A Florida inmate with an extensive criminal history was released last month due to COVID-19 fears and is now being accused of committing second-degree murder.
Joseph Edward Williams, 26, had been released from prison in Hillsborough County six days after being arrested for heroin possession and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to NBC News.
In an effort to reduce the prison population and slow the spread of COVID-19, a state judge had authorized the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) “to release any pretrial detainee arrested for a municipal or county ordinance violation, a misdemeanor offense, a criminal traffic offense, or a third-degree felony offense.” The order does not prohibit inmates from being released if they have a violent criminal history beyond their current charges.
The HCSO released 164 inmates, one of whom was Williams.
On March 20, one day after Williams was released, a man was fatally shot in a community called Progress Village, and authorities believe Williams was involved.
“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,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement. “As a result, I call on the State Attorney to prosecute this defendant to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Judges, prosecutors, and Sheriffs around the country are facing difficult decisions during this health crisis with respect to balancing public health and public safety,” Chronister continued. “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. Our commitment as an agency is to keep this community safe and enforce the law.”
Along with the second-degree murder charge, Williams was also charged with a gun-related offense and with resisting an officer.
Even though his latest charges were non-violent misdemeanors, Williams’ rap sheet includes arrests on 35 previous charges, according to a GunsAmerica search of the Hillsborough County criminal records.
He was convicted for burglary of an unoccupied conveyance in 2012, opposing an officer with violence in 2015, and being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2018. He has also been arrested for multiple aggravated assaults with a deadly weapon and battery on a law enforcement officer.
Counties across the country have released thousands of inmates to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. In Travis County, Texas, hundreds of inmates accused of felony crimes have been released. Los Angeles County has released over 4,000 inmates, and hundreds have been released from Cook County, Illinois.
Nationwide, more than 16,000 inmates have been released or diverted from local jails and state and federal prisons, according to the University of California, Los Angeles Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.