On Tuesday, 37-year-old Richard Alex Williams took his first steps outside as a free man in more than 19 years. The day prior, a Sacramento court ruled that Williams should be acquitted of a mid-1990s murder case that had sent him to prison in 1998, facing a life sentence.
In 1996, Williams was 18 years old when he turned himself in for questioning regarding a murder when he learned that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Two years later, Williams was on trial. In late 1998, Williams was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Williams has already served 17 years in prison when earlier this year U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton threw out his conviction and sentence. Judge Karlton said that there was evidence that the prosecutor on the case “was motivated by race when he used a peremptory strike to keep the only African American eligible to serve on the jury off the panel,” reports the
According to the
, Williams actually had two trials in 1998; the first one ended with a deadlock jury when the two black jurists on the panel voted for Williams’ acquittal. It was at the second trial later that same year at which Williams was convicted.
Based on evidence of the prosecutor’s misconduct, Judge Karlton ordered the state to retry Williams. The prosecution approached Williams with a plea deal, but he rejected it immediately, his response being, “I can’t plead to something I didn’t do,” he told the
. He went back to court for a new trial in September.
At his retrial, Williams decided that he, not his attorneys, would plead his case to the jury. It was important to Williams that he use his own voice to tell the jury that he was, in fact, innocent.
“He felt like giving his own closing was powerful,” said Victor Haltom, one of Williams’ lawyers, according to the
. “Here’s the prosecutor, who puts up a slick, nice PowerPoint presentation, and then Richard comes up with a couple notepads. And the jury was looking more and paying more attention to Richard than they were to the prosecutor. Just hearing from him was a big deal, probably the turning point of the trial.”
Williams’ was successful. After nearly a week of deliberation, the jury returned with an acquittal. The following day, Williams was released. He “emerged from the jail into the arms of family members,” reports the
“The first thing I did, I went and bought a Sprite and some gum and said, ‘I’m going to sit here and think about this, soak up the traffic, soak up the lights.’ Because, when you’re locked up, you’re away from so much normal stuff that goes on in society, it becomes un-normal to you. So I had to soak it up again,” said Williams.
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