When, at age 15, he entered a Missouri prison he was sentenced to die in, Anthony Williams began studying law books to help his case. Now, he uses that knowledge to help other people who were sentenced as children to life in prison.
In 1994, a St. Louis judge sentenced Williams as an adult to life in prison without parole for murdering a 14-year-old boy outside a dance hall the previous year. Williams, who was also 14 at the time of the fatal shooting, had never been in trouble with the law.
Twenty years after Williams entered prison, in 2014, a judge overturned his murder conviction, citing exculpatory evidence that prosecutors withheld. Prosecutors declined to try Williams again. Williams’ attorney and the state reached an agreement, under which the judge sentenced Williams to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder and armed criminal action. The judge gave Williams credit for the time he’d served, which meant he was free. The judge cited the 2012 Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which made automatic sentences of life without parole for children unconstitutional, as part of the rationale for approving the agreement between prosecutors and Williams’ attorneys.
A jury had convicted Williams of fatally shooting Cortez Andrews, who was also 14, outside the dance hall. But Williams’ attorney, Jennifer Bukowsky, found seven people who provided statements that Williams was not the culprit. She said that prosecutors knew of at least three witness statements that contradicted the state’s case that Williams was the killer. The victim’s twin brother was among the witnesses who said Williams was not the killer.
Williams had mixed feelings about the deal that freed him, because prosecutors did not admit he was innocent. “I took the agreement because I was facing death in prison for something I didn’t do,” he said. “My appeals had been exhausted. I’d almost completely lost faith in the system working for me.”
While he was incarcerated, Williams voraciously read law books to try to help his case. He helped other people with their legal issues, including some who had been tried and convicted as adults for crimes they committed when they children.
Williams put his studying to use as soon as he was released. Bukowsky hired him to work as a law clerk, and Williams also launched Missouri PAC (Prisoner Advocacy Consulting), a firm that provides an array of services, such as advocacy, investigations, and tips on coping with incarceration, to criminal defendants.
Williams has also met with Missouri state legislators, to advocate for juvenile justice reforms, including the abolishment of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). “Guys in prison don’t have a voice,” Williams said, adding that he is determined to provide them with one.