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Willie Williams, Jr.

Other Duval County, Florida exonerations
At about 4 p.m. on October 8, 1975, 35-year-old Kathrina Farah was behind the counter of her store, Wesconnett Produce, at 5422 Wesconnett Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida, when a Black man entered. He drew a gun and demanded she empty the cash register into a paper bag he was holding.

After Farah complied, the man demanded money from the back of the store. Farah said there was none, but walked to the back. When they got to the rear of the store, the man shot her three times—in the head, the back, and her hand. She fell to the floor.

At about that time Farah and the man were going to the rear of the store, 28-year-old David Phillips entered. He got a cold drink from the cooler, as he had done on numerous occasions in the past, and walked to the counter. He heard three loud sounds, which he later said he thought was someone hammering something. At the counter, the robber confronted Phillips, demanded his money, and ordered him into a storage area.

In the storage area, Phillips handed over his wallet and tossed his car keys to the floor. The robber ordered Phillips to the rear of the store where Phillips saw Farah. The gunman then shot Phillips in the back of the head behind the right ear. Phillips fell to the floor, and the gunman shot him again on the left side of the head and fled.

Miraculously, Farah and Phillips both survived. Phillips eventually got up and walked toward the front of the store. He saw that Farah had crawled into the main area of the store. Phillips walked outside and sat down in the middle of the street.

Just minutes earlier, in a Southern Gulf Utilities office on the opposite side of Wesconnett Boulevard, about 150 to 200 feet away from the produce store, Robert West, the manager, had been reading a newspaper when he noticed a green Buick stop in front of his office window about eight to 10 feet from where West was sitting.

West later said he saw a Black man wearing a red, white, and blue striped shirt get out of the driver’s seat and walk toward the produce store. Not long after, the Black man in the passenger seat slid over to the driver’s seat. When the man who had left the car returned, he motioned for the man to get back to the passenger seat, took something from his pants pocket and put it under the front seat, then got behind the wheel and sped away, hitting a car as it did so.

West had written down the license plate number on his newspaper. When he saw the hit-and-run accident, he told his secretary to call the police.

In response, Jacksonville Sheriff’s officer Edgar Dover spotted the Buick and followed it. The car pulled over, and Dover ordered the two men to get out. The men did not get out and instead sped off again. Dover lost the car in traffic.

Meanwhile, C.H. Ray, who was piloting a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office helicopter spotted the Buick. He saw it strike a parked truck, and a Black man, wearing no shirt and striped pants, jumped out of the passenger door. A Sheriff’s officer on a motorcycle saw the man jump from the car and caught up to him as he was trying to jump over a fence. The man, who was identified as 30-year-old Willie Williams Jr., was arrested.

The Buick kept going for a few more blocks before it hit a curb and stopped. The driver, wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, fled into a nearby house. His path was tracked by the helicopter. Officers went to the house, and, as they approached, they heard a gunshot. Inside, they found 30-year-old Alfred Mitchell leaning against a couch with a black revolver in his hand. He had fatally shot himself in the head.

During questioning by police, Williams said that at about 3:30 p.m., he was getting gas at a gas station with a friend, Louis “Fats” Ross, when Mitchell had approached, and asked for a ride to pick up a check. Williams said that Mitchell got into the back seat, and they then dropped off Ross. At that point, Williams said he asked Mitchell to drive since Williams’s license had been suspended. Williams said Mitchell said he wanted to pick up a check, so they drove to the produce store. Williams said he had no idea that Mitchell was going to rob the store, let alone shoot anyone. He said he had taken off his shirt while waiting for Mitchell because he got overheated. He bailed out of the car to get away while he had the chance.

Police administered a gunshot residue test on Williams and collected his clothes as evidence. The police also swabbed what appeared to be blood on Williams’s back. He remained in custody.

About 10:30 p.m., the police located Ross, who confirmed that Williams had dropped him off earlier that day. He said that Williams was driving and was wearing a striped shirt. Mitchell was wearing a white t-shirt, Ross said.

Police showed photographs of Mitchell and Williams to West, but he was not able to identify either man as having been in the Buick.

Phillips’s wallet containing $49 was found in the Buick. Police also recovered a .32-caliber chrome revolver from the floor of the car, as well as one spent .32-caliber casing, two spent .32 caliber bullets and one live .32-caliber bullet. The .32-caliber blue steel revolver which Mitchell shot himself with also was taken into evidence. A piece of upholstery that appeared to be bloodstained also was cut out of the car. Two shirts were recovered from the back seat—a red, white, and blue striped short-sleeved shirt and a blue long-sleeved shirt with embroidered flowers.

The following day, Phillips, who was in intensive care, viewed a photographic lineup containing Mitchell and Williams. He was unable to make any identification. He said he had been shot with a chrome revolver.

