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The Delbert Tibbs Story: Through Hell, Back Again

Delbert Tibbs traveled from Chicago

Delbert Tibbs traveled from Chicago to Spokane earlier this month to tell his personal story of justice-gone-haywire. Sentenced to die on Florida’ s Death Row, he was exonerated. Photo courtesy of the Witness to Innocence program.

By Tara Schmidt
Class of 2012

“I will begin standing because I’d like to,” said Delbert Tibbs as he approached the lectern in the Gonzaga School of Law earlier this month to tell his story of justice-gone-haywire. After going through hell and back, sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit, Tibbs appreciates life on his terms.

In 1972, he left the Chicago Theological Seminary on foot in the second year of a master’s program, aiming to answer “the ultimate question of life, dying and so forth. It was to be my ‘wilderness experience,’” Tibbs said. After seeing most of the country, Tibbs decided he had found whatever answer he was seeking.

His real journey began on his way home.

In 1974, Florida State Police stopped and questioned him in the rape of 16-year-old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her friend in Fort Myers, Texas. Tibbs let police take four pictures of him, which were sent to Fort Myers and shown to Nadeau.

Her description was not close to matching Tibbs, who stands 9 inches taller and did not have a large Afro. Still, after seeing the photos, Nadeau said Tibbs was the killer.

With a letter from Florida officers stating he was not involved in the crimes near Fort Myers, Tibbs was stopped on his way to Memphis by a Mississippi patrolman, 10 miles from his aunt’s home. He showed the letter, but was handcuffed.

An all-white jury took less than 48 hours to sentence him to die. “They choose to accept the girl’s testimony and not mine,” he said.

Tibbs was exonerated eight years after going to Florida’s Death Row.

Gonzaga alumna Andrea Woods (’09) brought Tibbs to Gonzaga so the Spokane community could hear his story. Several people approached her afterward and said the presentation changed their minds about the death penalty.

Andrea Woods works with the Witness to Innocence program in Philadelphia through her service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Delbert Tibbs lives in Chicago and is an activist against the death penalty. His story is featured in the play “The Exonerated,” and he is realizing his dream of becoming a writer.

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