The Uncommon Life and Natural Death of Delbert Tibbs

Wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Florida 40 years ago, this remarkable man of faith was exonerated—and then dedicated the remaining decades of his life to the poetic advocacy of racial justice in America.  
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Pete Seeger once sang about him. Studs Terkel once wrote about him. He counted Joan Baez among his advocates. He was the subject of a wonderful play, "The Exonerated," which was turned into a made-for-television movie. But when Delbert Tibbs, one of America's most famous and beloved death row exonerees, died in Chicago on November 23, the nation took little note of his passing. Not a single national news organization produced an obituary for him. Not a single politician called out his name.

That's a shame, for Tibbs personified the tragedy of so many capital cases in the United States in the last quarter of the last century. He was 74 when he died, in his bed, in his home. But in 1974, nearly 40 years ago, he was wrongfully arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in Florida. He spent two years on death row before the case against him fell apart. In that respect, he was lucky. Most exonerees spend far more time on death row before justice comes to them.

Tibbs had every right to be bitter. At first, he was dismissed as a suspect because he had a solid alibi and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crimes. Under pressure, the police turned back to him anyway. Even though he looked nothing like the real murderer, he was falsely identified (from a Polaroid photo) by his accuser. Then he was condemned by a fellow prisoner, who bore false witness against him. Then prosecutors fiddled with Tibbs' constitutional rights. Then an all-white jury quickly convicted him. Then the judges of Florida rubber-stamped his conviction.

And even after the case against him came undone, even after his prosecutor acknowledged that the evidence against him was fatally flawed, earnest public servants like Samuel Alito, then a young Reagan-administration lawyer, sought to have Tibbs retried. Not until 1982 did Florida finally give up the chase.* You can read about his case from a defense perspective here and from the state's perspective here. In either account, the case against Tibbs was woefully weak—and, a prosecutor later said, "the investigators knew it."

But Tibbs did not live the last 30 years of his life in bitterness. He was not like some exonerees who withdraw into themselves upon their release. A walking, talking symbol for all that can and so often does go wrong in our criminal justice system, Tibbs also became an inspiration to generations of lawyers and advocates who seek to limit the worst excesses of capital punishment. A man of faith, he was a staff member of Witness to Innocence, a national group of death row survivors and their families. In this role, he spoke around the country, at colleges, in churches, to members of community organizations, bearing witness.

He had been a man of spirit and substance before his conviction—just read what he told Terkel about the arc of his life—and was so again after his release. Some people are just irrepressible that way. I have covered a great many capital cases, and many exonerations over the past 15 years, and yet I have never seen the advocates who dedicate their lives to these cases and these causes be so universally moved by one man's tireless advocacy as they have been by Tibbs. Clearly, to so many, he was more than just a man who had endured the great challenge of his life.

“How so much potency was contained in a man with such a pacifist soul” is the way David A. Love, the executive director of Witness to Innocence, put it in a tribute to his late friend. It is little surprise, then, that Tibbs' story anchored that wrenching play, The Exonerated, which chronicled the lives of six exonerees. He is "a sort of Chorus," the playwrights explained in their introduction, "his personality is like an old soul song: smooth, mellow, but with a relentless underlying rhythm." It is Tibbs' voice that both opens and closes the play. "It is not easy to be a poet here," he says in the opening scene. He says the same thing before the curtain falls. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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