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Hi, it's me, Jason Flom, and I have a quick update for you. We are shuffling the decks a little bit and now wrongful conviction with Jason Pflaum is going to be released on Mondays. And wrongful conviction junk science is moving to Wednesdays. Stay tuned because there will be more exciting developments coming up soon from a lot of for good podcasts. This episode was recorded pre Koed at the Atlanta Innocence Network conference in 2019.
On April 5th, nineteen eighty five, a woman was exiting her car at a parking lot just north of Atlanta when a man approached asking about a woman named Carol. When you got close enough, he pulled a gun, forced her into the passenger seat, drove to a dead end and proceeded to rape her. After the attack, the victim went to the hospital for a rape kit with a well lit parking lot. And over forty five minutes with her attacker, she was able to put together a composite sketch.
On April 10th, a near identical incident occurred along the same stretch of road. A man approached a woman in a parking lot asking for Carol before using a threat of violence to get her back into the car. However, this time the victim was able to talk the attacker into leaving before a rape occurred. Police showed this would be victim the composite sketch, and it appeared there was a serial rapist operating in the north Atlanta area. Then on April 28, Willie Pete Williams, along with two of his friends, were stopped by police for suspicious behavior in the area of the attacks.
Police noticed that Pete resembled the sketch and came up with a reason to arrest him, saying that he gave them false information in order to bring him in to be photographed. His photo was shown to both women for a positive I.D. while Pete was locked up, three more attacks would occur with the same M.O., but it was already too late. Pete Williams spent nearly twenty two years in prison before DNA testing proved that another man was responsible for all five attacks.
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Welcome back to wrongful conviction. This episode is going to be a very unique one. We have with us Pete Williams, who served 22 years in Georgia prison for a rape. He did not commit to rape. Actually, they did not commit. And with him is Drew Findling, who is who can I say, enigmatic character, famous for his work representing some of the top hip hop artists in the world. And he's also now the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
He got involved in criminal defense work because of Pete's case, but they never met until today. Correct. So this is going to be a fun ride and I'm excited to be on it. So, Pete, welcome. And same to you, too. Absolutely. And like I always say, Pete, I'm sorry you're here, but I'm glad you're here. And I want to tell your story because I think it's an important story for a lot of reasons.
I guess at the heart of it is a mistaken eyewitness identification, more than one, actually. And it's a really important thing for us to talk about because it's so common. But can you take us back to I mean, this is a long time ago, right? Because you were exonerated two thousand, seven years with the help of the Innocence Project. So this crime goes all the way back to the mid 80s, right?
I did five. And what were you up to back then? What was your life like? What was going on? And Pete's world?
Mostly I was working. I dropped out of school, really didn't have much going on other than freedom. How old were you? I just it turned 23. So you're 23. You got charged with originally one rape right there, one rape at the time.
And let's talk about this awful rape which occurred on April 5th, 1985, which is when a woman arrived at our apartment complex parking lot along Rosewell Road just north of Atlanta, got out, but she got out. A man approached pretending that he was looking for someone. But when he got close, he pulled a gun and forced her back into the car, then drove her at gunpoint to a dead end street where he raped her. Then he drove her back to her apartment complex and then he left on foot.
So the victim then went to the police and the hospital for a rape kit, which means there was a sample of the rapist DNA. And that becomes important later because after all, there was no DNA testing back in 1985 anyway. So later on, though, we're going to get to that. So by now, the victim had spent a considerable amount of time with her attacker and as a result, she was able to help the police put together a composite sketch.
And this attacker had a particular M.O. to can you talk about that trip? So what had happened is Roswell Road is a very long stretch of road in Atlanta. I want to say it goes north and south, but I'm terrible with things like that. But the real rapist was trolling up and down Roswell Road and he would go to women and I think they would kind of be in their 20s and they were like blond hair and blond hair. And he would say the same, like, have you seen.
I used to know the name Carol. Carol. Yeah. Yeah. Have you seen Carol? And then he take them in the car.
Right. So five days after the first rape on April 10, nearly the same thing occurred along Rosewell Road, although this ended up being an attempted rape, but still the same. Hey, you know, Carol, where's Carol? Except this second victim when he tried to get her to take off her clothes, I don't know how, but she was able to talk him out of raping her. She went to the police. They hear this similar M.O. for just five days before, and they show her the composite sketch.
And she agreed that this sketch resembled her would be rapist. So, Pete, you got nothing to do with this. You had nothing to do this, but you lived in the area. So can you tell us how you were dragged into this when you and two friends got pulled over on Roswell Road?
