Delbert Tibbs, a peaceful advocate to abolish the death penalty, has lost his battle against cancer and died at the age of 74. His advocacy was borne of personal experience of being wrongfully convicted.
Tibbs was born on June 19, 1939, in Shelby, Mississippi. At the age of 12, he moved to Chicago with his family. As a young husband and father, he worked for a company that printed magazines and catalogs. Tibbs described the atmosphere there as “one of the most racist places that ever existed.” He later obtained a job as a claims adjusted for a cab company.
In 1970, Tibbs life took a turn. Following a divorce, he entered the Chicago Theological Seminary. He dropped out because “there was an agitation within my spirit.” That restlessness led Tibbs to travel cross-country.
He was stopped by police near Ocala, Florida, in early 1974. They questioned him about a rape and murdered that occurred in Fort Myers, which was 220 miles to the south. The officers took Polaroid pictures of him, but they released him because he did not match the victim’s description.
A highway patrolman stopped Tibbs a month later in Lee County Mississippi. He was arrested for the rape and murder. Having no fear of conviction, he waived extradition to Florida. “I don’t do anything ‘cause I figure they’re going to let me out of here, so I don’t even bother my family.”
Less than a year later, Tibbs was sentences to death for the murder and life in prison for rape. Initially the 17 year old victim told police that the man who raped her and murdered her 27 year old male companion was dark skinned, had a large afro, and was 5 foot 6 inches tall. Tibbs, by contrast, was light skinned, had a small afro, and was 6 foot 3 inches. A jailhouse informant testified that Tibbs confessed to the crime while in jail.
The informant later recanted. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, held the evidence did not support the conviction, but it said a retrial could be held. Tibbs was released in 1977, and the prosecutor dismissed all charges in 1982.
His story is featured in the play “The Exonerated,” which played throughout the county and later became a movie. Despite the adverse situation, Tibbs never was bitter in his advocacy against the death penalty. In fact, he seemed thankful for the experience.
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t gone to death row. Because it’s so much a part of my life now,” he said. “I should of lost hope, but I didn’t.”
Tibbs had been working since 2011 as the assistant director of memberships and training at Witness to Innocence. He died on November 23, 2013, at his Chicago home.
Sources: latimes.com; oneforten.com
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