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Delbert Tibbs (June 19, 1939 – November 23, 2013) was an American man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and rape in 1974 and sentenced to death. Later exonerated, Tibbs became a writer and anti-death penalty activist.
Tibbs was born June 19, 1939, in Shelby, Mississippi; moving to Chicago, Illinois at age 12. He attended the Chicago Theological Seminary from 1970 to 1972. In 1974, he was hitchhiking in Florida when he was wrongfully implicated in a crime for which he would receive the death penalty.
That year, a 27-year-old man and a 17-year-old female were violently attacked near Fort Myers, Florida. The man was murdered and the young woman raped. She reported that they had been picked up while hitchhiking by a black man who shot her boyfriend dead and then beat and raped her, leaving her unconscious by the side of the road.
Tibbs was about 220 miles north of the crime scene when he was stopped by police and questioned about the crime. The police took his picture, but as he did not fit the victim's description of the perpetrator, did not arrest him. The photograph however, was sent to Fort Myers and the victim identified him as the attacker. A judge then issued a warrant for Tibbs' arrest. He was picked up in Mississippi two weeks later and sent to Florida.
Though Tibbs had an alibi, he was indicted for the crimes. During the trial, the prosecution supplemented the victim's identification with testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had confessed to the crime. The all-white jury convicted Tibbs of murder and rape and he was sentenced to death.
After the trial, the informant recanted his testimony, saying he had fabricated his account hoping for leniency in his own rape case. The Florida Supreme Court remanded the case and reversed the decision on the grounds that the verdict was not supported by the evidence. Tibbs was released in January 1977. In 1982, the Lee County State Attorney dismissed all charges, ending the chance of a retrial.
Tibbs is one of six people whose stories were dramatized in the acclaimed play The Exonerated. The play, written by Eric Jensen and Jessica Blank, details how each individual was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, in addition to their exoneration after varying years of imprisonment. The Exonerated was made into a film, which first aired on the CourtTV cable television station on January 27, 2005. Tibbs is portrayed by Delroy Lindo and at the end the film fades from the actor to Tibbs himself who talks about his experience and his hopes.
On February 14, 2011 Tibbs, along with fellow exonerees and anti-death penalty activists, spoke with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn about repealing the death penalty in their state. A month later, on March 14, 2011, the death penalty was repealed in Illinois.
Tibbs is the author of "Selected Poems and Other Words/Works", Edited by O'Modele Jeanette Rouselle, Copyright 2007, Printed by The Manifestation-Glow Press New York City October 2007. His poetry also appears in the chapbook anthology "Beccaria", edited by poet Aja Beech released on April 22, 2011.
8. Obituary, The Economist December 21, 2013 p. 140 (economist.com)