Death Row prisoner freed after 16 years


Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 12:04 a.m.
RAIFORD - Death Row inmate Rudolph Holton was freed Friday after DNA tests disproved some evidence and prosecutors determined they didn't have enough other evidence to retry him for the 1986 murder of a Tampa teen.
After more than 16 years on Death Row, Holton was picked up from northeastern Florida's Union Correctional Institution in Raiford by his lawyers, Martin McClain and Linda McDermott.
"I'm on top of the world," Holton said as he wiped away tears under his sunglasses. He said he was traveling to Tallahassee to be reunited with his son and daughter.
"I just want to take one day at a time," he said. "I forgive everybody."
Holton was the 25th Death Row inmate in the state to be freed since 1972, according to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
State Attorney Mark Ober announced his decision not to prosecute early Friday.
"Due to the unreliability of witness testimony and the lack of physical evidence, the state of Florida cannot proceed to trial," Ober wrote in a document filed in Florida Circuit Court in Tampa.
"I am not saying loud and clear that Rudolph Holton is innocent," Ober later told reporters in Tampa. "I am saying we cannot prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Holton, 49, was convicted of raping and killing Katrina Graddy, a 17-year-old prostitute, and then setting her on fire in an abandoned drug house in Tampa. Ober said he spoke with members of Graddy's family and they understood the decision.
About 10 days before she was murdered, Graddy told police another man raped her. But Holton's defense attorney was never given that report.
Because of that error, the state Supreme Court ruled in December that Holton deserved a new trial, upholding a November 2001 order by Circuit Judge Daniel Perry.
McClain, a New York attorney representing Holton, said there were other problems with the case. For instance, a hair in Graddy's mouth that prosecutors said came from Holton was later found by DNA testing to be from Graddy.
Also, jailhouse witnesses recanted their testimony against Holton.
"Though we are certainly pleased that the state attorney has dropped the charges, this does not change the awful fact that Rudolph Holton served over 16 years on Death Row for a crime that he did not commit," McClain said Friday.
Even Joe Episcopo, the prosecutor who won the conviction of Holton in 1986, later said the case was "shaky."
Holton said he didn't learn about his freedom until Friday morning.
"I broke down and started crying," he said.
Holton said he wants to begin enjoying his freedom by becoming reaquainted with his children. He also said he wanted a Klondike bar, baby back ribs and is looking forward to seeing the Super Bowl.
He also weighed in on the death penalty. "It's got a lot of holes in it and doesn't work," he said. "The system needs rearranging."
The release of a second person from Death Row in about a year should persuade Gov. Jeb Bush to halt executions, said Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Bush has OK'd DNA testing in Death Row cases where evidence is available to be tested. In December, he stayed the execution of Amos King to allow new DNA testing requested by King's attorneys.
Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said Friday that the governor respected Ober's decision, but "is considering whether an investigation is warranted related to the conditions under which the witnesses recanted their trial testimony."
Bonowitz' group has pushed for Holton's release, and includes a synopsis of his case written by the prisoner on its Web site.
"I am an innocent black man that was railroaded in a Tampa, Florida court room, and am now on Florida's death row awaiting the ultimate punishment for a crime that I did not commit, if I cannot prove my innocence," Holton wrote.
Holton's case is similar to those of two other Florida Death Row inmates.
In December 2001, Juan Melendez won the right to a new trial and prosecutors declined to try him again. He walked out of prison a free man in early January 2002.
In December 2000, DNA evidence cleared another Death Row inmate of a 1985 murder. It was too late for Frank Lee Smith, who had died of cancer 11 months earlier.
"It seems to me there's error haunting the Florida death penalty system," McClain said.

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