Delbert Lee Tibbs

Delbert Tibbs (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Delbert Tibbs (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

The prosecutor admitted the case had been tainted from the beginning

Delbert Lee Tibbs was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and the rape of the man's 17-year-old female companion. Tibbs was sentence to death for the murder and life for the rape.

The victims were hitchhiking when, according to the young woman, they were picked up by an African American man who shot her boyfriend to death, raped her, and left her bleeding and unconscious beside a secluded road.

A few days later, Tibbs was hitchhiking 220 miles north of Fort Myers when he was stopped by police, questioned about the crime, and photographed. Because he did not fit the eyewitness's description, he was released. Nonetheless, the photo was sent to Fort Myers, where the female victim identified him. A warrant was issued, and Tibbs was arrested two weeks later in Mississippi.

Tibbs waived extradition to Florida, where he was indicted even though he did not match the original description the female victim had provided and he had a solid alibi. At trial, in addition to the young woman's dubious testimony, the prosecution sponsored the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had admitted the crime. An all-white jury convicted Tibbs of both the murder and rape, the victims of which were white.

After the trial, the jailhouse informant acknowledged that he had fabricated his testimony against Tibbs in the hope of receiving leniency in his own case, a rape for which he was facing a life sentence.

In 1976, by a four-three vote, the Florida Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, holding that the evidence did not support the verdict. Tibbs was released in January 1977, although he faced a possible retrial.

Finally, in 1982, Lee County State Attorney Joseph D'Allesandro dismissed all charges against Tibbs and D'Allesandro's predecessor, James S. Long, who had handled the original prosecution, declared that the case had been "tainted from the beginning and the investigators knew it." If Tibbs had been retired, Long said he gladly would have testified as a defense witness for Tibbs.

Case Chronology

February 3, 1974 — Terry Robert Milroy, a twenty-seven-year-old white man, is murdered and Cynthia Nadeau, his seventeen-year-old white girlfriend, is raped near Fort Myers, in Lee County, Florida. Nadeau describes the killer-rapist as a black man with a dark complexion and pock-marked skin.

February 6, 1974 — Tibbs, a thirty-four-year-old African American hitchhiker from Chicago with light skin and a clear complexion, is stopped near Ocala, Florida, some 220 miles north of Fort Myers, questioned about the crime, photographed, and released.

February 12, 1974 — Despite the discrepancy between Tibbs’s appearance and her initial description of the killer-rapist, Nadeau identifies Tibbs from the photographs taken six days earlier. A warrant is issued for his arrest.

March 15, 1974 — Tibbs is arrested near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and waives extradition to Florida.

March 16, 1974 — Tibbs arrives in Fort Meyers and is identified by Nadeau from a live lineup that includes three other African American men.

March 27, 1974 — A Lee County grand jury indicts Tibbs for the murder of Milroy and the rape of Nadeau.

December 11, 1974 — Tibbs’s trial opens before Judge Thomas Sands and an all-white jury. State Attorney James R. Long is the prosecutor. Tibbs is defended by Chicago lawyer George Howard.

December 14, 1974 — The jury returns a verdict of guilty, recommending a death sentence for the murder.

March 24, 1975 — Judge Sands sentences Tibbs to death in the Florida electric chair for the murder and life in prison for the rape.

July 28, 1976 — Florida Supreme Court reverses the conviction and remands the case for a new trial based on the weight of the evidence. Tibbs v. State, 337 So. 2d 788 (1976).

Late 1976 — Judge Jack Shoonover holds that a retrial is barred by the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

January 8, 1977 — Tibbs is released on $90,000 bond.

April 9, 1981 — Florida Supreme Court holds that because the verdict was overturned on the weight of the evidence — as opposed to the sufficiency of the evidence — that Tibbs may be retired. Tibbs v. Florida, 397 So. 2d 1120 (1981).

June 7, 1982 — U.S. Supreme Court affirms Florida Supreme Court’s double-jeopardy holding. Tibbs v. Florida, 457 U.S. 31 (1982).

July 7, 1982 — State Attorney Long’s successor, Joseph D’Allesandro, drops all charges against Tibbs.

Case Data

Date of crime: February 3, 1974
Place of crime: Lee County, Florida
Type of crime: Murder of one victim, rape of another
Sentence: Death for murder, life in prison for rape
Defendant’s age at time of crime: 34
Defendant’s gender: Male
Defendant’s race:Black
Defendant’s prior adult or juvenile conviction record:None
Victims: Terry Robert Milroy (murder), Cynthia Nadeau (rape)
Victims’ gender: Male (Milroy), Female (Nadeau)
Victims’ race: Both white
Victims’ ages at time of crime: Milroy 27, Nadeau 17
How defendant initially became a suspect: Identified from photographs by Nadeau
Date of arrest: March 15, 1974
Type of proceeding resulting in conviction: Jury trial
Racial makeup of jury:All-white
Date of conviction: December 14, 1974
Principal evidence presented at trial purporting to establish guilt: Eyewitness testimony by victim (Nadeau), testimony of jailhouse informant (Sylvester Gibbs)
Was conviction ever affirmed on appeal? No
Date of release:January 8, 1977
Total days incarcerated: 1,067
How case was resolved:Dismissal of charges following reversal of conviction
Date of resolution:On July 7, 1982
Factors leading to resolution:Recantation of Sylvester Gibbs, unreliability of identification by Nadeau
Individual(s) responsible for bringing miscarriage to light: Original defense lawyer (George Howard), privately retained appellate counsel (Jerry Paul), brother of defendant (Roy Tibbs, a Cook County, Illinois, deputy sheriff), recanting witness (Gibbs)
Did defendant receive compensation for the wrongful conviction?No
After exoneration, was defendant charged with or convicted of another crime? No (as of September 2, 2006)

Studs Terkel interview with Tibbs

— Rob Warden