Monday, December 9, 2013

Delbert Tibbs, "Exonerated" Inspiration

Delbert Tibbs, Who Left Death Row and Fought Against It, Dies at 74

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It is not easy:

Peter Kramer/Getty Images
Delbert Tibbs, right, in 2005 with Delroy Lindo, the actor who portrayed him in the television adaptation of “The Exonerated.”
you stand waiting for a train
or a bus that may never come
no friend drives by to catch a ride
cold, tired:
call yourself a poet
but work all day mopping floors and looking out for thieves.
Those lines, describing the experience of an innocent man on death row, are from a poem by Delbert Tibbs, who in 1974 was convicted in Florida of a rape and a murder that he had nothing to do with, it was later found. He spent nearly three years in prison before the State Supreme Court reversed his convictions, vacated his death sentence and freed him.
Mr. Tibbs then campaigned for the abolishment of capital punishment and became one of six people whose stories of wrongful conviction and near execution were told in “The Exonerated,” a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who assembled their script from court documents, testimony, depositions and letters.
First presented in 2002 in Los Angeles and New York with celebrity-studded casts, the play went on to help reshape the national debate about the death penalty, reaching audiences in productions across the country and then on television in a filmed adaptation starring Susan Sarandon, Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn, Danny Glover and, as Mr. Tibbs, Delroy Lindo.
“People who once argued about the morality of executing the guilty now discuss whether the capital justice system can be trusted to separate those deserving death from the wholly innocent,” Adam Liptak wrote in The New York Times in 2005 in assessing the play’s impact.
Mr. Tibbs, whose poetic bent led Ms. Blank and Mr. Jensen to use his character as a kind of Greek chorus, introducing and closing the play and appearing intermittently throughout as a sagelike figure, died on Nov. 23 at his home in Chicago. He was 74.
His death was confirmed by Andrea Lyon, a law professor at DePaul University who is godmother to Mr. Tibbs’s daughter Mahalia. Professor Lyon said that the cause was uncertain but that Mr. Tibbs had had cancer.
The crimes for which he was arrested occurred in Fort Myers, on Florida’s southwest coast, on Feb. 3, 1974. A teenager, Cynthia Nadeau, was raped, and her boyfriend, Terry Milroy, who was in his 20s, was shot to death. Ms. Nadeau’s story was that while hitchhiking, they were attacked by a black man who had picked them up in a green truck. The couple were both white.
Mr. Tibbs was rootless at the time, though not a drifter so much as a seeker. A former seminary student in Chicago, he had himself been hitchhiking around the country and had made his way to Florida. The case against him had holes. Evidence showed that he was in Daytona Beach on the day of the killing, 250 miles from Fort Myers, and Ms. Nadeau’s initial description of her assailant was at odds with Mr. Tibbs’s appearance. (She identified him from a photograph several days later.)
An all-white jury nevertheless found him guilty on the basis of Ms. Nadeau’s uncorroborated testimony and a cellmate’s claim that Mr. Tibbs had confessed to the killing in jail.
Mr. Tibbs received a life sentence for the rape and the death sentence for the murder.
But in the summer of 1976, citing the weakness of the evidence against him, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the verdict on appeal and ordered a new trial, saying it did not want to “risk the very real possibility that Tibbs had nothing to do with these crimes.”
He was released from prison in January 1977, and after further legal wrangling — Mr. Tibbs’s lawyers argued that a retrial would amount to double jeopardy — the state dropped its charges against him in 1982. (In 2002, state prosecutors nonetheless said they held to their belief in Mr. Tibbs’s guilt. No one else has been charged with the crimes.)
“I’m a Southern boy,” Mr. Tibbs said in an interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel for his book “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith,” published in 2001. “My rationale to them for being in the state was just that I wanted to roam across the country, which is typical of writers and artists and so forth, but it’s not typical of black people. It’s all right for Jack Kerouac, but not for Delbert Tibbs.”
Delbert Lee Tibbs was born in Shelby, Miss., on June 19, 1939. His father, Pete Johnson, was a traveling salesman. He was reared by his mother, Lillie Bryant, and her husband, Frank Tibbs, who were sharecroppers.
He moved to Chicago with family members when he was about 12 and, before he was 20, had married and had a son, Delbert Jr. The marriage ended in divorce. Mr. Tibbs is survived by his son; two daughters, Mahalia Abeo Tibbs and Afrika Rouselle; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Tibbs attended colleges in Chicago, including Chicago Theological Seminary, though he never finished a degree, and worked as an insurance claims adjuster. In the early 1970s, he left school and hit the road for the adventure that landed him on death row.
“I’d dropped out of the seminary and now I don’t know what to do with myself,” he told Mr. Terkel. “There was an agitation within my spirit, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll take off. I’ve never been anyplace except Mississippi, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.’ I thought, you might not live that long anyway, so I took off and I took off walking.”
In recent years, Mr. Tibbs did volunteer work tutoring at-risk young black men. He also worked with anti-death penalty groups like Witness to Innocence, founded by the activist nun Helen Prejean and Ray Krone, a former death row inmate in Arizona who was exonerated in 2002, and the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which succeeded in its aim when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law in 2011 and commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates. (The organization is now known as the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.)
“Delbert was not only articulate, which many exonorees seem to be, but he had this air of genteel thoughtfulness about him that greatly distinguished him,” Robert Warden, a founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University Law School in Evanston, Ill., said in an interview.
As time passed, Mr. Tibbs grew more philosophical.
“When I meet people now,” he said more than 25 years after his release, “if they try to make a big deal about me having been on death row, I sometimes gently remind them that we’re all on death row.”


