After serving 18 years for kidnapping and rape, crimes that recent DNA testing proved he did not commit, Derrick Williams of Florida was released from prison Tuesday evening into the embrace of his family. The past few months have been full of activity as Williams’ defense team at the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) prepared to present evidence to the courts that proved his innocence. Seth Miller, the Executive Director of the IPF and Melissa Montle, the lead attorney on the post-conviction case, argued that not only had Williams’ due process rights had been violated because evidence (rape kit, hairs and vacuum samples from the victim’s car) that may have cleared Williams had been destroyed by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, but other physical evidence demonstrated his innocence. The most compelling evidence was the DNA results provided by the forensic DNA experts at DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) of the t-shirt worn by the actual assailant. This new DNA evidence showed that other people-and not Derrick Williams-wore the gray t-shirt that the victim kept from her attacker. Mr. Williams’ conviction was vacated and was granted a new trial last week. When the State Attorney’s Office first stated they would appeal the case, Williams and his legal team expected his ordeal to drag out even longer. Instead, on the following Monday, he learned he would go home that evening and spend his first night of freedom home with his family.
“DDC provides DNA expertise to Innocence Projects across the country and, including this most recent ruling, has successfully assisted with four exonerations since 2008,” Peter Vitulli, president and CEO of DDC, said. “The Williams case represents DDC’s third collaborative effort in the last two years with the Innocence Project of Florida. Our world-class facility and testing methods allow the science to speak for itself, and the expert testimony we provide clearly explains what can be complicated issues. The freedom this has given to Mr. Williams proves the power of DNA testing and proves the process works.”
According to Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, “In the Williams case, Dr. Heinig testified about the DNA results and clearly explained the science, giving Judge Marc Gilner the necessary clarity in a complicated scientific case. Without Dr. Heinig’s testimony, the evidentiary hearing would not have ended so well. Dr. Heinig and the DDC experts were able to compile results from a most difficult and degraded sample and then explain and defend the findings in a comprehensive and easy to understand manner for Judge Gilner. Without the DNA testimony provided by DDC, even the most compelling scientific evidence could have been lost on the court and justice would have suffered.”
“Working with Dr. Heinig and DDC has been an incredible collaboration for the Innocence Project of Florida,” Melissa Montle, lead attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida, said. “As we work more and more post-conviction cases, we are finding that the evidence available to us for testing has become complicated and challenging from a scientific standpoint. Dr. Heinig’s expertise and success with degraded or otherwise difficult samples has a proven track record we can rely on. Due to this expertise, we’re able to do a better legal job for our clients. Dr. Heinig doesn’t just deliver the findings, she defends them. We look forward to continuing to work with DDC and Dr. Heinig on future cases and can’t express enough how important their DNA testing has been in this case and our prior exonerations. It’s been invaluable.”