On October 10, 1975, Williams was charged with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of armed robbery.

That same day, Ross was shown the red, white, and blue striped shirt. He said Williams was wearing it that day. West was shown a photographic lineup and again was unable to make any identification. West was shown the red, white, and blue striped shirt and said the man who went into the produce store was wearing it.

Farah was left with only peripheral vision as a result of the shooting. She viewed a photographic lineup and later a live lineup, but was unable to make any identification.

Police eventually recovered bullets that were removed from Phillips and Farah and sent them for firearms analysis. A bullet also was removed from the wall in the produce store.

On October 27, 1975, Phillips was shown a photographic lineup and identified Williams as the man who shot him in the produce store. On October 29, Phillips viewed a live lineup and identified Williams as the gunman.

In February 1976, Williams went to trial in Duval County Circuit Court.

Phillips identified Williams as the man who shot him in the produce store. Farah testified and was not asked to make an in-court identification. Asked during cross-examination if she could make an identification, Farah said, “I’m not sure. I can’t say.”

West identified Mitchell as the driver of the Buick who went into the produce store. West testified that Williams was not the driver of the Buick.

Donald Champagne, a firearms examiner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), testified through a stipulation that the blue steel revolver fired the bullet that was removed from Mitchell’s head and the chrome revolver fired one of the bullets removed from Phillips’s head. The analyst also said he had compared a bullet removed from the victim of a fatal shooting a week earlier during a robbery of a furniture store to the chrome handgun.. The result of that comparison was not disclosed.

Richard Stephens, a FDLE forensic serologist, testified that Farah and Phillips had type O blood. He said Williams had type AB blood and Mitchell had type A blood. He said the upholstery from the Buick had a “very small” bloodstain that contained both type A and type B factors present. He said the stain could have been AB blood mixed with A blood or A blood mixed with B blood. He said there was no way he could distinguish between those possibilities or how old the stain was.

A test on what was believed to be blood found on Williams’s back was negative. In addition, the gunshot residue test was said to be inconclusive. A fingerprint examiner testified that he was not able to develop any fingerprints suitable for comparison.

Williams testified and denied going into the produce store. He denied shooting Phillips or Farah. He said he had no prior knowledge that Mitchell was about to commit a robbery. He said he was wearing blue, white and reddish-pink pants and a blue shirt with pink, blue, and green flowers on the front, blue shoes and a blue visor.

Williams said he began the day at 6 a.m. by picking up a friend, Albert Jones, and driving to the longshoreman hall to look for work. There was none, so they went to Jones’s house. He spent some time there, drove home to see his wife, but when she was not home, he returned to Jones’s home. Williams said he drove home again around 2 or 2:30 p.m., but his wife was still not home. He said he was headed back to Jones’s house when he saw Ross.

Williams said Ross asked for a ride downtown. When Williams said he did not have much gas, Ross offered to buy it. They had stopped at a station to do so when Mitchell approached, Williams said. After paying for $2 worth of gas, Williams drove Ross and Mitchell toward downtown. After dropping off Ross, Mitchell said he wanted to pick up a check.

Williams said he did not have a valid driver’s license, so he didn’t want to drive far. Mitchell offered to drive, and showed him a valid license. Williams got into the passenger seat and Mitchell drove off. He stopped the car around the corner from Cocky’s Grocery Store. Williams said Mitchell grabbed a red, white and blue shirt from the back of the car and went inside Cocky’s. Williams said after a few minutes, he went inside the grocery store to use the bathroom. Williams said Mitchell was standing at the counter with the shirt on the counter. Williams said he went back to the car and waited for Mitchell, who, when he came out, was wearing the red, white and blue striped shirt.

Williams said Mitchell drove to the produce store. Along the way, Williams said he yelled a greeting at a friend he knew as “Gooch,” who waved in return. They stopped to get $2 more of gas and then stopped at the produce store.

Williams said Mitchell, still wearing that red, white, and blue striped shirt, got out. He said he didn’t see which building Mitchell entered because bushes obstructed his view. Williams said as he was waiting, he got hot, so he took off his shirt. He said he moved behind the wheel and drove the car forward about six or seven feet.

When Mitchell returned, Williams moved back to the passenger seat. Williams said Mitchell threw a wallet to the floor and sped off. Williams said Mitchell hit a car and kept going. Williams said he told Mitchell stop, but he refused. Williams said Mitchell pulled out a dark pistol and said, “I just killed two people. Don’t you be the third one.”

When a police car pulled them over and an officer, using a loudspeaker, ordered them to get out, Mitchell told Williams not to get out and then sped off. By that time, Williams said Mitchell had taken off the red, white, and blue striped shirt.

Williams said that when the car stopped at one point, he was able to flee. He told the jury that Mitchell shot at him, but missed.

