Man Sentenced To Life In Prison For 1988 Prison Escape Hopes Supreme Court Grants Missed Chance For Commutation

A man convicted of escaping from a state prison in Douglas for a few hours in 1988 is hoping the Arizona Supreme Court allows him to do something the Legislature authorized in 1994 – challenge his two life sentences.

Raymond Anthony Williams says he did not know until last year that he could have sought a reduction or commutation of his life sentences in 1994 to 1996 via the Disproportionality Review Act (DRA). The DRA was passed by the Arizona Legislature after lawmakers revamped sentencing laws in 1994 to address complaints that mandatory life sentences for some crimes were too harsh.

In some cases, those convicted of an offense before 1994 were serving drastically harsher sentences than those convicted of the same offense after the sentencing laws were changed.

Under DRA, a prisoner with a pre-1994 life sentence had until June 1996 to ask the Arizona Board of Clemency to review the case. Several inmates had their life sentences reduced or commuted as a result, but Williams claims he knew nothing about the option.

Court records show Williams arrived at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Douglas in October 1988. He was 27 and was to serve 1.5 years for aggravated assault and unlawful imprisonment convictions from Maricopa County.

But on Nov. 18, 1988, Williams walked away from a minimum security prison while on a work detail. He was later convicted in Cochise County Superior Court of eight new felonies, including escape, burglary, armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, flight from law enforcement, and two counts of theft for a series of crimes committing before his recapture less than five hours later.

A Cochise County judge sentenced Williams in May 1989 to two concurrent terms of life in prison plus 24 years following completion of his Maricopa County sentences. The sentencing order stated Williams had to serve a minimum of 41 years before being eligible to apply for parole.

Williams, now 60, filed a petition for post-conviction relief in July 2020 seeking court approval to raise a retroactive DRA challenge. A judge with the Cochise County Superior Court dismissed the petition in December, and declined to reconsider his order after a court-appointed attorney argued Williams could not have taken advantage of the DRA at the time if he did not know about the new law.

The attorney then took the matter to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which denied relief in March. The appellate decision authored by Presiding Judge Garye Espinosa noted Williams failed to sufficiently explain why he had not pursued a DRA claim “in a timely manner” and that the Cochise County judge “was not required to consider” a belated explanation.

Williams, now representing himself, has a petition for review on file at the Arizona Supreme Court.  The justices could decide as early as August whether or not to hear the case. In the meantime, Williams remains at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence.

Court records do not indicate why Williams walked away from prison given he was serving such a short sentence for his Maricopa County case, but his activities during his nearly five hours of freedom are well documented.

According to those records, left he prison around Noon and was able to change out of his prison clothes. He broke into a truck from which he stole a handgun and other items.

At about 3:30 p.m., an elderly woman gave Williams a ride after he said he was out looking for his horse. Testimony presented to the jury showed Williams used the gun to pistol whip the woman, who he then dragged to the side of the road and covered with tumbleweeds. He also stole her money and her vehicle.

The woman was later able to flag down a passing motorist and notified the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.  Around 4 p.m., a peace officer spotted the woman’s vehicle and additional officers responded to set up a roadblock, but Williams drove around the roadblock.

A high speed chase ensured for nearly 40 minutes after which Williams was taken into custody.  Williams pursued an insanity defense at trial and claimed he did not recollect his activities during the prison break, nor did he recall being arrested or interviewed by investigators.