Skip navigation
Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual - Header
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

HRDC Files Civil Rights Action on Behalf of Wrongly Convicted Florida Man Who Spent 45 Years in Prison

by Sam Rutherford

 

On April 17, 2024, the Human Rights Defense Center (“HRDC”), CLN’s non-profit publisher, and the civil rights law firm of Loevy and Loevy filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on behalf of a Jacksonville man who spent nearly 45 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The Crime

On October 8, 1975, Alfred Mitchell walked into a Jacksonville produce store and shot Kathrina Farah and David Phillips three times each after demanding their money. Willie Williams was sitting in the passenger seat of his car outside and had no idea what Mitchell had done. Mitchell jumped in the vehicle and sped off as police began pursuing them. When Willie asked Mitchell why they were fleeing, he responded, “I just killed two people. Don’t you be the third one.” Willie managed to escape the vehicle when it crashed into a parked car. He was apprehended without resistance by police and taken to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (“JSO”). Meanwhile, Mitchell fled into a nearby house and shot himself in the head, dying immediately.

            Neither Farah nor Phillips died as a result of their gunshot wounds, but both were severely injured. Farah’s eyesight was permanently damaged by a gunshot wound to her head. Similarly, Phillips had little memory of the robbery after being shot in the back of his head.

The Investigation

JSO Detectives Charles David Ritchey and W.J. Mooneyham were assigned to investigate the case. They quickly determined that Mitchell was solely responsible for the shooting. The detectives located a witness whose office was across the street from the produce store. That witness confirmed that only Mitchell entered and exited the store and further observed Mitchell place something under the driver’s seat of the vehicle before speeding off.

Ritchey and Mooneyham also spoke with officers involved in the police chase who confirmed that Mitchell was the driver and that Willie leaped from the passenger side of the vehicle and did not resist capture. Officers also confirmed that the weapon used to shoot Farah and Phillips, a chrome-plated revolver, was recovered from underneath the driver’s seat of the getaway car. They found a second gun, a black revolver, on Mitchell’s person – the one he used to kill himself to avoid apprehension.

Ritchey and Mooneyham also interviewed Farah and Phillips while they were recovering from their wounds. Farah described the shooter as someone matching Mitchell’s description. Phillips, however, was unable to provide any description beyond saying the shooter was a Black man carrying a chrome-plated pistol.

Meanwhile, another JSO detective, James Geisenburg, interviewed Willie at the Sheriff’s Office. Willie gave a written statement saying he had no knowledge of the crime until Mitchell threatened him. Willie’s statement was entirely consistent with all the evidence Ritchey and Mooneyham gathered indicating that Mitchell was the sole perpetrator of the robbery and attempted murders.

JSO Detective J.R. Starling was also able to connect Mitchell to a murder two weeks prior to the produce store robbery. Starling closed the case after determining that Mitchell, acting alone, had shot and killed a man during a robbery using the same chrome-plated revolver recovered from under the driver’s seat.

The Frame Up

Despite clear evidence that Willie was an unwitting bystander to Mitchell’s crimes, JSO detectives decided to pin the robbery and attempted murder on him by coaxing an identification out of Phillips. Just two days after the shooting, detectives visited Phillips in the hospital. They showed him a photo line-up including pictures of both Mitchell and Willie. Phillips could not make an identification, stating he didn’t remember anything after being shot.

After Phillips was released from the hospital, the detectives asked him to come to the station. JSO Detective Lt. Bryant Randolph Mickler hypnotized Phillips to “help” him remember more details. After the hypnosis session, detectives again showed Phillips the photo line-up, and this time, he identified Willie as the shooter. Phillips also identified Willie during an in-person line-up.

Based solely on Phillips’ identification, Willie was tried and convicted of attempted murder and robbery. The detectives never disclosed their notes from an audio recording of the hypnosis session. The detectives also manipulated police reports and gave perjured testimony at Willie’s trial to conceal the true nature of the identification procedure.

