A Tampa, Florida, man is accused of killing someone the day after he was released from jail on a judge’s orders issued in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said Joseph Edward Williams, 26, shot a man to death on March 20. Deputies were called to the scene after several 911 calls came in saying people were hearing gunshots outside, according to an HCSO press release.
According to the sheriff’s office, Williams was one of over 100 inmates freed on March 19 after a county court ordered the release of any pretrial detainees arrested for lower-level, non-violent crimes and who posed no safety threat. The judge’s order said the sheriff had discretion over who could be released.
While the shooting happened last month, Williams wasn’t arrested until April 14, when he was picked up on an active murder warrant. According to an arrest affidavit, a Street Crimes Unit Deputy tracked him coming out of a convenience store. Williams ran from the deputy and there was a struggle once he was caught, the arrest report said. Williams had two baggies of heroin, a hypodermic syringe and a digital scale in the bag he was carrying, according to the sheriff’s office.
Williams Had 35 Previous Arrests & Had Served Time in Prison
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said Williams had been arrested 35 times since 2012. He was arrested on March 13 on drug charges, accused of possession of heroin and paraphernalia, before his latest release on March 19.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Williams had been in and out of prison since 2013 on charges of burglary, resisting an officer with violence and felon in possession of a gun or weapon.
He was released from prison on April 26, 2019, after serving a year-and-a-half for the felon in possession of a gun charge. Williams returned to the Tampa area, and he was not ordered to be on probation or parole according to the FDOC. In July of that year, court records show Williams was arrested for shoplifting $30 worth of merchandise from Walmart.
Prisons & Jails Across the Nation Are Releasing Inmates in an Effort to Mitigate COVID-19
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there is no uniform way that all jails and prisons are handling safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Much like the gradual rollouts of closures and directives that have been different for states, counties and cities, jails are all handling early releases differently.
“Prisons and jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 because the conditions that can keep diseases from spreading — such as social distancing — are nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities,” PPI reported. Release directives are coming from both the state and county levels and are being implemented at varying rates.
PPI’s extensive list of detention centers includes Hillsborough County, which it says has released 160 people in response to court orders, including Williams. PPI reports the jail population in Cumberland County, Maine, is down 25%, and in Multnomah County, Oregon, it has been reduced 30% due to early release orders. Allegheny County in Pennsylvania has sent 545 inmates home on COVID-19 mitigation orders.
At the state level, West Virginia’s jail population is down 600 people, and nearly 300 inmates were released in Massachusetts after the Supreme Judicial Court ordered their release on April 3.
In New Jersey, “Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order calling for the temporary release of 1,000 people from jails (almost a tenth of the entire state’s county jail population) across the state,” according to PPI. Those inmates were serving county jail sentences for lower-level, non-violent crimes.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister released a statement regarding William’s arrest:
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. As a result, I call on the State Attorney to prosecute this defendant to the fullest extent of the law. Every murder, every violent crime, especially those involving a gun, is a sickening example of the worst in our community, especially at a time when our community is working relentlessly to fight against the spread of this deadly COVID-19.
Judges, prosecutors, and Sheriffs around the country are facing difficult decisions during this health crisis with respect to balancing public health and public safety. Sheriffs in Florida and throughout our country have released non-violent, low-level offenders to protect our deputies and the jail population from an outbreak.
Williams is charged with second-degree murder, felon in possession of a firearm, resisting arrest with violence, two counts of possession of heroin and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia.