TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday to compensate a former death row inmate $2 million who was released after 43 years in prison for a murder authorities now say he didn’t commit.
Clifford Williams was released from prison in 2019 in a case that is now called an injustice. Both chambers of the Legislature passed the bill unanimously. Williams smiled broadly when the bill was sent to DeSantis in March.
Williams and his nephew, Nathan Myers, were convicted of the 1976 fatal shooting of Jeanette Williams and the attempted murder of Nina Marshall in Jacksonville. Williams was at first sentenced to death and spent four years on death row before being resentenced to life in prison. Clifford Williams and Jeanette Williams weren’t related.
No physical evidence linked the men to the crime. Marshall, who has since died, was the only witness and her testimony contradicted evidence gathered by investigators that has since called her credibility into question.
Several witnesses told investigators that the men were at a party down the street when the shooting happened, but defense attorneys called no witnesses and neither the alibi nor the contradictory forensic evidence were presented to the jury.
Both men were released from prison in March 2019. Myers was eligible for $2 million in compensation under state law, but Williams wasn’t because he was previously convicted of two unrelated felonies. That’s why lawmakers needed to authorize the payment from the state’s general revenue.
At a news conference after the bill passed, lobbyist Larry Sellers, who volunteered his time to help get the bill through the Legislature, expressed amazement at Williams’ positive attitude.
“You don’t have a bitter bone in your body. I don’t know how you did it,” Sellers said.
Williams smiled and pointed both fingers upward.
Another bill signed Tuesday will require the state Department of Transportation to create staging areas along the state turnpike system for hurricane and emergency response supplies. The bill will also require the state to develop a plan to create infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations along the state highway system.
In other bill actions, DeSantis signed a bill that would pay veterans and members of the military $5,000 in benefits if they adopt a child in the state’s child welfare system. That benefit would double if a special needs child is adopted. The law will take effect July 1.
Another bill will allow state attorneys to create review teams to investigate the deaths of elderly residents when abuse or neglect is suspected. It will take effect July 1.
Gov. DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday approving a $6 million payment to a black man who was left paralyzed when a sheriff’s deputy mistook his cellphone for a handgun and shot him four times.
The Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office must pay the money to Dontrell Stephens, 27, who was left paralyzed from the waist down in the 2013 shooting. The Legislature in March overwhelmingly approved a bill waiving the state’s $200,000 limit that local governments can be required to pay for damages in most cases.
A federal civil jury in 2016 had awarded Stephens $22 million after he sued, an amount Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw refused to pay. After years of negotiations, Bradshaw had offered Stephens $4.5 million, but the Republican-led Legislature went $1.5 million above that.
Of the $6 million, $3.4 million will be used to buy Stephens an annuity to pay for his living expenses, care and treatment. His attorneys will get $1.1 million and $2.5 million will go toward settling Stephens’ medical bills.
Deputy Adams Lin pursued Stephens, then 20, in his patrol car after Stephens rode his bicycle across a busy road through traffic. Videotape from Lin’s dashboard camera showed that when Stephens saw Lin behind him as he rode into a duplex’s parking lot, he slowed his bike and hopped off.
Lin, an Asian American, testified at the 2016 trial that he thought Stephens was trying to run away and jumped out of his car to cut him off. The video shows that after Stephens hopped off his bike, he walked toward Lin. The deputy is out of sight of the dash cam and Stephens is mostly out of sight when Lin opens fire four seconds after Stephens jumped off the bike. Stephens falls back into view with Lin close behind still firing.
Lin testified at the 2016 civil trial that Stephens put his left hand behind his back and flashed a dark object that he thought was a gun. The dash cam video, however, showed Stephens had his phone in his right hand and that his left hand was empty.
Stephens’ attorneys argued that Lin must have pulled his gun almost immediately after leaving his car as he could not have opened fire so quickly otherwise.