TAMPA — Hillsborough prosecutors dropped a second-degree murder charge Tuesday in the case of a man whose arrest generated controversy as it came weeks after he was part of mass release intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus in jail.
Joseph Edward Williams was one of 164 people released from Hillsborough County’s jail facilities in March 2020. Like the rest, Williams had been held on low bail, accused of a low-level, nonviolent crime.
Authorities later charged him in the shooting death of Christopher Striker, which occurred the day after his release. He’s been held without bail ever since.
But on Tuesday, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office said they no longer have the evidence to prove the murder charge. They cited a lack of physical evidence and unreliable witness statements.
“At the time we filed charges, there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to take the case to trial,” said Grayson Kamm, a spokesperson for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. “However, as we prepared for the trial, inconsistencies emerged and various witnesses either changed their stories or refused to cooperate, and we no longer have sufficient evidence to go forward.”
Williams’ attorney, James Mancuso, praised prosecutors for dismissing the case.
“We have said all along that Joseph was innocent,” Mancuso said in an email. “We are immensely happy that this injustice was rectified.”
It is unclear if investigators have other suspects in Striker’s death. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said they continue to work with prosecutors on the case.
News of Williams’ arrest became political fodder in the spring of 2020. Civil liberties advocates supported the mass jail release, noting that most of the people had only remained jailed because they couldn’t pay bail.
Williams was being held on a heroin possession charge, with a total bail of $2,500. A bond of $250 would have secured his release pending trial.
Then came the coronavirus, and an administrative order authorizing the release of certain jailed defendants. Such orders are not uncommon in emergency situations. Hillsborough County has in the past released inmates ahead of approaching hurricanes.
Williams walked out of the Orient Road Jail on March 19, 2020. He spoke with Spectrum Bay News 9.
“I feel wonderful,” he told the TV station. “It’s a blessing that I’m getting released.”
At 10:40 p.m. the next day, Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies were called to a shooting in the area of 81st Street S and Ash Avenue in the Progress Village area. They found Striker, 28, dead in a driveway.
A witness said as many as 16 people were walking around outside when they heard gunshots, according to an arrest report. Another witness told investigators he’d been walking with Striker when they heard gunshots and Striker fell. Video from the scene showed a person in a red shirt running west onto Ash Avenue from 83rd Street, shooting toward the area where Striker was.
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Another witness who lived on nearby Bahia Avenue told detectives he’d answered a knock at his door the night of shooting. He was greeted by a man in a red shirt, bandana, khaki shorts and no shoes, who said someone was shooting at him. The witness asked the man if he was “gang-banging,” and the man said he was, according to the report.
The man asked the witness to call two phone numbers. Detectives later determined the numbers belonged to Williams’ mother and grandmother. The witness also later gave the man a ride to a Racetrac gas station on Bloomingdale Avenue, where surveillance cameras recorded his arrival, the report states.
Deputies who were familiar with Williams later identified him as the man in the surveillance images, according to the report.
But one key witness, who claimed to have heard a confession from Williams, was deemed not credible and “wholly unreliable,” said Kamm, the state attorney’s spokesperson. Other witnesses were unable to identify key details that would put Williams at the crime scene.
In court Tuesday afternoon, Williams pleaded guilty to several unrelated drug charges. A plea agreement with the state called for him to serve 16 months in prison, much of which he has already served.
Striker’s mother, Lia Rolle, asked to address him. She told him he used to play baseball with her other son.
“I have a picture of you when you were a young child,” she said. “And I pray that you did not do this.”
“No, m’am,” Williams said. “No m’am, I did not.”
Rolle said she had told the prosecutors to do what was right.
“I don’t want you to go to prison for something you didn’t do, if you didn’t do it,” she said.
“I didn’t m’am,” he said.
“I appreciate you telling me that,” Rolle said.
“Yes, m’am,” he said. “Sorry. Sorry that it happened.”
Another woman, who did not give her name in court but said she was the mother of the victim’s son, urged authorities to continue to try to find the person responsible for the crime.