ST. LOUIS (AP) - A judge has thrown out the conviction of a St. Louis man imprisoned for two decades in a teenager’s dance hall slaying, faulting the conduct of police and prosecutors and saying “principles of justice and fundamental fairness” require the action.
Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled Wednesday that Anthony Williams, 34, must either be released from a Jefferson City state prison or return to St. Louis for another trial should Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce refile charges. Joyce said Thursday she is reviewing the judge’s decision in the case handled by her predecessor and that “conviction integrity is of the utmost importance.”
Williams has been serving a life sentence without parole in the shooting death of 14-year-old Cortez Andrews during a fight outside a Washington Avenue teen dance on Dec. 31, 1993. Williams was also 14 then but was certified to stand trial as an adult. A city jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.
This week’s ruling repeatedly faults prosecutors for not providing Williams’ previous lawyers with evidence that could have helped him, 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’ identical twin, Courtney, at the crime scene naming another assailant.
“The evidence was suppressed by the government,” Green wrote, “either willfully or inadvertently.”
“The government’s failure to disclose exculpatory information to the defense undermines this court’s confidence in the verdict,” the ruling concluded. “Principles of justice and fundamental fairness require that Anthony’s convictions be vacated.”
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which represented St. Louis in Williams’ post-conviction challenges, can also appeal Green’s ruling. Agency officials did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment Thursday.
Before Green’s ruling, four previous appeals by Williams to state, city and federal courts had been denied. But the habeas corpus petition - a legal claim of actual innocence - filed in June 2013 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, said attorney Jennifer Bukowsky, who is handling the new appeal.
Bukowsky said she met with Joyce before a February evidentiary hearing and hopes the prosecutor will not decide to charge Williams again. That was the route Joyce took in 2012 after Green ruled that St. Louis police hid or destroyed evidence casting doubt on the guilt of George Allen Jr., a mentally ill man who was imprisoned for nearly three decades in a 1982 rape and murder after making what turned out to be a false confession.
“I can’t even put into words how much it means to me to correct this manifest injustice,” Bukowsky said. “This is a person who would have languished for another 40 years and have likely died in prison.”
Bukowsky said she initially planned to seek only a resentencing hearing for Williams after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles, but became convinced of his innocence. She said the case continues to raise troubling questions about past tactics of St. Louis police and prosecutors.
“They wanted to have this crime solved,” she said. “But they weren’t thoroughly concerned with making sure that had the right suspect.”
Cortez Andrews, the son of a St. Louis police officer, was shot in the head shortly after the end of the dance, which was a fundraiser for the PHAZE drum and bugle corps. About 50 to 60 teens were lingering outside.
Two teens identified Williams in a four-person police lineup, though both acknowledged at his trial that they didn’t see who fired the gun. One girl said Williams suggested at the dance that the fight would lead to a shooting, but added that he did not specify an intended victim or suggest he would be involved. She also testified that Williams had not fought Andrews - in part because she came to Andrews’ aid during the dust-up.
Four years after Cortez Andrews died, his 17-year-old brother was killed in what police called a gang-related shooting.
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