Northern Florida
Victims of the State

26 Cases

 Bay County, FL

Ronald Joseph, Jr.

May 10, 2006 (Panama City)

“Ronald Joseph, Jr. was wrongly convicted in 2007 for leaving the scene of an accident, when after hitting a man he drove to a store to call 911 for help. During his trial the prosecution claimed that neither the tape of his emergency call for help nor a witness at the store could be located. The judge declared a mistrial. Ronald Joseph was retried, again without the prosecution producing the evidence he had called for help, and he was convicted. Joseph was sentenced to five years in prison. On July 30, 2008 Florida's First District Court of Appeals overturned Joseph's conviction and ordered his release because the judge shouldn't have declared a mistrial in the first trial, and because jeopardy had attached, it had violated his right against double jeopardy for him to have been tried twice.” – FJDB  (News Herald)

 Bradford County, FL

Bennie Demps

Sept 6, 1976

Bennie Eddie Demps was sentenced to death for the murder of Alfred Sturgis inside Florida State Prison. At trial, inmate Larry Hathaway testified that he reported seeing James Jackson stab Sturgis with a shank, while Demps held down Sturgis and Harry Mungin acted as lookout. Demps, Sturgis, and Hathaway were all convicted murderers. Two prison guards, A.V. Rhoden and Hershel Wilson testified that Sturgis named Demps as one of his three assailants. Demps had previously been sentenced to death for a double homicide, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional because it was carried out in an arbitrary manner. Demps claimed prison officials framed him for the Sturgis killing because he had escaped his earlier death sentence.

Before trial, Hathaway told an attorney for a prisoners rights group that he did not witness the Sturgis murder. After the trial, three inmates came forward to say that Hathaway was nowhere near the scene of the stabbing. In 1994, Hathaway told a defense investigator that he had lied at trial. Seven months after the Sturgis killing, inmate Leroy Colbroth was murdered. Several inmates swore in depositions that Colbroth was killed because he had stabbed Sturgis. Other inmates later said that they saw Colbroth kill Sturgis or that he admitted killing him. This information was withheld from Demps' lawyers. Some of these inmates were willing to help Demps, but did not, stating in sworn affidavits that prison officials either threatened them with retribution if they testified or offered incentives, such as transfers or shorter sentences, for refusing.

Gerald Kogan, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, later stated that he had “grave doubts about Demps,” even though he did not vote to give Demps a new trial. Demps was executed by lethal injection on June 7, 2000.  (Chicago Tribune) (Justice: Denied) (81) (84) (10/87) (11/87) (89) (98) (6/5/00) (6/7/00)  [8/08]

 Bradford County, FL

Joseph Green

Dec 8, 1992 (Starke)

Joseph Nahume Green, a black man, was convicted of the murder of Judith Miscally. She was the society editor of a local newspaper and in a dying statement she described her assailant as a skinny black man, a description that fit Green. Green had an airtight alibi, but was convicted largely because of the testimony Lonnie Thompson, a purported eyewitness. Thompson, who has a 67 IQ, initially described the killer as white, but later identified Green in a one-person police lineup. In 1996, the Florida Supreme Court overturned Green's conviction because it held that Thompson's testimony was often inconsistent and contradictory, and that he not been fit to testify. In 2000, a judge entered a not guilty verdict for Green, citing the lack of any witnesses or evidence tying Green to the murder.  (CWC) (FLCC)  [9/05]

 Columbia County, FL

John Merritt

Mar 1, 1982 (Lake City)

John Edward Merritt was convicted of murdering Darrell Davis, a 48-year-old ambulance driver. The conviction was based solely on the conflicting testimony of two convicted felons, Gregory Hopkins and Gerald Skinner, and to a lesser extent Hopkins' wife Belinda (who was Skinner's sister). For their testimony both men received very generous sentence reductions for other crimes.  (JD) (Brief) (Merritt v. State)  [10/07]

 Duval County, FL

Duval Three

Aug 1, 1926

William Troop, Howard Shaffer and Charles Stevens were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Mary McMillan. The victim's husband, Malcolm McMillan, 65, lived with his wife Mary, 60, in a rural cottage on Superior Street, west of Jacksonville. He said three men attacked him and his wife with an ax. He managed to escape, but his wife died. Initially, he said the men were white and did not mention them having masks. However, following the convictions, in retelling his tale, he changed details, saying the men were masked, then said they were foreigners who talked funny. Later he said they were black. McMillan had also been known to beat his wife from time to time.

