Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

HRDC Files Suit for Exonerated Florida Prisoner Wrongfully Incarcerated Over 44 Years

On April 17, 2024, the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center—which publishes PLN and Criminal Legal News—filed suit in federal court for the Middle District of Florida on behalf of Willie Williams, Jr., 79, seeking redress for over 44 years he spent wrongfully incarcerated for armed robbery and attempted murder based on a misidentification made under police hypnosis. Williams, who was paroled in 2020, spent another three years under state supervision before the state’s Fourth Judicial District Conviction Integrity Review (CIR) unit discovered both the spurious identification and that police had destroyed evidence of the hypnosis session used to obtain it.

Williams was 31 on October 8, 1975, when he was a passenger in his own car—his license had been suspended—being driven by acquaintance Alfred Mitchell, 30. Unbeknownst to Williams as he waited in the car’s passenger seat outside the Wesconnett Produce Store in Jacksonville, Mitchell went inside and robbed shop owner Katherine Farrah, 35, and a customer, David Phillips, 28, shooting each three times.

Based on the account of eyewitness Robert West, who was some 150 feet away from the store at the time, Jacksonville cops chased a green Buick as it sped away with two Black men inside, sideswiping another vehicle. Understandably alarmed, Williams demanded that Mitchell tell him what had happened in the shop, to which came this reply: “I just killed two people. Don’t you be the third one.”

When the car hit a second vehicle, Williams jumped out and ran. Police tracked and apprehended him nearby. Officers also tracked the vehicle as it hit a curb and stopped, and Mitchell ran into a nearby home and fatally shot himself. The gun he used, a black revolver, was one of two recovered; the other, a chrome-plated handgun found under the driver’s seat in the Buick, was later matched to the bullets that wounded Farrah and Phillips. It was also matched to the bullet in a fatal shooting during a robbery two weeks earlier at Palm Furniture store. Mitchell’s clothing, West recalled, matched the man’s he had seen enter the store and drive away.

Nevertheless, detectives focused on Williams as the shooter, accusing him of stripping off the shirt that West recalled to explain that inconsistency. Farrah’s wounds left her eyesight diminished, and Phillips also failed to identify Williams as the shooter. But one of the detectives on the case, Lt. Bryant R. Mickler, hypnotized him to make the identification. Evidence of the hypnosis session was then destroyed before cops called Phillips back to review the lineup of suspects one more time; predictably, he chose the man he’d been hypnotized to select.

Mitchell’s sister-in-law reported that he confessed to the murder at the furniture store during a robbery to fuel his $200-a-day drug habit; she also said he had vowed not to go back to prison. But Williams’ defense was not permitted to tell the jury any of this. Based largely on Phillip’s testimony—even though it contradicted West’s testimony—Williams was convicted in February 1976 of two counts of armed robbery and attempted murder. He received a ridiculously severe sentence for the crime: life in prison. A state appellate court upheld the conviction and sentence the following year.

After Mitchell’s June 2020 release on parole, the Fourth Judicial District CIR unit—which was established by State Attorney Melissa Nelson—agreed to look into his case. CIR chief Shelly Thibodeau discovered that Phillips had been subjected to hypnosis, which the complaint notes is widely derided as “junk science.” A petition to vacate Williams’ convictions was granted on January 3, 2024. Nelson’s office then dropped all charges against him.

The suit filed on Williams’ behalf alleges his civil rights were violated by Jacksonville and Duvall County, as well as its police Dets. Charles D. Ritchey, W.J. Mooneyham, J.R. Starling and Hugh Fletcher. The estates of deceased Dets. Mickler and James Geisenburg are also named defendants. Williams is ably represented by attorneys with Loevy and Lovey in Chicago, including Jon Loevy and Lauren Carbajal, as well as HRDC in-house counsel Joshua Martin. Williams’ advanced age adds urgency to the case; as HRDC founder and Executive Director Paul Wright said, “Now, I think is the time to call on the folks of the city government of Jacksonville to right this wrong.” See: Williams v. Ritchey, USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:24-cv-00367.


Additional sources: Florida Times-Union, National Registry of Exonerations, WJAX

As a digital subscriber to Prison 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