Florida House committee approves $2.15 million for man exonerated after 43 years in prison
TALLAHASSEE — Clifford Williams appeared Wednesday in the Florida Capitol in a blue suit, yellow shirt and blue paisley tie, leaning on a cane while he smiled and thanked God for delivering him from prison after being wrongly incarcerated for nearly 43 years.
After convincing authorities of his innocence, the Jacksonville man is now trying to convince the Florida Legislature that he should be compensated for all those years he spent behind bars. On Wednesday, a House committee advanced legislation that would do just that.
The compensation bill (HB 6507) sponsored by state Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, cleared the House Civil Justice Subcommittee with unanimous support. It would give Williams $50,000 for each year he spent in prison, or $2.15 million total.
Daniels said the bill can’t truly compensate for everything Williams missed out on while on death row, which is where Williams landed after being convicted in 1976 of murdering a woman in her bedroom. That conviction was thrown out this year after a conviction integrity unit set up by Jacksonville State Attorney Melissa Nelson concluded Williams is innocent.
“What House Bill 6507 does do, is that it sends a message loud and clear that the Florida House of Representatives cares and we are stepping up to the plate to make what was wrong, right,” Daniels said.
In addition to promoting HB 6507, Williams’ supporters are also calling on the Legislature to pass a repeal of the so-called “clean hands” provision that prevents individuals who have been exonerated in one criminal case but not others from receiving compensation without going through the Legislature.
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has reformed the state’s wrongful incarceration law in the past to make reparations easier, said his proposed changes in SB 346, an omnibus crime bill that also includes sentencing reforms for drug crimes and requires police to record all interrogations, are “common sense” measures that he expects to pass.
“My focus has always been on the policy rather than individual cases,” Bradley said. “That all being said, I will be supportive of Clifford getting relief by any means.”
A spokesman for Nelson said she neither supports nor opposes the claim bill or the effort to change the clean-hands provision.
House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee noted that Williams spent more than 15,000 days in prison, a timespan that included eight presidencies and 11 U.S. military conflicts. The minimum wage was $2.30 when Williams went to prison. Milk cost $1.72 a gallon.
McGhee apologized to Williams as he looked on from a chair in a House meeting room.
“We are here today to make it right,” McGhee said.
In March, Clifford Williams and Nate Myers were released from prison after serving nearly 43 years for a murder they didn’t commit. Their convictions were overturned by the Jacksonville State Attorney’s Office’s conviction integrity review unit.
The state’s investigation found there was no evidence the men could have committed the 1976 murder of Jeanette Williams of which they’d been convicted, and significant evidence pointed to their innocence.
Both men have sought compensation under the state’s wrongful incarceration compensation act, but that law limits reparations only to those who have fewer than two prior convictions and only to those without certain types of prior convictions. Myers qualifies. Williams doesn’t.
While Williams has filed a constitutional challenge to the law’s limitations, a pair of Northeast Florida senators aren’t waiting for that case to resolve. Myers also has yet to receive any compensation.
Because the clean hands provision applies to Williams, he must seek relief from the Legislature with a specific claim bill.
In 2017, Bradley loosened the wrongful incarceration compensation act’s earlier more stringent requirements to make it easier to file compensation claims. During that session, Bradley tried to remove any limitations based on past convictions, but he told fellow senators at the time that he had to put some limitations back in — anyone with violent felony convictions or two or more felony convictions — as part of an agreement with the Florida House.
In 2008, when the initial bill was debated, Senate President Bill Galvano, who was then a member of the Florida House, said all wrongful incarcerations should qualify for reparations.
No one has yet publicly opposed Bradley’s reforms in the coming session.
Williams repeatedly thanked God Wednesday for his freedom. He said the years in prison were “rough” but “I always was a man that believed God is real, God is good.”
“I just trusted God for them 43 years,” he said.