In 1972 Delbert Tibbs realized that he’d never seen his country. He was in his second year of a master’s program at the Chicago Theological Seminary, but he left to explore the country on foot. As Delbert put it, “I left the smaller seminary for the bigger seminary – which is the world.”
By February 6, 1974 Delbert had been traveling across the country and was in Florida. He was stopped by the state police and questioned about the rape of 16-year old Cynthia Nadeau and murder of her traveling companion Terry Milroy in Fort Myers. While he was stopped, Delbert cooperated with the officers and allowed them to take four Polaroid pictures of him; later they were sent to Fort Myers and shown to Cynthia Nadeau. She had described the offender as 5’6” with a darker complexion and a large Afro; Delbert stood 6’3” with a lighter complexion and had a small Afro. Yet after seeing the photographs, her description of the killer changed dramatically. She said the killer was Delbert Tibbs.
About ten miles from his aunt’s house on his way to Memphis, Delbert was stopped by a Mississippi patrolman and showed him the letter written by the Florida officers declaring that “Delbert Tibbs was not involved in the crimes near Fort Myers.” He was arrested for rape and murder.
An all-white jury returned a guilty verdict in less than two full days. 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.
Yet his story became the basis for tremendous community support. Such celebrities as Angela Davis and Pete Seeger- who wrote a ballad, “Ode to Delbert Tibbs” – became involved and raised money for the Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee. Through this support, Delbert was able to hire lawyers and after two years, the Florida state supreme court overturned his conviction by a 4-3 vote. It was 1982 before the District Attorney finally dropped the case.
Now Delbert lives in Chicago and is active in the movement against the death penalty. His story is featured in the play “The Exonerated,” and he is currently working on a book – realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
“I should have lost hope,” Delbert says, “but I didn’t.”