- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2020

It took only one day after being labeled a nonviolent offender and released early from jail under new coronavirus rules for a Florida man to land back behind bars — accused, this time, of murder.

The case has helped fuel growing nationwide alarm over the rush by state and local officials to release inmates to protect them from exposure to COVID-19 behind bars.

Joseph Edwards Williams, 26, of Tampa, was arrested March 13 on charges of possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. He was among 164 inmates released March 19 from the Hillsborough County Jail to prevent the spread of the virus.

A day after being released, Williams was the triggerman in a Tampa homicide, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.

He was arrested on second-degree murder charges, the sheriff’s office announced Tuesday.

“There is no question Joseph Williams took advantage of this health emergency to commit crimes while he was out of jail awaiting resolution of a low-level, nonviolent offense,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement.

Although Williams was labeled a nonviolent offender, he has a lengthy rap sheet that includes arrests on more than 35 charges.

He was convicted of two felony offenses, including burglary in 2012 and felon in possession of a firearm in 2018. He also has five misdemeanor convictions.

Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, slammed the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office for Williams’ release.

“This is exactly the type of horror story we’ve been warning about,” he said. “How anyone can think that it’s in the interest of public health and safety to release someone onto our streets like this gentleman, with a reported 35 priors to his name by age 26, including burglary and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, is beyond me.”

On March 20, police investigating reports of gunfire in a Tampa neighborhood found a man who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Williams was arrested Sunday in connection with the case. In addition to the murder count, he was charged with resisting an officer, felon in possession of a firearm, and new charges of possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia.

He is being held without bond.

The public defender’s office is representing Williams. Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt declined to comment because the case is pending.

Mr. Chronister acknowledged the challenges of trying to balance public health concerns with community safety.

“Judges, prosecutors and sheriffs around the country are facing difficult decisions during this health crisis with respect to balancing public health and public safety,” he said. “Sheriffs in Florida and throughout our country have released nonviolent, low-level offenders to protect our deputies and the jail population from an outbreak.”

Cities and counties across the country have released inmates awaiting trial, labeled a nonviolent offender or have a short time left on their sentence. Some of those sprung have heightened concerns among the public and law enforcement.

In Utah, a man released early because of COVID-19 concerns last month was quickly rearrested. He is accused of breaking into a woman’s home, tying her up at knifepoint and threatening to kill her if she didn’t give him the PIN codes for her bank cards.

Others, meanwhile, have raised questions about how they got out in the first place.

A Washington Times investigation revealed a homeless, HIV-positive convicted rapist was among those sprung in Cincinnati.

Dexter Ford was arrested last month on trespassing charges after he washed in the bathroom of a grocery store. Ford was convicted in 2007 of raping an epileptic University of Cincinnati student.

The judge overseeing his case said Ford could have made bail if he had put up $100 as collateral. She told The Times Ford was released because he shouldn’t suffer for lack of a $100.

Other releases drawing scrutiny nationwide include eight registered sex offenders who were released in suburban Buffalo, New York, under a statewide order to thin the population of a local prison. Three of the releases are deemed most likely to reoffend.

Authorities in Cincinnati also released ZahQuita Davis, who was arrested late last year on charges of stealing $370 worth of items from a Target store and trying to flee the scene by taking a car that had children in it. She told police she didn’t know children were in the car.

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