ST. LOUIS — A 34-year-old man sentenced to life in prison without parole in a teenager's 1993 dance hall death was freed Thursday after a legal compromise spurred by a judge's favorable ruling on his claims of innocence.
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Bryan Hettenbach reduced Anthony Williams' first-degree murder conviction to second-degree murder and ordered his immediate release on a 20-year sentence, with credit for time served.
The ruling came two weeks after a Cole County judge overturned Williams' conviction in the shooting death of 14-year-old Cortez Andrews, citing potentially exculpatory evidence that Williams' appellate lawyer said his trial attorney never received from prosecutors. Williams was also 14 at the time of the crime but was certified to stand trial as an adult. He was also convicted of armed criminal action.
"I haven't slept for two weeks, with the thought that I might be home," Williams said after the hearing, surrounded by friends and family members on a sidewalk outside the city jail, the orange prison jump suit he had worn in court replaced by a new sport coat, slacks and loafers.
The deal between Williams' lawyer and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce was set in motion June 18, when Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled that "evidence was suppressed by the government ... either willfully or inadvertently" and ordered the St. Louis prosecutor to either file new murder charges or release Williams by Thursday. The judge vacated that ruling earlier this week over a procedural dispute, but Thursday's hearing made those deliberations moot.
Joyce and Beth Orwick, the chief trial assistant who represented the top prosecutor in court, insisted that Williams was guilty and said their review of a case that went to trial before Joyce was elected in 2000 found "no indication of any violations in the prosecution of this matter." Former prosecutor Hope Whitehead, who is now in private practice, also has rejected the Jefferson City judge's conclusion.
But Green's ruling prompted negotiations for a lesser punishment, for which Williams was eligible after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles. Just last week, members of Williams' family said at a courthouse prayer vigil that he had turned down an offer identical to one he accepted Thursday, asserting his innocence. But that was before Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster formally challenged the overturned conviction, arguing that defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky failed to include details about notes from a city prosecutor in the actual innocence petition that led to the Cole County ruling.
"It's bittersweet," Bukowsky said, noting that Williams remains a convicted felon and the compromise scuttles any further legal appeals on his claim of a wrongful conviction. "When you're a defense attorney, it's not like when you're playing poker. They're not your chips."
Williams continued to assert his innocence after his release but was more focused on his future. He said he wants to attend college and plans to move to Columbia, near where a sister and his 19-year-old son live. Anthony Robinson was born several months after his father was imprisoned.
"It feels good," he said. "It's been a long time."
In his ruling, Green repeatedly faulted prosecutors for not providing Williams' previous lawyers with potentially helpful evidence, including three witness statements that contradicted the accounts of state witnesses who identified Williams as the shooter; police dispatch and 911 emergency tapes; and statements by Andrews' twin, Courtney, at the crime scene naming another assailant.
Four previous appeals by Williams to state, city and federal courts had been denied. Bukowsky said that a total of seven other people at the dance offered statements recently that Williams was not the shooter. Three of those witnesses who said that Williams was standing in front of the dance hall when shots were fired from a vacant lot to the east were summoned to the courthouse expecting to testify but never called as defense witnesses by Williams' previous lawyer.
Bukowsky, who regularly appears on a politically conservative talk radio show in Columbia, called the timing of Williams' release particularly significant on the eve of Independence Day. She said her client will be the guest of honor Thursday night at an annual holiday party hosted by her family.
"This is a great way to celebrate this country's freedom," she said.