IN PRISON FOR: 3 YEARS
TIME ON DEATH ROW: 2 YEARS
FILM FOCUSES ON: WITNESS MISIDENTIFICATION
CONVICTED IN: FORT MYERS, FLORIDA
LEGAL REVIEW: Read a legal review of Delbert’s case
YOUR QUESTIONS: Check out Delbert’s answers to the questions you submitted.
DELBERT’S STORY (thanks to the Center on Wrongful Convictions)
Delbert Lee Tibbs was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and the rape of the man’s 17-year-old female companion. Tibbs was sentence to death for the murder and life for the rape.
The victims were hitchhiking when, according to the young woman, they were picked up by an African American man who shot her boyfriend to death, raped her, and left her bleeding and unconscious beside a secluded road.
A few days later, Tibbs was hitchhiking 220 miles north of Fort Myers when he was stopped by police, questioned about the crime, and photographed. Because he did not fit the eyewitness’s description, he was released. Nonetheless, the photo was sent to Fort Myers, where the female victim identified him. A warrant was issued, and Tibbs was arrested two weeks later in Mississippi.
Tibbs waived extradition to Florida, where he was indicted even though he did not match the original description the female victim had provided and he had a solid alibi. At trial, in addition to the young woman’s dubious testimony, the prosecution sponsored the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had admitted the crime. An all-white jury convicted Tibbs of both the murder and rape, the victims of which were white.
After the trial, the jailhouse informant acknowledged that he had fabricated his testimony against Tibbs in the hope of receiving leniency in his own case, a rape for which he was facing a life sentence.
In 1976, by a four-three vote, the Florida Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, holding that the evidence did not support the verdict. Tibbs was released in January 1977, although he faced a possible retrial.
Finally, in 1982, Lee County State Attorney Joseph D’Allesandro dismissed all charges against Tibbs and D’Allesandro’s predecessor, James S. Long, who had handled the original prosecution, declared that the case had been “tainted from the beginning and the investigators knew it.” If Tibbs had been retried, Long said he gladly would have testified as a defense witness for Tibbs.
Now Delbert lives in Chicago and is active in the movement against the death penalty. His story is featured in the play “The Exonerated,” and he is currently working on a book – realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
“I should have lost hope,” Delbert says, “but I didn’t.”