BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Antonio Williams walked out of prison this summer with a proclamation of innocence.
He had not, a judge ruled, raped a little girl, a crime for which he had served four years, six months and 26 days in prison.
Williams walked out of prison with that proclamation, with the feeling of redemption it brought.
But he walked into the world without much else. The family he left behind was broken, the jobs he could perform had disappeared.
The life he knew was gone.
“You cannot give back five years of my life for something I didn’t do,” Williams said. “Right now, I want justice.”
Williams, 43, says he is able to forgive. But as he tries to restart his life, he cannot promise to forget.
He can’t forget the time he spent in prison, nor the stigma of being convicted — even wrongly — of child rape.
He can’t forget that it’s been almost six years since he has seen or talked to his own little girl, who now is almost a teenager.
And he can’t forget the system that found a way to convict him in the first place.
“I haven’t got no sorry or thank you from these folks.” he said.
‘Tried to be fair’
Williams grew up in Birmingham, according to court documents. He attended Wenonah High School and graduated there in 1986.
After graduation, Williams worked a variety of jobs including as a cook at Burger King and McDonald’s, and a dietary assistant at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
In 2000, he became a father. The relationship with the little girl’s mother had ended before Williams knew she was pregnant.
“I wasn’t denying her,” Williams said of his infant daughter. “She was the spitting image of me.”
The mother told him about the baby, but later tried to claim it wasn’t his.
A paternity test proved otherwise, and he vowed to stay in his daughter’s life, despite the mother’s objections.
Williams spent time with his daughter at her grandfather’s house where she lived. Her mother had four children, and all lived with her father who had custody of them.
Williams said the other girls would get upset if he paid attention only to his daughter, so he did for all what he did for his. “I tried to be fair,” he said.
That included giving the girls baths, a fatherly task that would come back to haunt him.
In 2005, Williams learned that he was accused of rape and sexual abuse of his daughter’s 9-year-old half sister, one of the girls he had helped to bathe and take care of.
The allegations surfaced in interviews at the Prescott House after it was discovered that the little girl had sexually transmitted diseases.
“She said I touched her on her private parts, three times,” Williams said. “She said that I told her if she told everybody what I did, I would kill her.”
The girl’s father was trying to get custody of her. Williams was trying to get custody of his own daughter.
Someone, Williams said, concocted lies to stop that from happening. Lies that wouldn’t go away.
“I was mad as hell,” Williams said. “They were playing with an innocent man’s life.”
Williams was arrested on April 27, 2005, after being indicted by a grand jury.
“I didn’t think it would go that far,” Williams said. “The detective had told me I had nothing to worry about, that a grand jury would never indict me.”
Prosecutors claimed that Williams had sexual intercourse with the alleged victim, and improperly touched her, several times when the girl was between the ages of 3 and 6.
A year later, Williams said he went to trial before an all-white jury, where various family members of the girl — relatives both by blood and by marriage — testified. There were no eyewitnesses, and no physical evidence, such as DNA. Just the word of an abused little girl mired in a dysfunctional family.
A jury on April 5, 2007, unanimously convicted Williams of two counts of rape.
“I cried,” Williams said. “I never was, and never will, be a child rapist.”
Williams waited for jurors outside of the courthouse. He screamed at them as they left, something former Circuit Court Judge Gloria Bahakel noted in Williams’ sentencing hearing three weeks later.
Williams’ pastor, the Rev. Thomas Moon who has since retired from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Titusville, pleaded with the judge not to hold that against Williams. Williams was a member of the church before his arrest, and was in the choir.
“When I went through instruction classes with him, I was aware of the temper problems in the past,” Moon told Judge Bahakel. “I have counseled him on being more respectful of the process and not letting his personal emotions burst out. He has a very strong feeling that he is innocent in this matter.”
At the May 2007 hearing, Bahakel asked Williams if he had anything to say.
“Nothing I can say,” a weary Williams said. “I am still not guilty.”
Prosecutor Jim Neill argued for the maximum sentence.
“This man raped and sexually abused not just once or twice, but several times, according to evidence, a 5 to 6-year-old girl. He deserves the maximum penalty in this case.”
Bahakel sentenced Williams to life in prison. His only previous convictions were for driving without a license, and third-degree trespassing. He was also ordered to enter the prison’s sex offender program.
“I thought it was unbelievably harsh,” Moon said.
Williams went to prison on May 18, 2007.
Prison is not an easy place for convicted child rapists, but Williams said he kept a low profile. Prison records show no infractions, and Williams said he dodged questions from fellow inmates about why he was in prison.
“It was real scary,” he said. “I was nervous at first, but after that I got the hang of it. It taught me a lot.”
Williams repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, and filed appeals to that end, but no one other than his close circle of friends believed him.
That changed in April of this year when the alleged victim, now 15, changed her story.
Problems with the case
On April 14, 2011, the girl was interviewed again at the Prescott House on an unrelated issue. It was then that she admitted Williams had never abused or raped her. In fact, she named someone else as the rapist, and her older half-sister corroborated that with tales of her own abuse.
Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls said his office moved quickly to correct the wrong.
“The victim lied, and she maintained that lie through the investigation and trial,” Falls said. “As soon as we knew that, we contacted the defense attorney and the judge.”
Williams was appointed an attorney and a hearing was set before Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace.
Wallace, in a ruling issued in May 2011, outlined problems with the initial case: From the outset, the alleged victim was reluctant and gave contradictory testimony.