One night I was riding around Roswell and and it was a car stop. I was passing on the car. So it was was going around in that area. So the way that they arrested me, they told me that I gave them false information. That's just to get me there and get my photograph, my picture to show the witness because I gave them information when I was doing everything adequate. Are you gave them accurate information? Yes. And they say they said was false.
So I can get to police. So you're stopped by the police. They have this composite sketch in the back of their minds and they come up with a reason. They said that you gave them false information, which wasn't true, but they wanted an excuse to get your photograph to share with these two women because they thought that you looked enough like the sketch. So they arrested you then what? I was there for a while where I was down maybe about four or five hours, but it was a cheap bomb, you know, so I was going out maybe three to four hours now that I was arrested.
And two weeks later, I was charged with rape, aggravated assault and aggravated assault on me. And I was arrested and I didn't know what he was talking about. Had you even heard about these?
I didn't have the slightest idea what they said was and positive circling over rape. Was I in that area and I presume now, did that sketch actually resemble you? Yeah, actually. Right. So so you resemble the sketch. So that was did I didn't you know, I didn't I haven't. I just resumed composite sketch. The sketch resembled you and then I'm presuming you were identified as well in a lineup or in court.
It was a lineup and I was identified during the trial as well.
I mean, we know that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. And look, I'm just not the biggest believer in the composite sketch because the composite sketch becomes the perpetrator, not the perpetrator. And so it just happened to have favored him. And then it's the composite sketch and anybody that looks like them that replaces who the actual perpetrator is. So I'm just not a believer in the whole composite sketch thing. I just don't like where they lead, as in convictions of innocent people in cases like this.
So the charges were rape, aggravated assault and aggravated sodomy. And true, this is where you first entered the picture. You became aware of Pete's case and this is at his trial where you were just a young man just out of law school. Pretty much right at the time. I was twenty five years old. I was fresh out of law school and I was an assistant public defender assigned to Mr. Williams courtroom where his case took place. And, you know, I made it my my practice.
Then I would just watch every case I could. I just gobbled it up. And I loved my job as a public defender. And I just happened to watch this case and then really started learning about it. And I watched the trial. So what had happened is Rousell Road is a very long stretch of road in Atlanta, but at some point along the road, it is the city of Atlanta and then it's no longer the city of Atlanta. Well, the real rapist, because it wasn't Mr.
Williams, anybody that watched the trial would realize that because I watched the trial and I'll talk about that later. And it was obvious he was innocent. So, Jason, here's the crazy thing. One jurisdiction handling it was city of Atlanta police. On the other part of the road was Fulton County Police. To this day, I don't know if anybody's looked into did they ever talk to one another? And in fact, if you remember, on the city of Atlanta, the city of Atlanta, police called the person the Roswell Road Rapist.
But yet on the other side of the sign was this case involving Mr. Williams. And apparently he got arrested and eventually they arrested the other guy who I think pled out. Your case was on the ninth floor. His case was on the seventh floor. 837 on the seven.
Yeah. Yeah, he was you on the eight. You're right. Yeah. And he pled out during his trial and I went and watched his also because the public defender's office did that case. How how far apart were the two. I can't remember the dates. They weren't too far apart. But I watched his and I read up on his and I was like, well, this guy did it. And it was astonishing. And let's go back to the pattern.
Right. Because for whatever reason, the attacker always did the same damn thing. Maybe he thought that this was an effective way of him grabbing these women was by asking about this other woman, Carol or Carolyn, why he was fixated on that. Yeah, but that was his thing. And he also had this car that broke down a lot because a number of the women reported that. And what's crazy is that after he was arrested, three more attacks happened with the same damn M.O..
Right. Right. With exactly the same pattern, the exact same pattern. And in fact, this man was responsible clearly for all five attacks, but he only face charges related to those three. And so the other two attacks were pinned on yuppy. And this other guy, Kenneth Wicker, he finally got caught because his last victim heroically was able to take down her attackers license plate number. And it turned out that Whicker lived right along Roswell Road where all of these attacks were taking place.
So it would seem obvious to the casual observer that the D.A. would hear about these other cases and this other arrest and immediately stop focusing on yuppy, but. That's not what happened. And later, all of this was brought up in your appeals and I'm talking as early as nineteen eighty six, but the D.A. just didn't fucking care about it then or while he was prosecuting you in the first place. So Jason and Pete and I, we just met downstairs and we immediately engaged in a conversation about what I'm about to bring up, which has bothered him to this day.
And I'm going to tell it to you. And that is our system. Right, relies on ethical prosecutors. Unfortunately for Pete Williams, his prosecutor turned out to be not so ethical, as we know from several things, including the fact that he's serving a life sentence in his own murder case right now.
