Civil Rights in the Criminal Legal System Clinic helps man leave prison after 51 years

Early on a wet, dark January morning in Trenton, New Jersey, two dozen friends and family members of Paul Williams Jr. huddled beneath umbrellas, sharing cups of tea and coffee and a growing sense of excitement. Across the street loomed the walls of the New Jersey State Prison. At 10 a.m., Williams, who is 71, was scheduled to walk out of the prison after 51 years behind bars.

“This rain is happy—joyous tears of his grandparents and siblings that have gone on to the Lord before this day,” said his niece Marcia Finley. “They’re here with us to watch him come out of those doors.”

Paul Williams Jr.
Paul Williams Jr.

In his five decades in prison, Williams was denied parole eleven times. Following the 12th hearing, with help from NYU Law’s Civil Rights in the Criminal Legal System Clinic, led by Professor of Clinical Law Alexis Karteron, Williams was able to successfully obtain release on parole.

“It’s enormously satisfying to see [Mr. Williams] out of prison after what we think was a great injustice of him getting a life sentence in the first place, and [then going] before the parole board unsuccessfully so many times,” said Karteron, whose clinic helped prepare Williams for his successful hearing, alongside partners that included attorney Claude Heffron ’17.

In 1972, at age 20, Williams, who has schizophrenia, was convicted of felony murder for his involvement in a robbery that resulted in the death of a local tavern owner. Though Williams was not the shooter and was not carrying a gun during the robbery, under New Jersey law he was charged with homicide as a participant in the felony crime of robbing the tavern. The two young men with Williams that day, including the shooter, took plea deals in exchange for reduced sentences and each spent less than 20 years in prison. But Williams decided to go to trial, where, convicted, he received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.

Paul Williams Jr with members of his legal team and support system
Paul Williams Jr. with members of his legal team and family and friends who awaited his release 

“It’s heartbreaking for anyone to be in prison this long, especially Mr. Williams, who was not the shooter. When people exercise their right to a trial, as Mr. Williams did, they often face increased punishment. It’s an injustice,” said Heffron, the lawyer who connected the clinic with the case.

After serving part of his sentence, Williams was eligible for parole, but the New Jersey parole system is particularly hard to navigate, Karteron said. “When an indigent person is accused of a crime, everyone knows that they have a right to legal representation, appointed by the state,” said Karteron. “But in New Jersey parole hearings, which also determine how long a person stays in prison, no one is allowed to stand with the [parole seeker]—not a lawyer, community advocate, or even family member,” she said. Additionally, in New Jersey, parole hearings are not offered at fixed intervals, but are scheduled at the discretion of the parole board, which makes preparation difficult.

Williams’s serious mental illness also contributed to his challenges obtaining parole, says Karteron, who notes that she and the students worked with an independent psychiatrist who evaluated Williams and then wrote to the parole board stating that Williams would be able to live safely outside of prison with appropriate mental healthcare treatment and support. “Most people in Mr. Williams’s position are not able to access experts, just as he was not able to before we got involved,” says Karteron. 

In the clinic, students—including Morgan Hale ’25, Colin Threlkeld ’24, and previous students Christine ElDabh ’23, and Tina Szpicek ’23—worked on an appeal of Williams’s eleventh parole denial. When a new hearing approached, they helped him prepare for interview questions and provided documentation of Williams’s release plan, which reflected his willingness and ability to access psychiatric care after his release. 

Hale, who along with Threlkeld was present at Williams’s release, said that his work on the hearing has helped him to understand the tangible consequences that policy can have on people’s lives. “I think most students, whether it’s at NYU or in general in law school, have many ideals….but it’s substantially easier to…speak up for what you believe is right when there’s people that you directly are in contact with that are affected by [certain] policies,” he said. Hale said he was also surprised by how willing Williams was to tell his story to the students, which made it easier to help Williams prepare for his hearing.

“I think both [Morgan and I] really feel rejuvenated by working directly with clients, because a lot of the kind of doctrinal law…can be very abstract and very depersonalized,” said Threlkeld, who, like Hale, hopes to become a public defender after graduation. “A lot of what this clinic and this case allowed us to do is really kind of support an individual person, which is by far the most rewarding aspect of the work,” Threlkeld said.

Just after 10 a.m. on January 25, a loud, joyous cheer could be heard as Williams exited the prison and was embraced by his family, friends, legal team, and other advocates. Some family members had never seen Williams outside of the prison walls.

“I’m filled with a bunch of emotions today,” said Finley, his niece. “But his best days are yet to come, and I am looking forward to being a part of that journey, as I have been a part of this journey.”

Watch of video of Paul Williams Jr. leaving New Jersey State Prison:

Posted February 15, 2024.