Because of doubts raised by McMillan, a judge ordered a new trial. The retrial led to the same result as the first trial. The Florida Supreme Court then sent the case back for a third trial. The defense attorneys moved to dismiss the case. The judge agreed, citing the absence of any motive and the contradictory statements of McMillan. Troop, Shaffer, and Stevens were released in 1930. The murder of Mary McMillan has never been solved.  (FL Times-Union)

 Duval County, FL

Leo Jones

May 23, 1981

Leo Jones, a black man, was convicted of the sniper killing of white police officer Thomas Szafranski, 28, and sentenced to death. The main witness against Jones later recanted. Two key officers in the case had left the Jacksonville Police Department under a cloud, and allegations that one of them beat Jones before he supposedly confessed had gained credence.

A retired police officer, Cleveland Smith, came forward and said Officer Lynwood Mundy had bragged that he beat Jones after his arrest. Smith, who described Mundy as an “enforcer,” testified that he once watched Mundy get a confession from a suspect by squeezing the suspect's genitals in a vise grip. He said Mundy unabashedly described beating Jones. Smith waited until his 1997 retirement to come forward because he wanted to secure his pension.

More than a dozen people had implicated another man as the killer, saying they either saw him carrying a rifle as he ran from the crime scene or heard him brag he had shot the officer. Even Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw, who formerly headed a division of the state attorney's office, wrote that Jones's case had become “a horse of a different color.” Newly discovered evidence, Shaw wrote, “casts serious doubt on Jones's guilt.” Shaw and one other judge voted to grant Jones a new trial. But a five-judge majority ruled against Jones. Jones was executed one week later in the electric chair on March 24, 1998.  (Chicago Tribune)  [11/05]

 Duval County, FL

Chad Heins

Apr 17, 1994 (Mayport)

Chad Heins was convicted of the murder of his 20-year-old pregnant sister-in-law, Tina Heins. Two jailhouse informants testified that Heins spontaneously confessed the crime to them. In 2006, Heins's conviction was overturned after DNA tests of fingernail scrapings and pubic hairs revealed that Tina had contact with an unknown male prior to her death. Charges against Heins were dropped in Dec. 2007.  (Times-Union) (Prosecutor Misconduct)

 Escambia County, FL

E. J. Fudge

June 27, 1916

E. J. Fudge was convicted of the murder of his two daughters Ethel and Tennie, ages 7 and 10 years. Evidence indicated the girls' deaths were suicides as Tennie left behind three notes in her handwriting giving reasons for her and her sister's suicides. At trial the state introduced a possible motive for Fudge to kill his daughters and argued that he forced Tennie to write the notes. However, the state's theory of the crime was unsupported and appeared to only be a remote possibility. In Mar. 1918, the state supreme court overturned Fudge's conviction for insufficient evidence. Charges against him were subsequently dropped.  (Fudge v. State) (MOJ)  [12/10]

 Escambia County, FL

Anthony Brown

Dec 21, 1982

Anthony Silah Brown was accused of murdering a deliveryman, James Dassinger, after another man, Wydell Rogers, who had been arrested for the crime, implicated Brown as an accomplice. Rogers had been given a deal in exchange for his testimony. Though a jury convicted Brown with a recommendation of life imprisonment, the judge imposed a death sentence. During a retrial, Rogers admitted he lied at the first trial and Brown was acquitted in 1986.  (PC) (FLCC)  [7/05]

 Gulf County, FL

Lee & Pitts

Aug 1, 1963 (Port St. Joe)

Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, both blacks, were convicted of the robbery and murders of two white gas station attendants. While no physical evidence linked them to the deaths, the prosecution used their own confessions, which were beaten out of them, and they also used the testimony of an alleged eyewitness. The defendants also suffered from having incompetent defense counsel.

A few weeks after they were sentenced to death, a white man, Curtis “Boo” Adams Jr., was arrested for killing a Fort Lauderdale gas station attendant during a robbery. Adams subsequently confessed to the murders for which Lee and Pitts were convicted. When he learned of this confession, the local sheriff, Byrd Parker, wanted nothing to do with it, saying, “I already got two niggers waiting for the chair in Raiford for those murders.” A polygraph examiner who had heard Adams confess took the matter to the press, and soon a new trial was ordered, at which Lee and Pitts were again convicted.