The prosecutor, the prosecutor. Oh, plot twist. Yes. I mean, and was also eventually charged not only with that murder, which he was found guilty of, but being the lawyer for a drug operation when he was in private practice. So not the best guy in the world. And and I bring that up only because you would fathom that a decent ethical prosecutor, which there are many of out there, would have realized this, having been the lead prosecutor, Mr.
Williams case and said, oh, we got problems and that never happened. He never had the ethics of a prosecutor that realize what you just said and wanted to put an end to his illegal incarceration. It just didn't happen. And there was a real breakdown. Yeah, I'm still trying to process this. This is a story I've heard a lot of stories and, you know, doing this since the early 90s. The irony is, Pete said to me outside, we agreed.
How come that didn't become the biggest part of the story of Pete Williams illegal conviction and incarceration? As he said, I was serving my sentence and my prosecutor is serving his sentence at the exact same time.
Oh, so he went to prison while you were in prison? Not the same prison. Not the same treatment. But he went during my incarceration. Did you know that at the time? Yeah. Part of his own testimony, Jason, was one of the biggest cases in the history of Atlanta. Yeah, yeah. I can't even think in my 30 plus years of practice of a federal case that they changed venue. It was such a big case.
But they actually had to change venue to Birmingham and his federal case, his murder case, they changed venue as well and did it somewhere in the woods, a rural Georgia somewhere. But they actually moved his federal case to Birmingham because they just couldn't get a jury in Atlanta. Fred Tokarz is his name. It was one of the biggest cases in the history of Atlanta. So I took a second to look up Fred Tokers and what I found out was batshit crazy crazier than what Pete and Drew had said, this Georgia prosecutor went on to become a private attorney to some big time drug dealers.
But besides representing them, he was also helping them hide their money in nightclubs. And eventually, his wife, Sarah, threatened to blow the whistle on his illegal and the various activities. But instead of turning his life around, he plotted to have her kidnapped and killed in front of their four and six year old boys, Ricky and Mike. I mean, what the actual box. He was convicted of racketeering in 1994 and eventually also convicted for Sarah's murder, receiving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
He was held in secret custody as a marked man. And since this interview was recorded, despite his more treacherous than usual situation in prison, Fred Tokers died in May of 20 20 in a Pennsylvania prison hospital due to complications related to a neurological disorder. And that was the prosecutor that put Mr. Williams away. So, I mean, it's just an unbelievable twist of fate, right, that the guy who was responsible for ruining your life. Ends up.
Inmate. The Pacers Foundation is a proud supporter of this episode and of the Last Mile organization, which provides business and tech training to help incarcerated individuals successfully and permanently re-enter the workforce. The Pacers Foundation is committed to improving the lives of Hoosiers across Indiana, supporting organizations dedicated primarily to helping young people and students. For more information on the work of the Pacers Foundation or The Last Mile program, visit Pacers Foundation dog for the last mile drug. You end up getting sentenced to basically a life sentence for five years.
Forty five years to life and you were twenty four at the time. Yeah. So forty five to life. And of course, white by daylight really means life, because ultimately you'd be 68 years old and they would be asking you to plead guilty in a way to get my sentence lined up 15, 18 and 20 due to 15. What I do to 15 do the team sitting and do 20. It was consecutive sentences. So how did you deal with this?
I mean, you're behind bars, convicted rapist, looking at spending your life the rest of your life there. How did you find the strength to even continue on and ultimately contact and reach out and get this incredible team behind you that led to your exoneration and, you know, vindication?
Well, my first year of prison, Miles, you know, segregation of felt all the time insubordination because I felt like there was no hope. So I might well be part of the prison, you know, and I met got out of 10 years a song, and we always went to church and he was always happy, you know, and he had more time and he had a life sentence, but he never showed it. He never showed. And I want to know why, you know, why wasn't he said the church, may I say, in the gospel, makes me feel better.
So I just go out and sing it first because I really didn't know in the gospel, you know? I mean, but once I got to going and listened to gospel, to gospel songs and I started liking it when I became part of choir for about five years. And that's where a guy was in there and he had a booklet concerning Anderson. So I got it. And I started writing them and told them that I had some evidence. Was this Georgia Innocence Project on your new jobs in Georgia?
Yeah, and they got concerns of what kind of evidence you had. So I was writing them and I told them and some way to get a hold to it. They said they had destroyed it here in eighty seven. They say they destroyed all that, but cleared some way. Clifford talked to some of the GBI, some female, and she allowed him back there. And lo and behold, there were male. Evidence and the evidence at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that Pete is referring to is the real rapist DNA sample from the rape kit, and they were finally able to test it to not only exclude Pete, but they also tested against the DNA of the man who had pleaded guilty to those other rapes that had happened during the same time period along Roswell Road.
