Delbert Tibbs, 1939-2013
Delbert 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. And be sure to check out all the hommages to Delbert's extraordinary life and work here, including eloquent and poignant obituaries in The New York Times and The Economist, that would surely make Delbert smile.