Lynwood Harley, who worked at Cocky’s Grocery store, testified that between 3 and 4 p.m. on the day of the shooting, Mitchell, who was Harley’s cousin, came into the store wearing a white t-shirt and carrying a striped shirt. At the counter, Mitchell pulled out two guns. He pointed one at Harley and one at Curtis Frederick, a store employee who also was related to Mitchell. Harley said one gun was black and the other gun was silver.

Harley said that when Williams entered the store to use the bathroom, Mitchell wrapped the guns inside the striped shirt. Harley identified the red, white, and blue striped shirt that was in evidence as the one Mitchell had at the store.

Frederick testified that Mitchell had come into the store, asked for money, and then pulled out two pistols from a striped shirt.

Harley and Mitchell both testified that Mitchell left without any money.

The defense sought to introduce evidence that the bullet in the furniture store robbery was fired by the chrome gun used to shoot Phillips. The defense also wanted to present testimony from Mitchell’s sister-in-law, who had said that Mitchell had a $200-a-day drug habit. She said that the night before the produce store shooting, Mitchell told her he had killed a man in a furniture company store. She said he told her that “before he go back to jail, he will kill himself.” The defense also wanted to present evidence that the police had concluded that Mitchell was solely responsible for the furniture store robbery-murder. The judge, however, refused to allow the evidence to be presented to the jury.

During closing argument, the prosecutor focused heavily on the identification of Williams by Phillips, who he said was “believable, is a humble, hard-working man,” and who would never forget the face of the man who robbed and shot him.

On February 16, 1976, the jury convicted Williams of two counts of attempted murder and two counts of armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The First District Florida Court of Appeal upheld Williams’s convictions and sentence in 1977. Over the years, Williams, acting without a lawyer, filed various challenges to his conviction, all of which were denied. At one point, he asked for documents including “video hypnosis” results. That request was denied. In 2005, he requested DNA testing of the clothes worn by Mitchell and Williams to determine if any of the victims’ blood was present. That testing was conducted on the blue shirt with the embroidered flowers, the red, white, and blue striped shirt, and Williams’s pants. No blood was found on any of the clothing.

On June 30, 2020, Williams was released on parole, 44 years, four months, and 15 days after he was convicted.

In 2021, the Conviction Integrity Review (CIR) unit of the Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s office agreed to review Williams’s case. Touch DNA testing was conducted on Phillips’s wallet and the red, white, and blue shirt, but no DNA was found.

However, in reviewing the evidence in the case, the CIR, headed by prosecutor Shelly Thibodeau, discovered that Phillips had been hypnotized prior to his identification of Williams. Hypnosis has long been considered junk science because of the potential to create false memories.

A detective recalled during an interview with the CIR that he suggested that a Jacksonville Sheriff’s office lieutenant who had studied hypnotism use hypnosis on Phillips. The detective said Phillips was hypnotized in the police station before Phillips selected Williams out of the photographic lineup.

The CIR interviewed Phillips, who confirmed he had been hypnotized. He said his memory had “blacked out” after being shot, and he could not remember anything about any of it prior to being hypnotized.

On October 19, 2023, Williams, represented by attorneys Brandon Scheck and Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, filed a petition seeking to vacate Williams’s convictions.

The petition said the failure to disclose that Phillips had been hypnotized had critically handicapped the defense’s ability to undercut the sole identification of Williams as the gunman. The jury, the petition said, “was led to falsely believe that Phillips had [a] consistent, unforgettable recall of Williams as the shooter.”

“Despite the overwhelming evidence that Mitchell—not Williams—was the shooter, law enforcement forged forward with their commitment to the theory that Williams was the shooter, likely because Mitchell committed suicide and, therefore, could not be prosecuted,” the petition said.

On January 3, 2024, the CIR joined with Williams’s lawyers in requesting that the petition be granted. Judge Lindsay Tygart vacated Williams’s convictions, and the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Following the hearing, Scheck said, “The story to be told here is the work that the prosecutors did in the 4th Circuit, and their pursuit of justice and figuring out getting to the bottom of the truth,” Scheck said. “It speaks to the significance of the work that the prosecutors here in Jacksonville are doing on a day-to-day basis.”

The Fourth Circuit State Attorney’s issued a statement saying: “Years after Williams’[s] convictions, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that hypnotically refreshed memory was unreliable and consequently inadmissible as evidence of guilt. As a result, the state will not refile the charges from 1975 against Williams.”

At the time, no other exonerated person in Florida history had served as long as Williams. In an interview with WJCT News 89.9 after the case was dismissed, Williams recalled that after he was sentenced, he believed he would die in prison, but he didn’t realize that “God had a better plan. And this is that plan: I’m going to be out here free, with my family and my friends.”

In April 2024, Williams filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville against the city of Jacksonville, Duval County and detectives from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/9/2024
Last Updated: 4/18/2024
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1975
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No