Alvis Williams was sentenced to 80 years in prison after a nonviolent incident in Kansas City. He was convicted of stealing a VCR, a Walkman and other electronics in 1994.
The 48-year-old has been in prison ever since on what law experts deemed a sentence unprecedented in its harshness. But on Friday, after serving more than three times the sentence he would have served had he been convicted today, Williams walked free from the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron.
His wife arrived at the facility, and they left shortly before 6 p.m.
Gov. Eric Greitens commuted Williams' sentence to time served earlier in the day, one of his final acts as governor. He also commuted the sentences of three others and pardoned five people.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
"The ability to make wrong things right, for Missourians who have not gotten fair treatment from our criminal justice system, is one of the most solemn and precious abilities of a Governor," Greitens said in a statement. "I believe in justice, and I believe that with these actions today — justice will be done."
Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said the nine people were all freed Friday.
Williams' sentence was four times the length requested by prosecutors after his conviction. If convicted today, Williams would have received a maximum of seven years in prison.
John Picerno, a Kansas City-based defense attorney, said he's represented violent offenders, including murderers, who have served less time than Williams did.
"I think it's a true and just thing for the governor to have done," Picerno said.
Last year, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker implored then-Gov. Jay Nixon to grant clemency to Williams, a request that went unanswered.
The Star reported in 2015 that Williams' stepbrother signed an affidavit, writing he was certain that Williams was innocent.
"I committed those offenses," Sylvester Stewart Sr. admitted in an official confession.
But for years afterward, Williams remained behind bars.
Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and veteran defense attorney, has worked for years on behalf of another person granted clemency by the governor: Rodney Lincoln.
Lincoln was convicted in 1983 of manslaughter and two counts of assault.
His sentence was commuted to time served by Greitens, but O'Brien was critical that the outgoing governor did not pardon the 74-year-old man, saying he is innocent.
O'Brien said microscopic hair evidence was used as part of the case against Lincoln, but DNA testing later eliminated Lincoln as the source of the hair. The only other evidence against him, O'Brien said, was the testimony of a 7-year-old girl. In 2015, that person recanted her testimony.
It's a "failure of the judicial system" that it took this long for Lincoln to be released, O'Brien said. "The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District (ruled) that innocence is not a good enough reason to release a prisoner."
Finding a job, difficult even for pardoned prisoners who have glaring gaps in their resumes, will be a test for Lincoln, O'Brien added. And the commutation means his felonies will remain on his record.
"Our work is not done," O'Brien said.
Lincoln, like the other nine people freed, won't receive compensation from the state. Only those ruled innocent by DNA testing in a court order are eligible in Missouri.
Lincoln's daughter, Kay Lincoln, said she has missed the presence of her father during the past two hardest years of her life, when she lost a child and her mother.
"I know that my dad feels the loss of these individuals personally, but his greatest pain is not being able to to be there and comfort his family," she said Friday afternoon from the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
As she spoke, Lincoln was putting on street clothes inside the facility and awaiting the arrival of paperwork from Greitens' office that would officially grant his release.
Kay Lincoln and other relatives planned to travel with Rodney Lincoln back to St. Louis, where they live. Their first stop was to be at the Steak 'n Shake that Rodney Lincoln frequented as a teenager.
Kay Lincoln said the first thing she planned to say to her father as he left prison would be "Let's go home."
The seven others granted clemency by Greitens are, according to the release:
- Jessie McKim — sentence commuted to time served. McKim was wrongfully convicted of murder two decades ago. Cause of death evidence has been re-examined, and experts believe it is clear that he is innocent.
- Verdia Miller — sentence commuted to time served. Miller has served 35 years for a murder that she did not commit or participate in. She is now 75 and had 15 years remaining on her sentence.
- Stacey Lannert — pardoned. Lannert was the victim of constant rape and abuse. When she finally killed her abuser, she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Since then, her sentence has been commuted and now, as a public servant and advocate for justice, the charge will be removed from her record altogether.
- Judy Henderson — pardoned. Henderson’s sentence was commuted by Greitens in December 2017. Henderson was sentenced to life in prison for her role in a robbery-turned-murder. Her boyfriend — the man who committed the robbery, killed someone, and shot Henderson herself in the process — went free. She could have been out of prison decades ago if her lawyers had not lied to her about the offer of a plea deal.
- Mark Whittle — pardoned. Whittle has been an exemplary public servant, even receiving the honor of Department of Mental Health Employee of the Year in 2009. He has a clean record, since he successfully completed probation for a DWI offense in 1996.
- Gary Thomas — pardoned. Thomas is a former Marine whose only brush with the law is a fistfight in 2008. His record since then has been flawless.
- Betty Coleman — pardoned. Coleman’s sentence was commuted by Gov. Bob Holden in 2004. She served 27 years in prison because her abusive boyfriend murdered someone, and she unknowingly and inadvertently played a role in the incident.
The Midwest Innocence Project called for the commutation of Marcellus Williams' sentence, from the death penalty to a life sentence. Testing found Williams' DNA is not a match for the DNA found on the murder weapon in his case.
Greitens' acts of clemency did not extend to Marcellus Williams.