“She merely indicated that the defendant had touched her while giving her a bath. She did not say it was inappropriate,” Wallace wrote. “She was unable to discuss or recall the allegations that she made to the social worker at the Prescott House, even denying at one point that she had made any allegations against defendant. Only in her testimony, and only after being prompted, did she fully implicate Williams.”
In this year’s hearing, the girl was asked repeatedly if he had ever touched her inappropriately or raped her. Each time she categorically denied it. She named the person who raped her and said he threatened her with harm if she ever told, which is why, she said, she wrongly named Williams the culprit.
“The court took exhaustive measures to examine and re-examine,” Wallace wrote. “She was asked every conceivable way whether any touching or abuse occurred, and she repeatedly and unequivocally denied that any such contact or rape ever took place.”
The judge’s order also noted that the girl told her stepmother after trial that she had not been sexually abused or raped by the defendant, but the stepmother never relayed that to authorities. Also, the victim’s half sister testified that she had been similarly abused by the person the victim is now claiming abused her.
Wallace called some of the testimony admitted into the original trial “appalling.”
He also lashed out at William’s original defense attorney, saying he had never requested to look at the victim’s 2003 interview at the Prescott House. “If he had, he would have discovered that she gave no disclosure that anyone had touched her, let alone Williams,” Wallace wrote.
In his findings, Wallace said based on the newly discovered evidence and testimony, “there is a great likelihood that had this information been known, the defendant would not have been convicted.”
There was evidence the alleged victim had had sexual contact, primarily by contracting an STD at age 6, and the judge said he is convinced she was raped by one person, or multiple people.
“The court is hopeful the true perpetrator will be brought to justice,” Wallace wrote. “Regardless, it is the court’s duty to correct the injustice committed here.”
Wallace set aside and reversed the convictions, and ordered a new trial.
Falls said he can’t recall a time in his 14 years at the district attorney’s office that a conviction was secured only to find out the victim was lying.
“I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to rectify the situation. This is a rare circumstance, and it is what everyone in this office works to prevent,” Falls said. “Our job is not to just prosecute, but to honestly seek the truth in every case. We have to rely on witnesses to prosecute those cases. This is a terrible situation where that reliance was betrayed.”
Prosecutors declined to go forward with a new trial against Williams. The person now being named as the suspect has not been charged. “We would have to make sure we had extensive corroborating, independent evidence,” besides the girl’s testimony, Falls said.
Williams walked out of the Jefferson County Jail at 6:23 p.m. on Aug. 23.
“First of all, I said, ‘Thank God I am free,'” Williams said.
Wearing his only pair of jeans, a T-shirt and boots, Williams carried with him a partial transcript of his case, and nothing else.
He walked the several miles to the Cotton Avenue apartment of one of his best friends, where he had his first home-cooked meal in years and the support of his good friend Andre Savannah.
“I believe he was done wrong. He lost five years of his life for something he didn’t do,” Savannah said. “It was dirty, and it was wrong.”
Williams came back to virtually nothing.
His apartment, and all of his furnishings, were gone. His daughter’s aunt had kept for him one suitcase of his belongings, such as photos of Williams and his daughter, and his high school diploma.
He recently moved into his own apartment near his best friend, but the efficiency unit is all but empty. He was diagnosed with a learning disability as a child, so he gets a disability check and use it to pay for his apartment. He has a few items of clothing, a pallet on the floor, and a phone with an answering machine. There is no furniture, and no food in the refrigerator which, two weeks after moving in, was still unplugged.
The only decor is a 4 x 6 plaque on the wall that he received from his church before his arrest and conviction. “It was for me being a role model,” he said proudly.
“I don’t like starting over like this,” he said. “It’s very hard.”
In fact, he and his friends aren’t sure where to even start.
“You have to wonder what does a guy do that has been in jail for all these years,” the pastor said. “For him to get back on his feet in this type of economy, with his skill level, is going to be a tough road to go.”
Moon is trying to help guide Williams in this transition.
“I am trying to do what I can to help him out. The state of Alabama just let him out and sent him home, with nothing,” he said. “I would not want to be in his shoes right now. It is an overwhelming task for anyone.”
Though Williams wrote his daughter from prison, he never heard back from her. He has no way of knowing if she ever got his letters. He has not seen her since 2005, when she was 6.
He hasn’t yet tried to see her, he said, because he is afraid of angering her family.
“The hurting part is not seeing my child. It’s very hard,” Williams said. “It’s like a child crying at night, that’s how hard it is.”
“And,” he said, “I don’t know how she’s going to react to me when she sees me.”
“He has every right to see her,” Moon said.
“And is there any way for him to be compensated for the time he was wrongly incarcerated?” Moon said. “Where can he find work? What options does he have? Are they going to ask him where he has been for the past four years? Employers don’t want to mess with that.”
Williams said he has talked to six lawyers since his release, but none would help him. He thinks he finally has found one interested in taking him on as a client.
He wants justice, he said, whatever that may be.
“This part of my life is always going to be forever damaged, and that’s something I’ll never get over,” he said. “Only God knows how frustrated and angry I am.”
He wants his name publicly cleared.
“I ain’t no child molester,” he said. “I don’t just believe in God and his son Jesus Christ, I live it.”
Still, he said he is ready to move forward, somehow.
“I am going to live my life. I am going to get back on my feet,” Williams said. “It’s not by the grace of man, it’s by the grace of God. He done blessed me once; he’s going to bless me again.”