When Anthony Williams' murder conviction was thrown out last month, he had a chance to be released from prison -- something he never had since he was sentenced to life without parole 20 years ago at the age of fourteen. All he had to do was plead guilty to a crime he says he didn't commit.
After Cole County Judge Daniel Green threw out Williams' 1994 murder conviction on grounds that the prosecution withheld evidence, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office gave an ultimatum: Drop your claim for innocence, accept a reduced charge of second-degree murder, receive time served, and get out of prison -- or roll the dice and take the case to court again.
"My first instinct was 'no.' I didn't do this and I'm gonna fight and just continue to hold out and see what happens," Williams tells Daily RFT. He had two weeks to take the Circuit Attorney's deal or risk going to court and possibly losing his chance at freedom.
The 34-year-old says the two weeks were filled with sleepless nights and endless self-doubt. If he had to go to court again, the process could have drawn on for months, maybe longer.
"They were talking this four or five or six more month stuff and I could barely make it through the 15 days of anxiety and uncertainty. So another four, five, six months? I know I couldn't have made it mentally," Williams says.
For the 20 years he had been imprisoned, he never had a real "out date" to look forward to as the day he would be released, a fact he was reminded of every time he looked at his Department of Corrections paperwork.
"My out date always read '9-9-9-9-9,'" Williams says.
Not wanting to risk keeping that impossible date over a chance to get out in a few days, he called up his attorney, Jennifer Bukowsky, and said he wanted to take the deal.
"I wouldn't be able to live with myself knowing that I had the opportunity now to regain my freedom and somehow lost that down the road by trying to go through this process of having to win again,"he explains. "It was unbearable for me. So I elected to come on home."
Besides, the man who has always maintained his innocence didn't have a whole lot of faith in the court system.
"That's something I learned very early on when I got convicted. Just because you're innocent, it doesn't really mean anything," he says. "One court can see something one way, another court can see it another way."
So Williams took the deal and was released from prison. But he is still the convicted murderer of Cortez Andrews, something Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce pointed out in a statement after the deal was announced.
"We believe there is sufficient evidence that Mr. Williams is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Joyce writes. "The State's witnesses remain available. We have been provided no new exonerating evidence. We believe Mr. Williams is guilty."
The prosecutor who put tried Williams twenty years ago also denies Williams' innocence. In fact, she tells us in an email statement that if the case went to court, she'd help prosecute him herself.
"The circuit attorney's office had all of the witnesses lined up and ready to go; the victim's mother and twin brother still want life imprisonment for Anthony Williams. And, I would have come back to the circuit attorney's office to personally try this case again," Whitehead says. "The only mention of Anthony Williams' innocence comes from Anthony and his lawyer."
But Bukowsky says that despite the acceptance of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, there was never an admission of guilt on the record.
"[The circuit attorney] reduced the charge to murder second and credited Williams with time served under Miller. That didn't require him pleading to anything," she says. "He didn't have to plead to a crime that he did not commit. We just had to draw up a habeus petition as part of the deal so we could no longer litigate about his innocence."
Despite the debate surrounding the meaning of his conviction, Williams is now a free man trying to adjust to the outside. But his adjustment process is different than most former prisoners because of his age when he was locked up.
Shortly after being arrested and held for the murder, Williams was placed in a juvenile dormitory of an adult prison that was separate from the adult living quarters. But other parts of prison life required mixing with adult prisoners.
For more on Williams' life in prison as child, click on the next page...
"We went to visits with adults, ate in the same dining hall as adults, walked in the hallways and things like that with the adults, but we lived in our own dormitory inside the jail where all the are guys under seventeen," says Williams.
During his sixteen months in the juvie prison dorms, Williams was tried and convicted as an adult for the murder of Andrews and, just days after his sixteenth birthday, was sent to the adult part of the prison. Juveniles who are convicted as adults are eligible to stay in protective custody, but Williams says this can be worse than being a kid mixed-up with adult prisoners because it's little different than solitary confinement.
"You're locked down for 23 hours a day and sometimes you can't get contact visits," he explains.
So he stayed with the adults. But Williams says he was able to avoid some of the dangers children in adult prison face because a group of prison activists took him under their wing.
"They made it their business to kind of corral the younger guys -- and I was the youngest," he says.
"They shielded me from all the negativity and all the madness that could have affected me. I was given the opportunity to mature and I was encouraged to go to school and get my GED and to further my education by becoming an avid reader."
Williams ended up obtaining his GED at the age of sixteen, which Bukowsky points out is earlier than most people outside of prison, especially considering his circumstances.
"Going from a first-degree murder trial to GED classes is pretty impressive, I think," she says.
The prison activists also encouraged Williams to learn the law by reading law books. That way, they said, he might be able to one day obtain his freedom. So he got a job in the law library, where he worked for several years.
But while Williams was, in a way, growing up in prison, he also had a child growing up on the outside. Just a few months after Williams was first locked-up, his son was born.
"He was a straight-up accident but I like to think he was a godsend, especially because it had to happen probably within days of my incarceration and probably one of the first times I had ever been with a girl," Williams says.
Having had that experience at least once before being put in prison for the rest of his life was important for Williams.
"The fact that I got life without parole, it meant I was never gonna be free again or have an opportunity to have kids or any of that," he says. "So that was one thing I could always positively draw from: At least God had given me a son."
During the past twenty years years, Williams was able to maintain a relationship with his son, thanks to Williams' parents, who raised the child and often brought him on visits.
"A lot of times when guys are incarcerated and have kids, it doesn't work out too well because they don't have family members who have their best interests at heart and support them and say reinforcing things to their children so the kids don't view them negatively," Williams says. "So I was really fortunate in that regard and now that I'm out, my son sticks to me like glue."
But it wasn't until earlier this month that Williams was able to make breakfast for his now 19-year-old son for the first time -- an event that somewhat symbolized Williams' lengthy incarceration. Not only had he never done it before, but he hadn't cooked anything in two decades.
"I had to throw away the first batch because I didn't put any butter in the skillet," Williams admits.
But the next batch turned out better.
"And we sat down at the kitchen table -- he and I -- and we ate breakfast together for the first time."
Williams knows he has some challenges ahead of him. Being a convicted felon isn't easy, less so when that felony is for murder. But he's positive he can make a life for himself.
"I think I'll be able to move on past this. I'm not afraid of what the next part of my life is going to be. It's been wonderful and I think I've been blessed," Williams says. "And even though the conviction hasn't been officially removed, everyone I've encountered post-prison has treated me like an innocent man."
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