with their grandfather, and when Williams went to visit his daughter, he would help take care of all the children.
In 2003, it was discovered that one of the girls, who was seven years old, had a sexually transmitted disease. Social workers from Prescott House, a children’s advocacy center, began to investigate, and in 2005, the girl said that Williams had sexually abused her. He was arrested April 27, 2005.
A year later, Williams, who is African American, went on trial before an all-white jury. Prosecutors claimed he had raped the girl and improperly touched her several times when she was between the ages of 3 and 6. There was no physical evidence implicating Williams – just the little girl’s word. On April 5, 2007, a jury convicted Williams of two counts of rape. He was sentenced to life in prison.
William vehemently maintained his innocence. He appealed his case, but the conviction was upheld.
Four years later, on April 14, 2011, Williams’ accuser was interviewed again at Prescott House on an unrelated matter. During the interview, the girl admitted that Williams had never abused or raped her, and named another man as the rapist. She said the rapist had threatened to hurt her if she ever told what he had done, which is why she had accused Williams.
Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls was notified and quickly took action. An attorney was appointed for Williams and a hearing was set before Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace. At the hearing, the girl repeatedly denied that Williams had ever raped or abused her and again named the other man as the rapist. The girl’s older half-sister testified that she had also been abused by the actual rapist. The clinical director of Prescott House also testified, saying that after reviewing the original interview with the girl, she found that contrary to protocol, the questioner had not asked broad, open-ended questions, but instead had suggested information to the girl.
On May 16, 2011, Judge Wallace set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial. His ruling outlined many problems with the initial case against Williams. From the beginning, the little girl was reluctant to accuse him and gave contradictory testimony. While testifying at trial, she initially said only that Williams touched her while giving her a bath, not that he had touched her inappropriately. She was unable to recall the allegations she had made at Prescott House, at one point denying that she had made them at all. Only in redirect examination, and only after being prompted, did she accuse Williams of sexual abuse.
The judge also noted that after the trial, the girl told her stepmother she had not been sexually abused by Williams, but her stepmother never told authorities. Wallace said some of the trial testimony was “appalling”, and criticized Williams’ original defense attorney for failing to review the girl’s 2003 interview at Prescott House, which would have revealed that she had not accused Williams of abuse. Based on the newly-discovered evidence and the testimony at the hearing, Wallace concluded that there was “a great likelihood that had this information been known, the defendant would not have been convicted."
Prosecutors declined to re-try the case against Williams, and on August 23, 2011, he was released from prison.
-- Alexandra Gross