In 1974, when the Chicago native decided to see the country and hitchhike across the country, he wore his hair cut short.
Somehow, Tibbs was convicted of murder and rape in connection with a case in Florida — even though the killer was described as a 5-foot-6 man with a large Afro. He spent time on Florida’s death row before being exonerated.
An audience of several dozen people crowded into a meeting room at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Sandusky to hear Tibbs’ story Tuesday night, and the stories of two other former inmates who faced execution, Joe D’Ambrosio and Damon Thibodeaux.
Catholic Charities Diocese of Toledo sponsored the “One.for.Ten Tour” program on the death penalty, which stopped in several northern Ohio locations this week.
One.for.Ten is a series of short films, available on YouTube and elsewhere online. Filmmaker Will Francome served as the moderator, screening the films about the three former prisoners, who spoke after each film.
After Tibbs’ film, he got up and denounced the death penalty.
“I make no bones about it — I’m an abolitionist,” he said. “It is patently unfair. Everybody who commits a murder does not get the death penalty.”
“There have been no millionaires on death row that I know about,” said Tibbs, who said anyone convicted of killing a white person in Florida is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than someone who kills anyone else.
D’Ambrosio was freed from Ohio’s prison system after spending more than 20 years on death row. A judge ruled that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped him win acquittal.
D’Ambrosio told the audience he had no criminal record and had served in the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant, before entering civilian life.
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to you,” he said.
Thibodeaux confessed to the murder of a teen girl, but was freed from prison after DNA evidence exonerated him.
He explained that after going 36 hours without sleep, he could not take it any longer after being questioned for hours. He told the detectives what they wanted to hear so they would leave him alone.
“I used to be one of those people who believed nobody would ever confess to something they didn’t do,” he said.
Thibodeaux described prison life as “hell on earth.”
“I missed sitting on my couch, just because I can,” he said. “A real bed and a pillow — we didn’t have those things.”
The trio urged members of the audience to work to abolish the death penalty.
“They’re killing in your name, because you allow it,” D’Ambrosio said.