Hayes Williams was just 19 years old and had no prior convictions when he was implicated in a 1967 Orleans Parish gunfight between two of his acquaintances (John Duplessis and Larry Hudson) and a gas station owner.
Although Mr. Williams had only been a bystander at the fight, Mr. Williams' lawyer (later disbarred) convinced him that his only hope to avoid the death penalty was to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, which at the time meant 10 years and six months in prison. Although Mr. Williams was innocent, he, like many other have done, pled guilty to a crime he didn't commit to avoid the death penalty. While he was in prison, however, the sentencing rules changed and Mr. Williams' 10 1/2-year sentence became life in prison.
Mr. Duplessis and Mr. Hudson were both sentenced to death, although a state judge later found that witnesses had lied in the case and prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence. Mr. Duplessis, the actual shooter, was pardoned in 1988. Mr. Hudson's conviction was overturned in 1993. However, it wasn't until 1996 that attorneys for Williams won him a new trial based on evidence establishing he was nothing more than a bystander.
Based on this evidence—evidence that the prosecutors had withheld since he was first charged with the crime—he was freed in 1997 after serving 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
While in prison in the 1970s, Mr. Williams filed several lawsuits regarding prison conditions that resulted in a complete overhaul of the Angola prison system. He was known as one of the primary catalysts of some the most substantial prison reforms Angola had ever seen.
Mr. Williams died in March 2000 at the age of 52. He spent more than half of his life wrongfully incarcerated.
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