Some time after the second conviction, the alleged eyewitness recanted her testimony and the state attorney general admitted that the state had unlawfully suppressed evidence. The defendants were released in 1975 when they received a full pardon from Governor Askew, who stated he was “sufficiently convinced that they were innocent.” The ordeal of Lee and Pitts is detailed in the book Invitation to a Lynching by Gene Miller. In 1998, the Florida Legislature awarded the defendants $500,000 each in compensation.  (FLCC) (Time)  [7/05]

 Lake County, FL

Groveland Three

July 16, 1949 (Groveland)

Black men, Charles Greenlee, Walter Lee Irvin, and Samuel Shepherd, were convicted in 1949 of raping a white woman. Greenlee was sentenced to life and the other two to death. Irvin came within two days of being executed before receiving a stay. A man named Harry Moore organized a campaign in 1949 to help free the innocent men. Two years later, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial for the men. On Dec. 25, 1951, Moore's house was bombed and he and his wife were killed. Shepherd died in prison in 1951. Greenlee was released in 1960 and Irvin in 1968.  [7/05]

 Leon County, FL

Quincy Five

Sept 18, 1970 (Tallahassee)

After Khomas Revels, an off-duty deputy sheriff, was murdered during a robbery of Luke's Grocery store, Tallahassee police charged five black men from Quincy, Florida with the crime. One of these men, David Keaton, was an 18-year-old star football player with plans to enter the ministry. Although he had an alibi, Keaton was held in custody for more than a week. During that time he maintained he had been threatened, lied to, and beaten until he confessed. He believed that despite his confession, no jury would convict him when they heard his alibi. He was wrong. At trial his coerced confession was buttressed by the false testimony of five eyewitnesses. Keaton was convicted and sentenced to death. In his confession Keaton implicated Johnnie Frederick, who was “clean as a whistle,” in the belief that a judge and jury would see that his confession was false. Frederick was convicted as well and sentenced to life in prison.

David Charles Smith and two other Quincy defendants still awaited trial. In the meantime, a witness arose, Benjamin Franklin Pye, who knew the actual men who committed the crime. The men were from Jacksonville, not Quincy, though Pye knew only their street names. But he knew the motel where they had stayed, the dates, and the rental car they drove. He was with them when they cased Luke's to rob it later. Pye gave this information to his attorney, who in turn relayed it to Smith's attorney, Will Varn. Varn was a former U.S. attorney, and he was able to get funds from the judge to hire an investigator who came up with names to fit Pye's story. The names also fit the crime scene fingerprints that had not matched any of the Quincy Five. The three Jacksonville men were tried and convicted.

Despite the new evidence, the state continued to insist the Quincy Five were guilty as well. When Smith came to trial, five white eyewitnesses swore he was guilty. But Varn had the conflicting fingerprints and convictions, Pye's testimony, and a good alibi for Smith. An all-white jury acquitted him. The Florida Supreme Court took note and ordered new trials for Keaton and Frederick. The prosecution soon dropped charges against Keaton and Frederick, as well as against the remaining two Quincy defendants. Keaton and Frederick were released in 1973. In 1974 Tallahassee writer Jeffrey Lickson published a 142-page book about the case entitled David Charles: The Story of the Quincy Five.  (SP Times) (TWM) (FLCC) (SPT1) (SPT2) (OSB) (Papers)  [3/07]

 Levy County, FL

Cecil & James Simmons

June 15, 1990

Cecil Cameron Simmons and his brother James Grover Simmons were convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Kristi Hedden. Hedden, 19, disappeared from her disabled car just inside the Florida State Line on Interstate 75. Her body was dumped into the Waccasassa River outside Bronson. The convictions were based on the testimony of a local mentally retarded man named James Leonard Burney who claimed to have participated, but was never arrested or charged. No physical evidence linked the brothers to the crime, and over 25 alibi witnesses attest that the brothers were in Georgia at the time of the crime.  (CCADP) (News Article)  [11/05]

 Orange County, FL

Tommy Zeigler

Dec 24, 1975

William Thomas Zeigler Jr. was sentenced to death for the murders of four people in his furniture store. The store was located at 1010 S. Dillard St. in Winter Garden, FL. The victims were Zeigler's wife, Eunice, her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, and a black customer, Charlie Mays. Zeigler, himself, was critically shot.
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 Orange County, FL

Robert Cox

Dec 30, 1978

Robert Craig Cox was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the 1978 murder of Sharon Zellers, 19. Cox and his parents were from California and had been vacationing in Orlando. Zellers was an employee of Walt Disney World. The evidence against Cox was entirely circumstantial and included the fact that Cox was staying at a motel close to where the victim's body was found, that he had cut his tongue that night, and that blood samples found near the victim matched his blood type of O+ (a type shared by 45% of the population). The prosecution also presented testimony that a boot print found at the crime scene was consistent with a military type boot, which Cox could have been wearing, given job as an Army Ranger. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Florida unanimously reversed Cox's conviction, holding that the evidence could not possibly prove Cox's guilt. The Court ordered that Cox be released immediately.  (PC) (FLCC)  [7/05]

