On March 12, 1983, two men robbed the Medicare-Glaser pharmacy in Creve Coeur, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, fleeing with $42 in cash and $18 of pharmaceuticals. In February and March 1983, a series of similar robberies had taken place at other Medicare-Glaser pharmacies in and around St. Louis, each committed by either an individual robber or a pair of robbers who fit the same descriptions. In most of the crimes, the robbers stole the prescription painkiller Talwin. The Creve Coeur robbery was the fifth such crime, and police suspected the same perpetrators committed all the robberies.
Two witnesses to the March 12 robbery viewed an in-person lineup and identified 30-year-old Maurice Williams, who had a criminal record for shoplifting. Police arrested Williams on March 15, 1983 and charged him with first-degree robbery.
Witnesses to three of the other recent pharmacy robberies also identified Williams. However, two of these robberies occurred while Williams was in prison in Illinois, so the identifications were clearly erroneous. Separately, Williams was also identified in a March 7 robbery in St. Louis City. Williams was then also charged with robbery in that incident. St. Louis City operates as a separate governmental entity from St. Louis County (the location of Creve Coeur), and the charges for the March 7 robbery were prosecuted separately from the March 12 Creve Coeur robbery charge.
After Williams’s arrest, a final similar robbery occurred at a nearby Medicare-Glaser pharmacy on March 26. Despite Williams’s incarceration at the time of this robbery, prosecutors continued with their cases against Williams for the March 7 and March 12 crimes.
Before his trial for the Creve Coeur robbery, Williams was at a city jail and encountered Oliver Pickens, another inmate. After learning why Williams was there, Pickens revealed that he knew Williams had not committed the pharmacy robberies because he knew the true perpetrators. Pickens offered to testify that he knew Williams was innocent.
Williams’s trial for the Creve Coeur robbery began on January 23, 1984 in St. Louis County Circuit Court before Judge Margaret M. Nolan. Assistant Prosecutor A. Frances Carpini prosecuted the case and public defender Stormy White represented Williams. White tried to introduce evidence of the series of seemingly related robberies – and that Williams had been incarcerated during several of them – but Carpini objected, claiming the other robberies were irrelevant. The judge agreed with Carpini and did not allow the jury to be informed of the other crimes. There was no physical evidence tying Williams to the Creve Coeur robbery. Williams was excluded as the source of fingerprints taken from the scene of the robbery. Pharmacist David Meador, an eyewitness to the robbery, identified Williams in court, testifying that he had no doubt Williams was the robber. Melva Weber, a pharmacy customer who witnessed the robbery, also identified Williams at the trial.
Williams’s mother testified that her son was home every minute of the weekend of March 12. Keeping his word, Oliver Pickens sought to testify for the defense in an effort to clear Williams’s name. Pickens told the judge, “I’m just here to let you know that you got the wrong man, that I know the people personally who committed the crime…” However, since Pickens would not testify that he had been at the scene of the crime himself, the judge ruled his testimony to be inadmissible hearsay and it was not presented to the jury.
After an hour and fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury found Williams guilty of first-degree robbery in February 1984. Judge Nolan sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
In an interview in May 1984, Pickens confessed to the string of pharmacy robberies. Pickens said that he and his cousin, 31-year-old Sterling Shavers, had committed seven robberies in February and March of 1983, including the one in Creve Coeur for which Williams had been convicted. Shavers and Williams were both Black men weighing approximately 190 pounds and standing roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. Both men often wore full beards. Williams’s complexion was darker than Shavers’s. At a lineup in 1983, a witness to one of the February robberies had said Williams looked like the robber except that the robber’s complexion had been lighter. In May 1983, Shavers had been sentenced to two years in prison for fraudulent attempts to obtain pentazocine – the generic name for Talwin.
Other evidence, such as the description of the getaway car and a witness who had overheard one robber calling the other “Oliver” before the robbery, also supported Pickens’s confession. On June 16, 1984, St. Louis County Prosecutor George Westfall said, “at this point, I believe there is a misidentification and that Oliver Pickens and Sterling Shavers committed the robberies Maurice Williams was convicted of.” Williams submitted to and passed a polygraph examination administered by the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office on June 29, 1984.
Williams, who had already filed an appeal, filed a motion with the appellate court to instead have jurisdiction returned to the trial court, for purposes of filing a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. In its July 13, 1984 opinion, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, noted that the information contained in Williams’s motion for a new trial would, if true, completely exonerate Williams. The prosecutor then filed an affidavit with the appellate court confirming the truth and accuracy of information referenced in the motion and agreeing that jurisdiction should be returned to the trial court. On July 13, 1984, the appellate court granted the motion, dismissed the appeal, and the case was remanded to the trial court for purposes of hearing the motion for a new trial.
On July 30, 1984, Judge Nolan set aside Williams’s conviction for the Creve Coeur robbery and granted him a new trial. At the request of prosecutors, the charge against Williams was dismissed the same day.
Asked why he had confessed to his involvement in the crime, Pickens explained “if the system is going to catch somebody and say, ‘He did this crime,’ it should catch the right people…”
The remaining robbery charge against Williams for the March 7 robbery was dropped on August 7, 1984. Released from prison on August 7, Williams said, “the judicial system. I’ve seen how they operate now… If it weren’t for this thing coming to light, I would have been doing that 25 years.”
After his release, Williams filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the St. Louis police department and individual officers, the Creve Coeur police department and individual officers, and Medicare-Glaser drugstores. The case went to trial in November 1986. The jury found that the defendants had not violated Williams’s civil rights, and Williams lost his case on November 26, 1986.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.