Florida Man Freed After 16 Years on Death Row

Times Staff Writer

A Florida inmate who spent 16 years on death row was freed from prison Friday after prosecutors -- facing strong evidence that he did not commit a 1986 murder -- declined to retry him.

"I'm on top of the world," Rudolph Holton, 49, said as he wiped away tears after walking out of the prison in Raiford. Holton became the 23rd death row inmate in Florida found to be wrongfully convicted since 1973, and the fourth in the last two years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Florida has more than 20% of the nation's 103 cases in which someone was wrongfully convicted and sent to death row -- the most of any state, followed by Illinois with 13. And a study by Columbia University law professor James Liebman in 2000 showed that 75% of death sentences imposed in Florida were later reversed by state or federal courts.

On Friday morning, Mark A. Ober, the state's attorney in Tampa, dropped all charges against Holton. "Due to the unreliability of witness testimony and the lack of physical evidence, the state of Florida cannot proceed to trial," Ober said in a court declaration. Holton's attorneys said they were convinced that he was not guilty.

Holton's conviction was overturned in November 2001 by Tampa Circuit Judge Daniel L. Perry, who said that critical evidence had been withheld from the jury that convicted Holton of murdering Katrina Graddy, 17, in a Tampa "crack house" in 1986. Florida prosecutors appealed Perry's ruling, but his decision was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in December.

At a hearing before Florida's highest court, Justice Barbara Pariente said Holton's case "comes close to one of the strongest cases of potential for actual innocence" that she had seen. At trial, the primary testimony against Holton came from a jailhouse informant who was released from custody in return for his assistance. Years later, the informant told a judge that he had lied to win his freedom.

Unreliable testimony from jailhouse informants has been a factor in other wrongful death penalty convictions in Florida. "Florida not only leads the country in exonerations, but also is relatively unique in denial and in refusing to learn anything from these mistakes," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociologist who studied Florida's death penalty extensively when he taught there.

There were other problems with the Holton case.

Just 10 days before she was slain, Graddy told police that a man she knew as "Pine" had raped her. But police did not give Holton's trial lawyer their report, and Perry, the circuit judge, cited that failure to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence in overturning the conviction. In addition, at a hearing before Perry in 2001, Tampa resident Donald Smith testified that "Pine" was David Pearson, a drug dealer who had confessed to the murder.

Pearson, who is on probation for another conviction, has denied that he committed the murder. However, he said in a sworn statement last year that he had had anal sex with the victim on the night she alleged that he had raped her. Pearson said the sex was consensual in trade for drugs. Graddy's killer tried to destroy her strangled and sexually molested body by setting the house on fire, but authorities got there soon enough to identify her.

Tallahassee attorney Martin McClain, who has represented three Florida death row inmates who have been cleared, said he was pleased that his client was gaining his freedom. But "this does not change the awful fact that Rudolph Holton served over 16 years for a crime that he did not commit," McClain said.

Friday afternoon, prosecutor Ober said, "I am not saying loud and clear that Rudolph Holton is innocent. I am saying we cannot prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

But McClain and Holton's co-counsel, Linda McDermott of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel office in Tallahassee, said they were convinced of Holton's innocence.

"Not only did we refute the entire state case, but we presented evidence never revealed before about who committed the murder," McDermott said.

In addition to Smith's testimony and the jailhouse informant's unreliability, McClain and McDermott noted another problem with the case. Prosecutors told jurors a hair found in Graddy's mouth at the murder scene came from Holton, but the hair was tested much later and determined to be the victim's.

A year ago, another of McClain's clients, Juan Melendez, was freed from death row in Florida after a judge awarded him a new trial and prosecutors declined to retry him. Two years earlier, DNA evidence cleared yet another of McClain's death row clients, Frank Lee Smith. But Smith was not around for his vindication -- he had died of cancer 11 months earlier.

Holton's release comes at a time of growing controversy over the capital punishment system in the Sunshine State. This week, Gov. Jeb Bush proposed to the Legislature that three state-funded offices that provide lawyers for death row inmates be eliminated and replaced with a registry system of lawyers on July 1.

Robin Maher, who runs the American Bar Assn.'s Capital Representation Project, has decried the move, and sources in Florida said it might become the subject of litigation.

"These offices represent 200 death row inmates in Florida, and the cases would be dumped on a complete stranger. This is a prescription for disaster," McClain said.

The entire Florida system needs to be examined, said Washington attorney Stephen Hanlon, who last year won a case in the Florida Supreme Court overturning the state's cap on how many hours attorneys could be paid for when conducting a death row appeal.

He cited a study showing that a properly prepared habeas case takes 3,300 hours of work, whereas Florida was only willing to pay for only 840. Soon after the decision was issued, the Florida Legislature passed a measure saying that any attorney who exceeded the cap would be taken off the approved list of lawyers to handle such cases.

Florida has the third-most-populated death row in the nation, trailing only California and Texas. Since 1976, Florida has had 54 executions, ranking fifth in the country.

In the study he released last year, Columbia's Liebman said that Hillsborough County, Fla., where Holton was tried, is one of five Florida counties that send a high number of defendants to death row. Liebman's study concluded that the more often the death penalty is sought the greater the likelihood that there will be wrongful convictions.

Earlier wrongful convictions in Florida have involved mistaken identifications, coerced confessions, unreliable eyewitness testimony, incompetent defense lawyers, unlawful suppression of evidence, perjured testimony, unreliable hair evidence, false testimony by jailhouse informants and faulty DNA evidence.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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