 Orange County, FL

Alan Yurko

Nov 24, 1997

Alan Yurko's 10-week-old son, Alan Jr., was killed by an adverse reaction to a vaccination and by subsequent iatrogenic complications in the hospital. Medical conditions mimic shaken-baby syndrome and Yurko was convicted of his son's murder and aggravated child abuse. The medical examiner who testified at his trial did not check child's medical history and issued an autopsy report that was riddled with mistakes. He later admitted these mistakes in court. In 2004, following a four-day evidentiary hearing, Yurko's first degree murder conviction was overturned. That same day he pled no contest to the manslaughter death of his son and was sentenced to time served.  (Free Yurko) (Orlando Weekly) (JD)  [11/05]

 Orange County, FL

Malenne Joseph

Dec 2007 (Conway)

A home contractor hired a black woman with an accent to paint a home in Conway, an unincorporated suburb of Orlando, FL. When the contractor failed to pay her, she reacted by going through the house and splashing it with paint, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The contractor later told Orlando police Detective Jose Varela that he knew the woman as “Marlene,” and he gave him her cell phone number. Varela dialed it and got a woman who answered to “Marlene” and who confessed to the crime but would not come down to the police station.

Varela found out from the woman who owned the damaged house that she had seen a black man driving a truck slowly in the neighborhood. This behavior raised her suspicions enough to write down the tag number. Varela traced the tag number to a man with a last name of Joseph. He then went fishing through the motor vehicle records for a black woman named “Marlene,” who might be a relative of the truck owner. He came up with a Malenne Joseph. He got a photocopy of her driver's license picture and showed it to the owner of the house and her sister. Both identified Malenne as the painter who worked at the house.

Malenne, a Haitian woman, had an accent like that ascribed to the painter. She was brought to trial in June 2010. Although she said she was not a painter and had never met any of the people who accused her, she was identified in court as the perpetrator. Over defense objections, Detective Varela testified that she confessed to the crime over the phone. Malenne was convicted of felony criminal mischief and sent to jail.

When new lawyers took over her case they found out the cell phone number Varela had dialed belonged to a woman named “Merline” whose last name was not Joseph. Like their client, the woman was Haitian and shared some facial similarities with her. The lawyers also found work records which showed Malenne was working elsewhere on two of the days she supposedly was painting. When they informed the contractor that their client was 5'2" tall, he said he knew she could not be the painter as he was 5'6" and remembered the painter as being slightly taller than himself, about 5'7". He signed an affidavit reversing his trial identification. Malenne was released from jail after being incarcerated for 77 days. A motion was filed to overturn her conviction. Prosecutors decided not to charge the other “Marlene” with the crime as the statute of limitations for it had run out.  (Orlando Sentinel) (TIJ)  [12/10]

 Pasco County, FL

Jent & Miller

July 1979

Half-brothers, William Riley Jent and Earnest Lee Miller were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 20-year-old Linda Gale Bradshaw. Her body was found in Richloam Game Preserve on July 14, 1979. She had been burned to death and her body was not identified. Two women with whom Jent and Miller had been drinking testified against them. Years later one stated that she had testified about “facts” she saw in a drug-induced dream. The other said she felt pressured by police to go along with her friend's story.

A re-examination of the autopsy report demonstrated that the crime never took place the way the eyewitnesses described it. After the victim was identified in 1986, the time of the murder was established, and it was discovered that Jent and Miller had airtight alibis. The victim's boyfriend, Charles Robert “Bobby” Dodd, Jr., had moved away immediately after her murder. Four months later, Dodd's new girlfriend was also found burned to death. Prosecutors allowed the men to go free in 1988 in exchange for them pleading guilty to lesser offenses and receiving time served sentences. In 1991, the Pasco County Sheriff's Department paid the men $65,000 to settle civil rights claims. (CWC)  [11/05]

 Pasco County, FL

Jason Derrick

June 25, 1987 (Moon Lake)

Samuel Jason Derrick was sentenced to death for the murder of Rama Sharma. Sharma, 55, owned the Moon Lake General Store and was found dead behind the store. Following the murder, police received a tip that a car was seen driving suspiciously around the crime scene vicinity in the early morning hours of June 25, 1987, prior to the finding of the victim's body. The description of the car, including a partial license plate number, seemed to match that of a car driven by David Lowry. Lowry deflected the investigation away from himself by implicating Derrick, who was then his friend. At trial, five Pasco County detectives swore under oath that Derrick confessed to the crime. There was no written, audio, or video record of this “confession” or any interrogation notes written by any of the five detectives. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office had a reputation for corruption. Just two years earlier, St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan won a Pulitzer Prize for her series of articles documenting this corruption.
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 Pasco County, FL

