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Nancy Smith

Is Today the Day Felix Garcia Finally Receives Justice?

November 18, 2014 - 6:00pm

This could be -- should be -- the best day of Felix Garcia's tragic life.

The Hillsborough County man -- deaf since the age of 3 -- in the 32nd year of a prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, is up for a parole hearing in Tallahassee today.

You might think that sounds easy enough. If he didn't commit the crime, we should be talking about clemency not parole, right?

But first things first. Parole comes first.

In the last 10 years only six people convicted of murder in Florida have had their sentences commuted. Letting a prisoner found guilty of a capital crime walk is understandably not an everyday occurrence.

It's been a long, hard road for Garcia, now 53. Think about it: The man is deaf. In the words of his pro bono attorney, "How do youoverturn a wrongful conviction when you have no line to the outside world?"

Sooner rather than later, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet need to make this right.

The parole hearing is at 9:30 a.m. today at the Florida Commission on Offender Review in the Southwood office complex, Tallahassee.

This is Felix Garcia's story:

Some 32 years ago, Garcia was framed and sentenced to life in prison for the 1981 armed robbery and murder of Joseph Tramontana Jr. in Tampa. Garcia was only 19 at the time of the murder. Framed, bizarrely, by his own siblings.

Because his older brother and sister asked him to, he signed a pawnshop receipt for a ring. He had no idea the ring was stolen, no idea that pawnshop receipt would be the only piece of evidence -- the only one -- that would convict him in Tramontana's murder and put him in prison for 99 years.

According to the record, Garcia grew up in Tampa, one of six children in a working-class Cuban-American family. He suffered from crippling ear infections from birth. By the age of 3, his infections had become so severe, they caused massive hearing loss. Often punished and ridiculed for his impairment, he learned to do his best to hide it. As a result, he never received a proper education. "By the time he earned his GED, he was considered severely hearing impaired and had only attained a fourth grade level of reading and comprehension skills," the record reads.

During the 1983 trial, the court failed to provide Garcia with an interpreter, failed to offer him adequate services for the deaf so the jury could be sure he understood the proceeding. He was given a loud speaker, but when he turned it up to full volume -- as he needed to -- he was ordered to turn it off "because it was producing too much feedback."

Then the court did give him the use of a hearing aid -- but the instrument wasn't made for his ears and didn't help him comprehend even a little. He experienced the whole of the trial as noise.

Worse, he was seated in the courtroom where he couldn't see the prosecutor's face, thus couldn't attempt to read his lips.

Garcia was asked years later why he had been so quick to answer "yes" to one question after another. "If I say no, they're going to think I'm stupid," he answered. "Plus I wanted to get off the stand and go home." He had already been in jail for two years when the trial started.

Felix was at his girlfriends mothers home six miles away when the crime was committed, said Reggie Garcia (not a relation), Felixs pro bono attorney, giving him a seven-hour alibi before, during and after the murder. Two people testified to that in court.

Furthermore, Felixs brother and sister since recanted their stories and filed affidavits attesting to their brother's innocence and admitting they framed him.

As with most deaf prisoners, incarceration was worse than a nightmare. Garcia was housed in the general population. In a 2012 interview, hetold a reporter from Mother Jones magazine he was raped, targeted by other prisoners, and ignored or taunted by guards who thought he was faking. His mother eventually told him if he ever got out, "don't try to find me." He once tried to hang himself.

Then, finally, in 1996 he was discovered. Former paralegal Pat Bliss, a Virginia woman who those now involved with the case call "Felix's angel," came upon Garcia by chance. But the connection changed their lives forever. As soon as Bliss read Garcia's trial transcript, she made a decision to devote herself to his case, no matter what it took, no matter how long. She told him,"I am sticking with you till the very end. I will be that mother you don't have, that sister you don't have."

To this day, he calls her mother.

Bliss went to work preparing motions aimed at overturning Garcia's conviction on the grounds that he couldn't understand the testimony at his own trial. But she was thwarted by Florida law, which gives inmates only two years to file such motions. Garcia was nearly 12 years past that deadline. And, of course, he also missed the cutoff for filing a federal habeas petition.

Nevertheless, Bliss claims Garcia has remained positive. He unfailingly believes justice will come.

In prison he has learned American Sign Language (ASL) in English and Spanish. He has continued his education, gaining vocational and life skills, completing multiple vocational programs. His lawyers say he is very involved in faith-based work and is currently teaching ASL and computer programming to other inmates.

"I think God has a destination for Felix ... something very special in mind for him," says Bliss on a recent videotaped interview. "He is going to mean a lot to the deaf community. I just know it."

With Bliss behind him, Garcia has remained positive. He believes justice will come.

Apart from his attorneys, he has Sachs Media Group helping pro bono to publicize his plight and advocate for parole and eventually clemency. A Change.org "Free Felix" petition drive has produced 106,501 signatures.

After dozens of deaf Floridians and their advocates showed up at a rally in the Capitol courtyard on a blustery, early-spring day, bills were introduced in the House and Senate last session (SB 1304 and HB 1125) to provide interpreters for individuals on trial who are deaf or hard of hearing. Unfortunately, both died in committee.

Knowing as much as we now know about Felix Garcia, I'm hoping legislators will try to move those bills again in 2015. The sooner the better.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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