Sunday, April 11, 2010

Exonerated inmate reflects on death row

By Dominique Dacaney, taken from the

In 1974, Delbert Tibbs faced the death penalty for crimes he did not commit. On April 1 in the Law School’s Barbieri Court Room, Tibbs shared his experience of what it was like to be falsely accused of rape and murder, and then exonerated from death row. The presentation highlighted problems in the United States criminal justice system, especially issues with eyewitness testimony and the death penalty. This event was the first Witness to Innocence event held in Washington.

Witness to Innocence is the “nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones,” according to its Web site. The group sends exonerated prisoners around the world to tell people their experiences in hopes of bringing the injustices of capital punishment to light.

After leaving the Chicago Theological Seminary, Tibbs decided he wanted to travel around the country. According to the event press release, Tibbs was stopped during his travels and questioned by Florida police in relation to “the rape of 16-year-old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her traveling companion in Fort Myers.”

Tibbs provided the officers with photo identification and even allowed them to take four

Polariods of him. Ultimately, the police did not believe he was involved in the murder and wrote him a letter stating so.

However, Tibbs was not in the clear. He was stopped again by police on his way out of Mississippi, and informed him that he was wanted for crimes committed in Florida. Despite the letter from Florida police stating he was not involved in the crimes near Fort Myers, Tibbs was arrested and charged with rape and murder charges.

“I was thinking that it was a case of mistaken identity,” Tibbs said. “Either they would find the real person or they would realize that I’m not the person that committed the crime.”

Tibbs later found out that Nadeau’s description of the perpetrator dramatically changed to fit his profile, after she was shown the pictures he provided the Florida police.

The trial lasted a day-and-a-half, in which an all-white jury found him guilty, and subsequently sentenced him to death.

“Slowly, it began to dawn on my thick brain that they really ain’t lookin’ for nobody else,” Tibbs confessed. “You are it my friend”.

With help from his brother, who was sheriff in Chicago at the time, and his former girlfriend, Tibbs’ case made national and international news.

For eight years, Tibbs sat in limbo, unsure of his future. Despite this, Tibbs remained steadfast in his faith, believing that, “God sent me to death row to be a witness.”
In 1982, the Florida State Supreme Court exonerated Tibbs from death row in a 5-4 decision.

Andrea Woods, a Gonzaga 2009 alumna and member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), is currently working with the Witness to Innocence program in Philadelphia. According to Woods, Witness to Innocence is a program that “supports men who were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit and were eventually exonerated when they were proven innocent”.

Woods hoped the presentation would get people thinking about issues surround the death penalty, “regardless of your morals or your opinions or your biases.”

She suggested that the first step is “to say that we’re not going to execute people if we are going to execute innocent people,” and that the alternative to execution be life without parole.

Dr. Ellen Maccarone, Gonzaga assistant professor of philosophy, has been involved in the anti-death penalty movement in Washington for the past five years. She is a member of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and sits on a steering committee that oversees the coalition on the east side of the state.

One of the most popular arguments in favor of the death penalty is that execution is cheaper than housing a person in jail for life. However, “from indictment to execution the average cost for a death penalty case is over a million dollars,” Maccarone said. “The biggest challenge with working against the death penalty is the misconceptions that people have.”

Dr. Maccarone suggests that students who want to get involved in the anti-death penalty movement should volunteer by spreading awareness through organizations such as the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, or writing letters to state representatives to draft legislation.

“If there is a ground swell of people who think differently about the death penalty that’s how laws get changed,” Maccarone said.

The most recent states that have abolished the death penalty are New Jersey and New Mexico.

This presentation was sponsored by the Gonzaga Activities’ Board.

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