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Tampa man released from jail due to coronavirus then committed murder, deputies say

Officials are trying to balance public health and public safety, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said.

TAMPA — A man arrested on a murder charge Monday had been released from the Orient Road Jail last month under measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, deputies said Tuesday.

It is the only known case of an inmate in the county who went on to commit a new crime after they were approved for release under the precautions, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.

Joseph Edward Williams, 26, was arrested Monday in connection with a March 20 murder in the 8000 block of Ash Avenue, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Related: New details emerge in slaying blamed on Hillsborough inmate released from jail

At about 10:40 p.m. that day, deputies fielded multiple 911 calls reporting gunshots. Responding deputies found a man who had been shot. Authorities took him to Tampa General Hospital, where he later died. In a news release, deputies said they did not believe the shooting was random.

Deputies didn’t release any additional details Tuesday, including the victim’s name.

Williams is charged with second-degree murder, resisting an officer, being felon in possession of a firearm and possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. His bail has been set at $280,500.

Officials across Florida and the U.S. have tried to shrink jail populations in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from rapidly spreading among inmates and jail staff living and working in packed quarters. On March 19, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister released 164 county jail inmates accused of low-level, non-violent crimes. They included a housekeeper charged with cocaine possession, a student facing burglary and petty theft charges and a man picked up on a trespassing offense.

Related: Hillsborough Sheriff releases 164 county jail inmates to reduce coronavirus risk

Williams was also released that day. He had been booked into jail on March 13 for possession of less than four grams of heroin, a third degree felony, and possession of drug paraphernalia, a first-degree misdemeanor. He was already eligible for release under a $2,500 bond — meaning he could have walked out after paying $250.

Chronister said officials around the country are facing difficult decisions balance public safety concerns with efforts to protect deputies and inmates from the virus during the COVID-19 crisis, and called for Williams to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.”

“There is no question Joseph Williams took advantage of this health emergency to commit crimes while he was out of jail awaiting resolution of a low-level, non-violent offense,” he said in an e-mailed statement. Williams’s past history includes arrests on 35 previous charges, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He was convicted for burglary of an unoccupied conveyance in 2012, and being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2018.

Since the coronavirus first appeared in the United States, civil rights groups have sounded the alarm that jails and prisons have ideal conditions for the virus to spread quickly and urged officials to limit their inmate populations.

So far, 56 employees and 35 inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections system have tested positive for the virus. At least nine inmates in Broward County jails were infected. One has died.

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