Men acquitted of crimes share their stories


Seth Penalver , who was on death row for murder in Florida before his case was reevaluated and he was exonerated after there was no proof of him commenting the murder, talks about the issues with the death penalty during a event put on by Gainesville Citizens for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, held at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Gainesville Saturday Nov. 2, 2013.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.

When Seth Penalver was acquitted in December 2012 of all the charges that sent him to Florida's death row at 21, he dropped to his knees and thanked God.

For 18 years, Penalver had been incarcerated for crimes he said he didn't commit.

Now, he was finally exonerated.

“When I found out, it didn't feel real,” Penalver, 40, said.

On Saturday afternoon, alongside Herman Lindsey, 40, who was exonerated in 2009, Penalver told a room of 40 students and residents that the death penalty should be abolished.

“It's not about can we fix it,” Penalver said. “It has to end.”

The Gainesville Citizens for Alternatives to The Death Penalty invited the two men to share their stories.

Twenty-four wrongfully convicted Florida death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973 — the most of any state, said spokeswoman Miriam Elliott.

Lindsey was the 23rd to be released, she said. Penalver the 24th.

“This is a very real, serious problem, something that Florida needs to worry about,” Elliott announced to those who had gathered in the library at the St. Augustine Catholic Church and Student Center.

Penalver said his problems began when he was young. Born in San Francisco to parents who separated by the time he was 3, Penalver moved to South Florida and quickly found trouble.

His first brush with law enforcement was in fourth grade, when he spray-painted the side of a school building, and later on in the early '90s when he was arrested.

But Penalver said his “nightmare” happened in 1994, when he was connected to a triple-murder case that occurred in Miramar and was sent to death row when a state witness lied.

Penalver said the death penalty doesn't do its job if the evidence that's used to indict a person doesn't exist — or is incorrect.

“Obviously, the system is broken somewhere,” he said, “no doubt about it.

“One,” he said softly. “One mistake.”

“That's all it takes,” he continued, his voice rising. “Not two, not three, not four. Certainly not 24. One.”

Lindsey, who spent more than three years on Florida's death row, said he was arrested for a 12-year-old murder and convicted in 2006. There were no eyewitnesses, no fingerprints, no one who managed to place him at the scene, he said.

“It's a system that's way beyond our hands,” Lindsey said as he paced the room, his hands jammed into his pockets, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. “But if we pull together, we might get them to change it.”

Lindsey cautioned people to think about the consequences of killing an innocent man.

“You can release an innocent man from prison,” he said, “but you cannot release an innocent man from the grave.”

Lindsey and Penalver acknowledged that since their releases, it has been difficult to become “truly free” and secure jobs.

Even though they've been acquitted — Lindsey by the Florida Supreme Court, Penalver by a unanimous jury in Broward County — their backgrounds have not been expunged of the arrest report.

“They won't clear your record for anything?” asked George Diller, who's been against the death penalty for 25 years.

“No,” Lindsey replied.

Near the end of the conversation, Kimberly Taylor, who was in the audience, asked the men, “How do you find forgiveness?”

By letting go of anger and wanting to enjoy what's left of life, Penalver replied.

Lindsey answered with a question of his own: “How can we expect God to forgive us if we can't forgive others?”

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