Delbert Tibbs was an American man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and rape in 1974 and sentenced to death, and was later exonerated. He later became a writer and anti-death penalty activist. He died on November 23, 2013.

Early life and trial[edit]

Tibbs was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago. He attended the Chicago Theological Seminary from 1970 to 1972. In 1974, he was hitchhiking in Florida when he was wrongfully implicated in a crime for which he would receive the death penalty.[1]
That year, a 27-year-old man and a 17-year-old female were violently attacked near Fort Myers, Florida. The man was murdered and the young woman raped. She reported that they had been picked up while hitchhiking by a black man who shot her boyfriend dead and then beat and raped her, leaving her unconscious by the side of the road. Tibbs was stopped by police some 220 miles north of Fort Meyers and questioned about the crime. The police took his picture, but as he did not fit the victim's description of the perpetrator, did not arrest him. However, the photograph was sent to Fort Meyers and the victim identified him as the attacker. A judge then issued a warrant for Tibbs' arrest. He was picked up in Mississippi two weeks later and sent to Florida.[1]
Though Tibbs had an alibi, he was indicted for the crimes. During the trial, the prosecution supplemented the victim's identification with testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had confessed to the crime. The all-white jury convicted Tibbs of murder and rape and he was sentenced to death.[1]
After the trial, the informant recanted his testimony, saying he had fabricated his account hoping for leniency in his own rape case. The Florida Supreme Court remanded the case and reversed the decision on the grounds that the verdict was not supported by the evidence. Tibbs was released in January 1977. In 1982, the Lee County State Attorney dismissed all charges, ending the chance of a retrial.[1]


In November 1976 Pete Seeger wrote and recorded the anti-death penalty song "Delbert Tibbs"[2]
A portion of Tibbs' story is featured in the play The Exonerated. On February 14, 2011 Tibbs, along with fellow exonerees and anti-death penalty activists, spoke with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn about repealing the death penalty in their state.[3][4] A month later, on March 14, 2011, the death penalty was repealed in Illinois.[5][6]
Tibbs is the author of "Selected Poems and Other Words/Works", Edited by O'Modele Jeanette Rouselle, Copyright 2007, Printed by The Manifestation-Glow Press New York City October 2007. His poetry also appears in the chapbook anthology "Beccaria", edited by poet Aja Beech released on April 22, 2011.

Delbert Tibbs, 1939-2013
Delbert TibbsDelbert Tibbs, a former seminary student from Chicago, had been traveling across the country and found himself in Florida in February 1974. He was stopped by the state police and questioned about the rape of 16-year-old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her traveling companion, Terry Milroy, in Fort Myers. Cynthia had described the offender as 5’6” with a dark complexion and a large Afro; Delbert stood 6’3” with a light complexion and had a small Afro. Yet after seeing photographs, her description of the killer changed dramatically. She said the killer was Delbert Tibbs.
An all-white jury returned a guilty verdict against Delbert in less than two days. Florida had a moratorium on the death penalty at the time, so the judge told Delbert “if the moratorium continues, you will serve consecutive life sentences. If it doesn’t, you’ll be sent to death row.” It didn’t, and Delbert was given a death sentence.
Yet his story became the basis for tremendous community support. Celebrities such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger became involved and raised money for the Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee. Delbert was then able to hire better legal representation and get a retrial. Eventually, the Florida State Supreme Court overturned his conviction by a 4-3 vote, and the District Attorney finally dropped the case in 1982.
Delbert sadly passed away on November 23, 2013. He is survived by a loving family and countless admirers around the world. He lived in Chicago, wrote extraordinary verse, and traveled around the world, where he shared his story and recited his poetry with big-hearted emotion and poignant reminiscences. His story is also featured in the play The Exonerated. He was an Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence, and will be sorely missed by his colleagues. Read former WTI Jesuit volunteer Andrea Wood's moving tribute to Delbert here.

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