Chris Williams, who was released from prison in February after spending 25 years on death row, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Philadelphia, former city prosecutors and several Philadelphia Police Department detectives, "seeking justice for over 30 years he spent as an innocent man on death row," according to the lawsuit filing.
Williams, who is African American, was released from prison on Feb. 9, after being exonerated in a second murder case. He was charged and tried for six murders, which occurred in separate incidents in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, and was acquitted of two of those murders and convicted of the remaining four.
Former assistant district attorney David E. Desiderio and a number of Philadelphia detectives "covered-up evidence, buried leads, and fabricated evidence to arrest and convict Mr. Williams and others," the lawsuit alleged. Desiderio has previously denied any allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Williams' attorney, Ben Crump, spoke to reporters Wednesday outside of Philadelphia Municipal Court, saying, “We have to be honest enough to say that we have to improve our system, America. We must be better than what happened to Chris Williams.”
He went on, “You can only imagine the psychological trauma that he endured, knowing that he was an innocent man, but yet the government was within days of killing him for a crime he did not commit. If there's anybody who deserves justice it is Chris Williams. What is the price for stealing his life?”
Philadelphia's Conviction Integrity Unit has exonerated 21 people in the past four years. The CIU, created and led by the Philadelphia district attorney office, has since 2018, reviewed cases of those who may have been wrongfully convicted. The CIU’s work includes sentencing reviews, maintaining the police misconduct databases, and reviewing commutation petitions for people in prison.
Williams is the 167th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973 and the seventh in Pennsylvania.
“I spent 25 years on death row and I was convicted of three homicides. I had three death penalties and one life sentence. There were times where ... I didn't know if I was coming home, but I never gave up,” Williams said Wednesday as he was joined by family.
“I am aware that not only has this happened to me, but this has happened to other individuals, Black and brown, male and female, and who may not have a voice,” he continued. “There were times where I've often asked myself, 'Why me?' But now I asked myself 'Why not?' because individuals may not have had the ability to articulate what they were going through.”
Williams has six children, 26 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. He said he is advocating for others who have also been wrongfully convicted.
“I don't have time to pity myself because I feel as though I stand among the backs of individuals who paved the way for me,” Williams said. “That's why I've never given up with myself and I can never give up on individuals whom I’ve left behind in those cages. It's my privilege to not only speak up on the behalf of them, but to be their voice.”
Crump said he hopes Williams' story sends a message to the nation.
“The district attorney's office here in Philadelphia never expected Chris Williams to be free. They expected him to die in prison,” said Crump.