SPOKANE, Wash. – Delbert Tibbs, who in 1974 sat on Florida’s death row facing the death penalty for crimes he did not commit, will discuss how he was ultimately exonerated by forensic evidence at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 1 in the Barbieri Court Room of the Gonzaga University School of Law. The event is free and open to the public.
On Feb. 6, 1974, Tibbs was traveling the world after he had literally walked away from his second year of a master’s program at the Chicago Theological Seminary. By the time he reached Florida, state police there stopped and questioned him in the rape of 16-year old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her traveling companion in Fort Myers. Tibbs cooperated with police and even allowed them to take four Polaroid pictures of him, which were later sent to Fort Myers and shown to Nadeau.
Although Tibbs’ height and hair were not close to matching Nadeau’s description, her description of the suspect changed dramatically once she saw the photographs of Tibbs. Delbert Tibbs’ worst nightmare began to unfold when all of a sudden she claimed Tibbs raped her and killed her friend.
On the road to Memphis, holding a letter written by the Florida police declaring “Delbert Tibbs was not involved in the crimes near Fort Myers,” Tibbs was nonetheless stopped again by a patrolman. Despite the letter, he was arrested and charged with rape and murder even though he was more than 150 miles away from the area at the time of the crime.
At trial, the all-white jury returned a guilty verdict in less than two days. Tibbs received a death sentence.
Andrea Woods, a 2009 Gonzaga alumna who is serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, works with men like Tibbs who have been exonerated from the death penalty and helps them become reoriented to society.
“Despite their innocence, these men were demonized, devalued, and dehumanized by their wrongful conviction, and some came within hours of an execution,” Woods said.
Tibbs now lives in Chicago and is an ardent supporter of the movement to abolish the death penalty. His story is featured in the play “The Exonerated.” Also, Tibbs is working on a book and realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a writer. “I should have lost hope,” said Tibbs, “but I didn’t.”
Woods, who is working in Philadelphia with the JVC serving the Witness to Innocence organization, said Tibbs’ presentation will be inspirational.
“I am so happy to be able to share the powerful story of an exonerated death row survivor with the Gonzaga community,” Woods said. “It’s the very community that inspired me to make such a radical move in joining the JVC and to seek greater empathy and justice.”
Woods is a big fan of Tibbs, as well.
“Delbert is a gentle, intelligent, and incredible man,” she said. “His story is rich with injustice, discrimination, heartbreak, healing, and hope.”
The event is sponsored by the Gonzaga Activities Board, part of the Gonzaga Student Body Association.
Read Woods’ story at the following link: [http://news.gonzaga.edu/archives/725].