And sure enough, bingo, it's him. But of course, this incredible revelation did not come without roadblocks and even being told that the evidence was destroyed, which we hear a lot when fighting cases like these. And, Drew, let's go back to you on this. It's it's I mean, it's just nuts that we don't have a nationwide standard for maintaining evidence. In fact, practices are different all over. Some are good and some are like, let's face it, like a third world country.
There's really no national consistency. And and so, you know, when you say earlier, which I completely agree with, that we probably have well over 100000 innocent people in our in our prison systems. And and that's probably a low number we think about. If we had consistency in the preservation of evidence, what we'd be able to do, it's really going to require a coordinated effort, but it's the only right thing to do. There's just absolutely no argument against it.
There's nothing bad about preserving evidence. Well, there's nothing bad about preserving evidence. But then you hear about the Georgia Innocence Project. I went down to to Macon on behalf of them and argued about just having somebody's testing done and prosecutors objected to testing being done. Why would you ever object to testing being done? Why would you ever object to being able to check off the list? The possibility that somebody's innocent is in jail for many years, if not their life.
And it's that same type of flawed logic that would have some say, well, we don't need to take up the room. We don't need to do that. Logistics aren't there for storage. You could just fathom the arguments that are coming, you know, because prosecutors want to believe and law enforcement want to believe that once they have a conviction, it's the right conviction. And so you're going to always deal with that sentiment. Which is wrong. That's the sentiment.
It's the same sentiment that dictates around the country when good folks are fighting on behalf of the Innocence Project to have testing done and there in courtrooms at the podium facing prosecutors that don't want testing to be done to me.
Why would you want to destroy evidence treehoppers and identify the actual perpetrator like it does?
I don't even know what to think of that, really.
I don't thank God they hadn't actually destroyed the evidence from your case because they actually exculpated you and it ended up causing you to be released from prison on January twenty third, 2007. And subsequently it matched up to Kenneth Whicker, who had already pleaded guilty all those years ago to three counts of rape. He was then arrested on February nine, 2007, for the April 5th and 10th incidents. Then four days later, you were granted a new trial on February 13th and the D.A. subsequently dropped all charges, dropped the charge, you know, erased my memory and they took the rape and everything away from my rep.
So you were in court when all the charges were actually dropped? Yeah.
And what was that like? Who was there? A lot of family, was it. Yeah, my family.
My family. And was a lot of people in there that was happy for them. You know, even people I didn't know, you know, like even the police. And as a matter of fact, one of the police that was used to take me back and forth to court and she came down. So I always knew she was innocent.
Wow. How'd that feel to one for one? And it's worth noting that in about 50 percent of the Innocence Project cases where DNA has, it says, exculpated and exonerated the exoneration of an innocent person, it has also led to the identification of the guilty person. That's absolutely right. And in those cases, of course, that person has gone on to have committed other heinous crimes. Yes. When you lock up the wrong person, you stop looking for the right person and then that person that's out there is most likely going to go and do what they did.
Again, it's just a practical issue of we should all want to clean up these systems as best we can so that our ourselves and our families are safe. I mean. Well, you know, look, Jason, I think it's it's symptomatic of a larger issue. It's symptomatic of of our of our problem with mass incarceration in this country. I think it's all that is really tied in. We don't as defense attorneys and accused citizens, you know, we don't control the fact that, as you well know, we represent five percent of the world's population, but closing in on 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population, we don't dictate that.
And I don't want this to be a session where I'm, you know, kind of talking about prosecutors, but they control so much. Pete's case is emblematic of the problem. You had a prosecutor what an anti-social disorder that went on to be involved in a murder himself. And as a as a 25 year old fresh out of law school kid, I watched what I thought was an unethical prosecution. And I watched a man lose his freedom because to this prosecutor, it was a game.
It wasn't about justice. And that's why I made a decision that I was going to spend the rest of my life defending people. Because of your case, it was just a job. At that point. I didn't know anything about a public defender. I never even met a lawyer until my first law school class. I have humble beginnings, but your case dictated to me what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
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I watched that prosecutor game the system, it was just a game to him and and unfortunately, the power that being a prosecutor brings is often results in misguided prosecutions because they have the ability, if they handle ethically, to make sure to the best of their ability. That just doesn't happen to make sure that evidence is preserved, to make sure that there is proper identification procedures and they have the ability to be that wall, that last wall of justice to say, you know, I don't I don't need a motion to suppress identification because as the prosecutor, I don't like the way this went down.
