Civil rights attorney speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia on Wednesday, 12/1/21 (Philadelphia Tribune photo).
By Brian Saunders
PHILADELPHIA — Christopher Williams sat in his bed at 4 a.m. and got up an hour later, fearing he would be taken back to jail. He was traumatized and fearful his freedom would be snatched away again.
That’s the reality for a man who was taken away from his family for 31 years in 1990 after being charged with six separate murders.
Williams, then 29, spent 25 years of his sentence on death row for four murders after acquittal from two other murder charges.
Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office opened up case files and found a litany of lying informants, prosecutorial misconduct, and hidden exculpatory evidence used to convict innocent people and began overturning convictions.
Williams was released from prison Feb. 9 of this year at 61.
On Wednesday, Williams, his family and a team of attorneys — including Ben Crump and John Marrese — held a news conference to announce a civil lawsuit against Philadelphia, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, prosecutor David Desiderio and 17 police detectives.
“We have the privilege of representing a historical figure, not only here in America, but around the world,” Crump said. “Because people look at our system as the model, we have to be honest enough to say that we have to improve our system in America. We must be better than what happened to Chris Williams.”
Crump said Philadelphia has one of the worst records of wrongful convictions — especially Black men — and he hopes Williams’ testimony will help change that.
In 2020, Crump was the attorney for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake as they dealt with wrongful deaths in high-profile cases.
“What’s the price for stealing his life?” the crowd chanted at the news conference.
Williams said he represented himself after former prosecutor Desiderio had convicted a woman of vehicular homicide even though she was in the vehicle’s passenger seat. He pleaded to the jury that this prosecutor’s history should be taken into account.
“I spent 25 years on death row,” Williams said. “After I was convicted of three homicides, I had three death penalties and one life sentence. There were times where as though I didn’t know if I was coming home. But I’d never gave up hope.”
Williams gave credit to Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s current district attorney, for his work exonerating innocent people. Nonetheless, if Krasner did not explore decades-old files from his office, there’s no telling what would have happened to Williams.
While in prison, Williams missed the births of 26 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren from his six children. Williams said his youngest son Christopher Atwell was 6 months old when he went away.
Atwell said you could never take back the feeling of growing up without his father.
“I’ve lost family members. I didn’t go to weddings. I didn’t see childbirths — you’re talking about 26 grandchildren,” Williams said. “I didn’t see none of them come into the world. I lived that vicariously through photos.”
Williams remained present as much as possible but said after 25 years on death row, his first visits with his family were heavy, although he tried to make sure his children had a smile on their faces.
He said that he remained present in his children’s lives throughout his sentence and planned to continue to embed wisdom into them and his grandchildren now that he is free again.
“I’ve always been a father. I’ve often told men up in there (in prison) no one has dismissed you of your duties because you’re here,” Williams said. “So I was a father on the street prior to going to jail. And I was a father in jail. And I just came out and stepped into my duties as a free man.”
Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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