The Breaking of Chains

The mood in Courtroom 505 wastensely electric when Jacksonville Circuit Court Judge Angela M. Cox uttered the words, “You are free to go.” For several minutes, the two grey-haired men to whom she had spoken held one another and wept, under the watchful eye of armed guards for the last time. Behind them, spectators jammed into wooden benches bore witness to a historic moment: an exoneration more than 42 years in the making.

It did not have to be this way. Since their arrest in the early morning hours of May 2, 1976 on suspicion of the murder of Jeanette Williams and attempted murder of Nina Marshall, Nathan Myers and his uncle, Clifford Williams, have maintained their innocence. (The Williamses are not related.) Also proclaiming their innocence were dozens of eyewitnesses who placed them elsewhere when shots rang out that spring night.

Their arrests were based on an eyewitness identification. Immediately, Marshall claimed to have seen them standing in the bedroom as they each emptied a chamber of bullets, wounding her and killing her girlfriend instantly. The prosecutor would later argue that the crimes were motivated by a $50 drug debt. Williams, then 34, was a known heroin dealer with a lengthy criminal record.

In addition to the many alibi witnesses, the physical evidence did not back up this theory of events. There was likely one shooter, not two. Six bullets were recovered from the victims and the scene—all fired from the same weapon. A seventh, from a different caliber weapon, was surrounded by scar tissue, proving it long predated the other injuries. Window and screen damage led to the conclusion that the shooter had been standing outside, not inside, the room. Testing before trial also demonstrated that if the shots had been fired inside the room, the partygoers nearby, among them Myers and Williams, could not have heard the gunfire.

Nevertheless, the case proceeded. Due to an error, the first trial, just two months later, resulted in a mistrial. Subsequently, the state offered Myers, then 18 years old, a plea deal. He refused to serve even the proffered handful of years for a crime he hadn’t committed. Soon after, they were both tried again. In a two-day trial, their attorneys did not call a single alibi witness, nor present any of the mountain of evidence disproving Marshall’s account of two shooters inside the bedroom. Instead, the defense relied solely on discrediting her identification. This argument failed and, on Oct. 27, 1976, the men were convicted of murder in the first degree.

The state sought the death penalty. The jury recommended life in prison. The judge overruled them and handed down a death sentence for Williams, which was commuted to life several years later.

Thus began the long quest for exoneration. Their files indicate that, like many serving lengthy sentences, they have become legal experts for the purpose of arguing their case.

In the time since, many associated with the case have died, including the victim Marshall, their defense lawyers, numerous witnesses, and Nathaniel Lawson, the man who, before his death, told several people that he was the shooter, and expressed remorse that others were doing his time.

On March 28, 2019, that time ended when 61-year-old Myers and 76-year-old Williams walked out of the courtroom as free, and legally innocent, men.

The two owe their hard-won freedom to State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who established a Conviction Integrity Review Division, the first of its kind in Florida, soon after attaining office, and hired Shelley Thibodeau as director. In January 2017, Myers sent Thibodeau a letter, which was the impetus for the exhaustive investigation that resulted in their convictions being overturned.

On the spring day that Myers and Williams were freed, nearly 43 years after that fateful night in 1976, it was impossible not to see all the people behind them, everyone who played a part in the series of events that brought them before the court—the prosecutors who challenged the historic purpose of their profession by pursuing exoneration, rather than incarceration—the attorneys who failed in their duty to defend them—the prosecutor who did his job all those years ago and now must live with the result—the loved ones who lived and died as Myers and Williams languished in cells—the jurors and police and public who saw not two potentially innocent men, but a black man who dealt drugs and his nephew and protégé in the criminal world.

There are more innocents who have broken bread and slept fitful nights behind iron bars as punishment for a crime they did not commit. How many of these people will never breathe the sweet air of freedom? It is the most merciful, horrible, wonderful tale of justice and injustice in Duval County.

About FOLIO