Less than two years after being exonerated in two different cases, Philadelphia death-row exoneree Christopher Williams (pictured) has been murdered. Williams, who spent nearly three decades in prison, including 25 years on death row, for separate wrongful murder convictions, was fatally shot after attending the funeral of Tyree Little, another formerly incarcerated man, in North Philadelphia on December 16, 2022.

Philadelphia prosecutors framed Williams for six murders and subjected him to four wrongful homicide prosecutions. He was sentenced to death in a triple-murder case, received a life sentence in another murder, and was acquitted of two others. When he was exonerated in the second murder case in February 2021 and released from prison, Williams said, “Never in the history of the Pennsylvania judicial system has someone been charged with six murders, acquitted of two and now exonerated of four.”

Since his release, Williams had been working as a carpenter, trying to create his own construction business that could serve as a reentry program for formerly incarcerated people. The father of six, Williams prioritized reconnecting with his family. Christopher Hartwell, his youngest son, said, “Speaking of the year and eight months I had him out here, he taught me how to be a better man. He helped me be a better father myself.”

Williams’ sister, Maxine Mathis, said, “No matter what, he was going to apply himself to building a real family legacy, something he could leave behind that his children and family could be proud of. Like we’re not already proud of him the fact that he did what he did and stayed the course in order to win his freedom.”

Jane Roh, communications director for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, stated, “What Chris endured as a twice-wrongfully convicted exoneree is unfathomable. And that his short-lived freedom was marked by struggle, as Pennsylvania is one of 12 states in the U.S. that does not compensate the wrongfully convicted, is unconscionable.”

Williams was shot once in the head when he exited his car at the Mount Peace Cemetery after driving in the funeral procession for Little. Williams was 62 years old. No arrests have been made and no suspects have been identified.

“Although we’re actually innocent, not everyone believes it,” Theophalis Wilson, Williams’ co-defendant, who was also exonerated, said. “I spent 28 years in jail for knowing him. I have to be on guard.”

Williams, then 29 years old, and Wilson, then 18, were capitally charged with the September 1989 murders of three members of a Brooklyn, New York drug gang. Williams was also capitally charged with the November 1989 murder of 19-year-old Michael Haynesworth, who was shot to death in the back seat of his car in a Philadelphia park.

Williams was tried first for Haynesworth’s murder, along with a 20-year-old co-defendant, Troy Coulston. Both were convicted in January 1992 and sentenced to life in prison. He and Wilson were then tried and convicted in the triple murder case in August 1993. Williams was sentenced to death and Wilson received a life sentence. Prosecutors also tried Williams for two other murders, but he was acquitted in both cases.

The charges against Williams rested on the perjured testimony of Commonwealth informant James White, a confessed murderer who testified pursuant to an undisclosed deal that spared him capital prosecution in six separate murder cases. White later recanted his testimony, saying that since-fired prosecutor David Desiderio had coached him to falsely implicate Williams. At the time of Williams’ exoneration of the capital charges in 2020, Pamela Cummings, then the director of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit, called his wrongful conviction “a perfect storm” of injustice in which witnesses had lied, prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence and presented false forensic testimony, and Williams had been provided ineffective representation.

Williams remained imprisoned after his first exoneration while defense lawyers pressed the conviction integrity unit to review the Haynesworth case. “There was some cynicism in me as a human being that one individual could be wrongfully convicted more than once,” Cummings said after Williams’ second exoneration. But, she ultimately acknowledged, “lightning did strike twice.”

“It’s incredibly tragic,” Williams’ long-time lawyer, assistant federal defender Stuart Lev said. “This guy went through decades in prison, 25 years on death row, for crimes that he did not commit.”

During his two years of freedom, Williams persevered through hardships to improve his life and strengthen his familial relationships. He shared his personal struggles with reentry by stating, “What brings me happiness is my spirit being at peace, and right now it’s not. I feel like I am being pulled in all areas…. Out here, life is running a hundred times faster than up in that cage and you have to stay on pace or else.”

In a January 5, 2023 op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Williams’ friend, artist Akeil Robertson-Jowers, wrote of the fear those formerly incarcerated face upon reentry to society. “Many of the men and women who’ve returned to this city after incarceration have turned their lives around. … Many of us work to give back to the communities we once harmed. But in the broken communities we left and return to, our pasts are not easily forgotten.”

“We all know that the reunions we’ve had with our families could be only temporary,” he wrote.

“Christopher always greeted me with a firm handshake and a kind word, and he was constantly supportive of the paintings that I was trying to perfect. He was one of the best of us,” Robertson-Jowers said. “The judicial system was set up to punish us with more passion than it used to protect us, but we need something different.”

Statement by the Death Penalty Information Center

Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham, whose former colleagues represented Williams in efforts to overturn his convictions, issued the following statement:

“Mr. Williams’ death is heartbreaking.

“When innocent people are finally freed from death row, that does not mean that their struggles are over. While they no longer face legal jeopardy from their wrongful convictions, they can never recover the time they lost with their families or the opportunities freedom would have provided. Chris, like all Pennsylvania exonerees, received no state compensation for the time he was wrongfully on death row and no transition services.

“Exonerees also often face the stigma of public disbelief in their innocence, a stigma made worse by the actions of prosecutors in many jurisdictions who continue to falsely assert that they convicted the right person. The fact that Chris was falsely accused, wrongfully charged, and wrongfully convicted of multiple murders only made matters worse.

“Today, our thoughts are with Chris’ family and friends, who also were victims of his wrongful conviction and now are victimized by this senseless act of violence. My thoughts are also with my former colleagues in the Philadelphia and Harrisburg federal defender offices who fought tirelessly to win his freedom.

“We also remember two other Philadelphia death-row exonerees whose lives were cut short by what they experienced on death row: William Nieves, whose medical condition that was untreated while he was on death row led to his premature death too soon after his release, and Harold Wilson, whose posttraumatic stress disorder from more than a decade-and-a-half in death-row solitary confinement exacerbated other health problems and shortened his life.

“Too often, we forget about exonerees once they are released from prison. It is our responsibility to do more, to provide meaningful compensation and re-entry services and educational and occupational services. May Chris rest in peace and may we all dedicate ourselves to doing better for his fellow exonerees.”