Richard Paey

1997 (Hudson)

Richard Paey is a pain medication patient who was convicted of drug trafficking. In 1985, Paey was injured in a car crash near Philadelphia on the Schuylkill Expressway. After a failed operation, he was left with metal screws in his spine and unrelenting pain. He was also later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Doctors could do little for the wheelchair bound Paey other than prescribe painkillers. Over time as Paey developed a tolerance for the painkillers, he had to use higher and higher doses to gain relief. Paey tried to cut back his dependence on painkillers, but to no avail as attempting to cut back simply meant enduring pain.
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 Putnam County, FL

J. B. Brown

Oct 17, 1901

J. B. Brown was convicted of the murder of a railroad worker, Harry E. Wesson. He was sentenced to death. Wesson's body was discovered in the shop yard of the Florida Southern Railway. Brown was convicted due to bits of circumstantial evidence combined with perjured testimony supplied by cellmates. He went to the gallows, but was spared being hanged when his warrant of execution was read aloud. The warrant mistakenly ordered the execution of the foreman of the jury that had sentenced Brown to death. Brown's sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was pardoned and released twelve years later, after the real killer confessed. In 1929, after Brown was “aged, infirm, and destitute,” the Florida Legislature awarded him $2,492, payable in $25 monthly installments.  (CTI) (FL Senate)

 Santa Rosa County, FL

Lance Fierke

June 25, 2001

Lance Fierke's cellmate at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution had raped him and had threatened to rape him again. Fierke reported the incident and when he refused to go back to his cell for more, Officer Dean beat him.  (Report)  [9/05]

 Seminole County, FL

Joseph Spaziano

Aug 5, 1973

Joseph Robert Spaziano was convicted of murdering Laura Lynn Harberts, an 18-year-old Orlando hospital clerk. She disappeared on Aug. 5, 1973. Her mutilated body was found along with another unidentified body in the Altamonte city dump on Aug. 21, 1973. The state's star witness, Tony Dilisio, a drug-addicted teenager stated during a hypnotized “refreshed memory” interrogation that he thought he recalled Spaziano describing the murder. Sixteen days before Spaziano's scheduled execution, Dilisio recanted his testimony. Spaziano was granted a new trial and he ultimately pleaded no contest in 1997 to second-degree murder in exchange for a time served sentence.  (St. Petersburg Times)  [1/07]

 Union County, FL

Brown & Troy

July 7, 1981 (UCI)

Willie Brown and Larry Troy were sentenced to death for the murder of Earl Owens, a fellow inmate in Union Correctional Institution. Another inmate, Frank Wise, testified that he saw Brown and Troy leave the victim's cell shortly before his body was discovered. During appeals, Brown married a German anti-death-penalty activist named Esther Lichtenfels. She took an interest in the case and fitted with a legally authorized wire, obtained an admission from Wise that he had lied about the two men's involvement. Wise offered to tell the truth for $2000. Wise was then convicted of perjury and Brown and Troy were released in 1988.  (PC) (CWC) (FLCC) (ISI)  [7/05]

 Union County, FL

Raiford Prison Inmates


Inmate John Lee Fort confessed on national television to the murder of another inmate and claimed it was a guard-ordered assassination. Officials blamed Thomas Craig for the murder and kept him in solitary confinement for two years. At trial, he was acquitted of the murder in 56 minutes and released a few months later. Officials had reason to blame Craig. According to Craig, “I was on the burial squad.” “They would take us out and have us burying these guys who had supposedly died of natural causes. I managed to get a look into a couple of those coffins – one had an obvious bullet hole, another's skull was crushed.”

Another inmate, Bennie Demps, was executed in 2000 despite the existence of a DOC report that seemed to point to his innocence. There was irrefutable evidence that Martin Anderson, a 14-year-old inmate, was brutally beaten to death. The state's medical examiner initially claimed he had died of his sickle cell anemia. The state of Florida now openly admits that inmate Frank Valdes was killed by out-of-control correctional officers.  (TruthInJustice)  [9/06]

 Volusia County, FL

Virginia Larzelere

Mar 8, 1991 (Edgewater)

Virginia Larzelere was convicted of murdering her husband Norman in their dental office. She was sentenced to death. An intruder had robbed the office safe of gold coins, cash, and narcotic drugs and had shot her husband through a closed waiting room door.  (JD)