Florida

Two inmates, one deaf, the other mentally ill, seek mercy from Florida parole commission

The defense:  Attorneys Pat Bliss, right, and Reginald Graci appeared on behave of Felix Garcia.
The defense: Attorneys Pat Bliss, right, and Reginald Graci appeared on behave of Felix Garcia. AP

Two Florida inmates — one a deaf man from Tampa and the other a mentally ill man who is the focus of a searing documentary film — sought mercy from the state on Wednesday. Both got a flicker of hope that they might one day see freedom.

Mark DeFriest, 54, who grew up in rural Gadsden County, has been in prison since 1979 for stealing his father’s tools. He became a serial escape artist, gained the nickname “Houdini of Florida” and is the subject of a film, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest. He has spent 35 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, and is due for release in 2085, when he would be 125.

Felix Garcia, 53, of Tampa, is serving life for a murder his legal team insists he did not commit. Rather, they say, he was framed by the real killer — his older brother Francisco. His lawyer also said he did not get a fair trial because of his deafness, and answered yes to many questions to avoid appearing ignorant.

Garcia was sentenced to life for the 1981 murder of Joseph Tramontana in a motel room on Fowler Avenue in Tampa. His lawyer said he was not there .

Parole hearings normally are staid, but Wednesday’s drew a gaggle of cameras and microphones as well as Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, who argued against shortening Garcia’s sentence. So did four of the victim’s sisters, who tearfully testified of the pain that endures 33 years after their brother was murdered for cash and jewelry.

The parole commission, now known as the Florida Commission on Offender Review, agreed to review his case three years from now, rather than seven, and to help get him transferred to a prison with more programs for hearing-impaired inmates.

Ober called the arguments for Garcia’s parole “disingenuous” and “perplexing.” He read excerpts from transcripts of Garcia’s 1983 trial in which psychiatrists who examined him concluded he was competent and understood everything.

“We probably played to a draw on the facts, which are confusing,” said Garcia’s lawyer, Reggie Garcia, who is no relation to the inmate. “I’m an optimist. I look at their decision as a maybe.”

The lawyer emphasized that while in state prison, Garcia has received 37 certificates for training programs and completed his high school equivalency.

Ober read from a 2005 letter written by Garcia’s parole examiner who said the inmate’s GED was questionable because he was never given a test.

Garcia’s case took a bizarre turn when his brother Mike, of Tampa, and sister Tina, who runs a rooming house in St. Petersburg, testified in favor of parole for Francisco Garcia, who also is in prison, but not for Felix.

As they left the hearing, Felix Garcia’s biggest champion, paralegal Pat Bliss, confronted them and said: “I’m kind of shocked that you wouldn’t consider helping Felix.”

“Felix didn’t ask us to,” Tina Garcia Daniels replied.

In the DeFriest case, parole commissioners said they would reconsider his parole date at a hearing in December.

“We’re punishing him for being mentally ill. That’s what’s happening here,” said DeFriest’s attorney, John Middleton, who’s developing a transition program for DeFriest to return to Oregon, where his wife lives.

DeFriest is in an unidentified prison out of state, his lawyer said, because he was a witness to the 1999 death of inmate Frank Valdes in an altercation with officers at Florida State Prison.

The inmate’s stepsister, Barbie Hingle of Clearwater, said her brother has long had problems. “I truly believe it’s an autistic thing, but they didn’t know that at the time,’’ she said. “It was heartache after heartache.”

Filmmaker Gabriel London, who has studied DeFriest’s tormented life for nearly than a decade, urged the commission to give DeFriest another chance.

“This is the venue where redemption is possible,” London testified. Parole, he said, “is how we remedy some of the mistakes of the criminal justice system.”

Tampa Bay Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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