January 26, 2007
Georgia State College of Law student Cliff Williams was a youngster in Cartersville, GA, when Willie O. “Pete” Williams was wrongfully imprisoned in nearby Fulton County almost 22 years ago.
But today the third-year law student‘s internship with the Georgia Innocence Project has helped result in the freeing of Pete Williams, a man who throughout his imprisonment staunchly maintained his innocence.
The release of Pete Williams, who in 1985 was sentenced to a 45-year prison term for rape, has made major headlines. After some 20 years of incarceration, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the Georgia Innocence Project in 2005, asking for their help. Since its founding in 2002 by College of Law alums Jill Polster ('01) and September Guy ('01), the Georgia Innocence Project has worked for the release of those wrongfully sentenced to prison by utilizing advances in DNA testing.
“The number of innocent people in prison is impossible to quantify,” Cliff Williams observed. “America has the fairest criminal justice system in the world, but people fall through the cracks. That's why I am so grateful to have worked with an organization like the Georgia Innocence Project, which makes sure those individuals do not go unnoticed.
“An unrivaled and relentless commitment to our clients is the only way to safeguard against tragedies like this from occurring again,” he continued. “The persistence and diligence of Michael Schumacher's (Pete Williams' trial attorney) representation are what allowed the Georgia Innocence Project to prove Pete's innocence. Watching him walk out of the Fulton County Jail as a free man was the highlight of law school, if not my entire future, career.”
A University of Georgia undergraduate with a major in finance and a minor in political science, Cliff Williams decided to attend law school at Georgia State for a variety of reasons. And he credits his experience working with the Georgia Innocence Project as a guiding factor in his future.
“The College of Law is an incredible school with a talented faculty, many of whom have extensive litigation experience,” Cliff Williams said. “Working with the Georgia Innocence Project during law school has helped guide my career path significantly. I definitely want to pursue a career in criminal defense, hopefully starting in a public defender's office somewhere in Georgia.”
Cliff Williams noted his biggest influences have come from a collective group of mentors and faculty members including Judge John J. Ellington of the Georgia Court of Appeals, Aimee Maxwell ('87) and Lisa George of the Georgia Innocence Project, and COL professors Mark Kadish and Paul Milich.
“Rarely have I seen such a combination of native talent and passion for the law,” commented COL alum Maxwell, the executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project. “Cliff's commitment to Mr. Williams' case was unwavering. He truly exhibits the finest qualities of our profession. Our intern working on this case before Cliff was Ashley Tyson-Mackin ('06), now a COL alum. Then for months Cliff worked with two volunteer lawyers on the case, Bruce Harvey and COL alum Sandra Michaels ('87), to finally present the case to the judge in the motion for the DNA testing. The judge swore Cliff in before the hearing and later complimented him on the presentation.”
College of Law Dean Steven Kaminshine said he is proud of the student's hard work and commitment to the case … and the cause.
“Cliff Williams is a wonderful example of how our students learn and are shaped through their internships with organizations that are doing amazing work in the legal arena,” the dean remarked. “We're especially pleased that the nonprofit group Cliff works with, the Georgia innocence Project, is so closely tied to our law school through its founders, its director and the COL students who intern with the organization.”