Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday commuted the sentence of a man who has served nearly 50 years for a murder he maintained was committed while he was in jail for drunk driving.
Ducey’s commutation November 27 makes Doyle Wayne Williams, 70, eligible for parole. In a statement, Ducey noted that Williams would have been eligible years earlier if he had been sentenced just a few years later, after a 1973 law change that allowed people sentenced to life to become eligible for parole after 25 years.
Williams, then 20, was driving a pickup truck belonging to the murder victim, 72-year-old Onnie Hightower, on an October night in 1969 when Phoenix police pulled him over for speeding. Police saw alcoholic beverages in the car and arrested Williams and his passenger, 19-year-old Herbert Chambers, for unlawfully possessing liquor as minors.
Twelve hours later, a neighbor found Hightower’s body. Williams and Chambers, both of whom had spent the night in jail, were charged with robbery and murder.
Chambers pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was released from prison after serving a few years, but Williams maintained his innocence. He was found guilty in February 1970 and has remained imprisoned ever since.
Three years after Williams was sentenced, the Arizona Legislature changed sentencing laws to allow parole for people convicted of first-degree murder after 25 years. The state’s 1993 “Truth in Sentencing” law abolished parole, but inmates like Williams who were sentenced under the old code can still be eligible for parole hearings before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.
The board unanimously recommended that Ducey commute Williams’ sentence in July, citing his support system, desire to serve his community and near-spotless prison record.
“The testimony and commitment of his supporters is inspiring. It is equally inspiring that, at age 70, he wishes to serve the community as a mentor and counselor,” the board wrote in a letter to Ducey.
Williams also was a client of the Arizona Justice Project, which works to release innocent or wrongly incarcerated prisoners. According to a press release from the Arizona Justice Project, Williams credited his faith and thanked Ducey during a phone call with lawyers November 27 morning.
“All these years I kept faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you all stood by me through this journey. I thank Governor Ducey for showing mercy and giving me a chance to go back to my family,” Williams said.
This is the ninth commutation Ducey has granted since he took office in 2015, eight others were all for prisoners on their deathbeds. One young man, Myreon Hollingsworth, who was at the scene of a murder when he was 15, received a commutation because without Ducey’s signature because the board voted unanimously and Ducey failed to act on it within 90 days.
He also pardoned one prisoner, a man who stole a motorcycle in 1972.