Willie’s Imprisonment

On February 16, 1976, Willie was sentenced to life in prison with the chance for parole and shipped off to serve his sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections (“FDOC”). Frequent readers of Prison Legal News (“PLN”), CLN’s sister publication, know that FDOC is one of the most dangerous penal systems in the U.S., both in terms of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and systemically poor conditions of confinement. [See, e.g., PLN, February, 2016, pg. 14; PLN, May, 2000, pg. 16]. Willie would spend nearly 45 years confined within this system for a crime he did not commit.

According to Willie, “I suffered a lot of mental anguish, a lot of hardship from the environment that I was in. It was a prison.” Willie endured solitary confinement, forced labor on a chain gang, and was required to work in a prison infirmary without pay or access to personal protective equipment where he contracted illnesses from exposure to infected blood.

            Throughout his imprisonment, Willie continued to maintain his innocence and repeatedly sought relief from the Florida courts. Each time, his requests were rebuffed, oftentimes with judges citing to Phillips’ supposed “identification” as justification for affirming the convictions. Finally, on June 30, 2020, Willie was released from prison on “early” parole. He was 75 years old. He had been continuously incarcerated since he was 31.

The Exoneration

Even after his release, Willie did not give up on his quest for justice. With help from the Innocence Project of Florida, Willie convinced the Conviction Integrity Review Division of the Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office (“CIR”) to review his case in 2021. The CIR discovered the fact that JSO detectives hypnotized Phillips in order to secure an identification of Willie as the shooter and then suppressed evidence of the hypnosis prior to trial. Detective Ritchey admitted as much during a CIR interview.

On October 19, 2023, Willie’s defense team filed for post-conviction relief based on this previously undisclosed, exculpatory evidence. The State Attorney’s Office joined the request a few months later, and nearly 48 years after his arrest, Willie’s conviction was finally set aside.

The Lawsuit

HRDC and the prominent Chicago-based civil rights firm of Loevy and Loevy then took up Willie’s case by filing suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the JSO detectives who framed him, the City of Jacksonville, and Duval County. The complaint alleges the detectives violated Willie’s right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment by suppressing exculpatory evidence when they failed to disclose the hypnosis to defense attorneys prior to trial, by offering perjured testimony at that trial concerning Phillips’ purported “identification” of Willie as the shooter, and by doctoring police reports to hide the fact that they induced the identification with hypnosis thereby framing Willie for a crime he did not commit.

            “As we allege in the complaint, members of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office worked together to frame Willie for crimes he did not commit,” Lauren Carbajal, one of Willie’s attorneys, said. “We allege that these officers hypnotized one of the key witnesses in Willie’s case into identifying Willie as the perpetrator of the crime.”

            The Complaint further alleges that both the City of Jacksonville and Duval County are liable because their official policies and practices at the time of Willie’s arrest, trial, and conviction encouraged officers to use “unconstitutional measures … to falsely implicate criminal suspects, including by withholding or suppressing exculpatory evidence, fabricating evidence, feeding information to or manipulating witnesses, and engaging in unduly suggestive identification and lineup procedures.” Additionally, the Complaint alleges that both the city and the county also failed to adequately train officers to not engage in these unconstitutional practices or to take steps to prevent such misconduct and are therefore liable for Willie’s wrongful conviction and incarceration.

            Willie’s lawsuit seeks damages in an amount to be proven at trial. “Money will never replace the time and the anguish and the emotional thing that I went through, but it will give me some confidence with my family and my wife to try to live the rest of our lives,” Willie said at a news conference the day the civil rights suit was filed. Paul Wright, HRDC’s Executive Director, also told reporters, “I think the time is to call on the folks of the city government of Jacksonville to right this wrong and ensure that Mr. Williams receives the compensation he’s entitled to. He’s had 45 years of his life, almost half a century stolen from him.”

            “We’re looking forward to helping get Willie a measure of justice,” wrote Jon Loevy, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, in an emailed statement following the press conference.

            Willie is represented by Loevy and Loevy attorneys Jon Loevy and Lauren Carbajal, as well as HRDC attorneys Joshua Martin and E.J. Hurst. CLN will report further developments in the case as they become available.

 

Sources: Williams v. Ritchey, et al., USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:24-cv-00367; News4JAX.com

 

As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Williams v. Ritchey, et al.

 

 

Prison Phone Justice Campaign
Advertise Here 3rd Ad
Stop Prison Profiteering Campaign Ad 2