March 27th, 1974

Delbert Tibbs Indicted in Florida; Later Sentenced to Death and Exonerated

On February 3, 1974, a young white couple, Cynthia Nadeau and Terry Milroy, were hitchhiking in Fort Myers, Florida when, according to Ms. Nadeau, they were picked up by an African American man who shot Mr. Milroy to death, raped her, and left her bleeding and unconscious beside a secluded road.

A few days later, on February 6th, Delbert Lee Tibbs, a black hitchhiker from Chicago, was hitchhiking 220 miles north of Fort Myers when he was stopped by police, questioned about the crime, and photographed. Ms. Nadeau had initially described her attacker as a very dark-skinned man. Mr. Tibbs, who was of a light complexion, did not fit the eyewitness’s description and police released him. Nonetheless, his photo was sent to Fort Myers, and Ms. Nadeau identified him as her attacker. A warrant was issued and Tibbs was arrested two weeks later in Mississippi.

Mr. Tibbs was returned to Florida, indicted by a grand jury on March 27, 1974, and tried for the rape and murder. Though Mr. Tibbs had a solid alibi, and Ms. Nadeau had given several inconsistent descriptions of the suspect, the prosecution’s star trial witness was a jailhouse informant who claimed that Mr. Tibbs confessed his guilt to him. Based on this evidence, an all-white jury convicted Mr. Tibbs of murder and rape. In March 1975, he was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Following the trial, the supposed informant recanted his testimony and admitted he had fabricated the story in hopes of receiving leniency in his own case. In 1977, Delbert Tibbs was released from prison, and in 1982, all charges against him were officially dropped. He died of natural causes in 2013.