A former seminary student from Chicago, Delbert had been traveling across the country and found himself in Florida in February 1974. He was stopped by the state police and questioned about the rape of 16-year-old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her traveling companion in Ft. Myers. Cynthia had described the offender as 5’6” with a dark complexion and a large Afro; Delbert stood 6’3” with a light complexion and had a small Afro. Yet after seeing photographs, her description of the killer changed dramatically. She said the killer was Delbert.
It took fewer than two days for an all-white jury to return a guilty verdict against Delbert. Florida had a moratorium on the death penalty at the time, so the judge told Delbert, “If the moratorium continues, you will serve consecutive life sentences. If it doesn’t, you’ll be sent to death row.” It didn’t, and Delbert was given a death sentence.
Delbert’s story became the basis for tremendous community support. Celebrities such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger became involved and raised money for the Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee. With help from his supporters, Delbert was eventually able to hire better legal representation and get a retrial. Eventually, the Florida State Supreme Court overturned his conviction by a vote of 4-3, and the District Attorney finally dropped the case in 1982.
Delbert lives in Chicago, writes poetry, and travels around the country, telling his story and reciting his poetry. His story is featured in the play The Exonerated. He is an Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence.
Delbert Tibbs will keynote WCADP’s annual meeting Oct. 13!