We talk so much about ourselves as defense attorneys and what our job is, but we need to be spending a lot of time looking at the other side of the courtroom. And I get that there's integrity units closing up, but it needs to be a lot greater than that. It needs to be a lot better than just every once in a while. A progressive prosecutor running for office. It needs to be all over the country because he has the benefit of this happening in Atlanta.
But when we go to the rural south, the smaller communities in Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee, sadly, there's a lot of of Pete Williams that are serving life sentences from from prosecutors that were as misguided and as corrupt as the one in his case. And that's why it's so important for people to get out and vote and prosecute a racist, because most people don't like the number of people that vote in these races is so small that if you don't think your vote makes a difference, it does.
I mean, we've seen races that ended up in a dead heat, like tide. You know, like your vote is important. And if you're one of those people so I'm going to vote in the presidential election, it doesn't matter. Yes, it does. It matters in the presidential election would have allowed us a lot more. And your local elections where your day is running and, you know, and electing a progressive prosecutor, that's not even the right word.
A fair prosecutor could affect your life as well, because this could happen to you. It could happen to Pete. It could happen to anybody. We see it over and over again on this show. And then let's even talk about it from a purely physical level. You know, any conservatives that are listening when we think about the amount of money that the taxpayers of Georgia paid? Well, upwards of a million dollars, probably closer to two million dollars to keep Pete locked up and then any other income that he would have been able to earn and pay taxes on.
And, you know, all the rest of the stuff. That's a pretty big thing, too. I just learned the other day on a tangential note that we spend 40 million dollars a day in America on pre-trial detention just because people can't post bail 40 million a day to lock people up who haven't been convicted of anything. That's a day. That's your tax dollars at work and mine, by the way. And whoever's listening, it's nuts. I mean, we lock up more people than Russia and China combined.
Back to your previous point, and we lock black people up at six times the rate of South Africa at the height of apartheid. And if you're a woman listening, then you should just process this for a second, because while you know what Drew said is certainly scary and true about us having 25 percent of the world's prison population, we have thirty three percent of the world's female prison population. That means one out of every three women in prison in the world is in America, which is such a small country.
When you look at the vast world that's out there and the more we can do to get out there and spread the message, the more you do to get out there and vote and get active and volunteer. Go to Georgia Innocence Project, a website, you know, learn more contact NACDL. What is it? NACDL dog exactly? NACDL Dog. That's National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers dog. So I'm glad you brought up kind of where people fall on the political continuum.
You should know that the term just finished and there's a new governor here. But our last governor, Nathan Deal, was a Republican, two term Republican, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers gave him a champion. And I gave him a Champion of Justice award for his work on criminal justice reform. And so you hit on it no matter where you are. Left wing, right wing, no wing. We are in a period of time right now where people are really focusing on criminal justice reform.
And I think that you bring up all the numbers, they're startling and it can impact anybody. You know, whether it's the fact that our prison systems are warehousing the mentally ill, adult autistic population is so many things that attract people. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, we as you know, we have our foundation for criminal justice and we really embrace nonlawyers to be part of it. Our long term goal is to get nonlawyers into our leadership track, let them be trustees.
We need people to reach out to us because we just want everyday citizens to be involved. Come to our meetings. Jason's right. There may not be an election that may impact your life more than who your local district attorney is. Have them answer to your question. Folks need to take these stories to heart, and which is why this podcast is so important, they need to understand that not everybody is going to be blessed with the opportunity to connect up with the Innocence Project.
So listen to podcasts like this and get involved the most you can. And that is once again in a CD blog, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Now, we have this tradition at wrongful conviction, which is my favorite part of the show, which is where I get to just sit back and listen and I leave the microphones on for you guys for any closing thoughts that you want to share. And because Pete is an honored guest here, not that you're not, but, you know, he's the star of the show. I'm going to let him go last. And so, Drew, any parting shots?
Pete, I just want to wish you the best and let let you know that the tragedy that occurred to you influence the course of my existence. So my family, all my clients. I want to you. Well, I'm glad I had the broadcast to let people know that things like that actually happen, people do go to jail, wrongfully convicted, and I'm just glad to know that these things actually happen.
Don't forget to give us a fantastic review wherever you get your podcast. It really helps. And, you know, I'm a proud donor to the Innocence Project and I really hope you'll join me in supporting this very important cause. And in so doing, helping to prevent future wrongful convictions. It's easy. Go to Innocence Project Dog to learn how to donate and get involved. I want to thank our amazing producers, engineers and editors, Connor Hall and Kevin Amortise.
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