Living Out Loud: : Tiny Death Rows

Breakfast with Delbert Lee Tibbs

Oct 25, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Morning. September 2004. I drove past the Planned Parenthood protestors and a dozen "right to life" signs proceeding down the driveway. Routine exam, I thought.

Within an hour, I was hospitalized with a needle piercing my right breast. I kicked the nurse who held me down.

I'd planned on seeing the play The Exonerated that Friday. Instead, breast surgery. Afterward, I saw the tumor — a bloody golf ball floating in a jar. Benign.

I guess I was supposed to forget about it, but I couldn't. Something grew inside me for no reason?

Moving on, I remade plans for The Exonerated. Based on true events, the play presented stories gathered from former Death Row inmates. An oppressive, hot Thursday, The Ensemble Theatre was packed. That night only, Delbert Lee Tibbs was in the crowd. A special guest, Tibbs was no actor. He'd been to Death Row. And lived.

After the show, Tibbs gave a short talk on the death penalty. His tone, the deepest drone. He wore a black beret. Impressively tall, his shoulder span was a landing strip. His features — wide, certain and chiseled. His eyes held an intimidating light.

Outside, we shared a smoke.

My bandaged breast ached, letting me know that something was missing. I introduced myself, offering my left hand. Nervously, I asked him for an interview.

His body towered softly, like a giant cloud. He agreed.

Next morning. The Hilton. Surely, the well-groomed desk workers wanted to arrest me for wearing faded pants and decade-old kicks. When Tibbs appeared in a sweatshirt, his grayish-black hair madly sticking up, I was relieved.

Two distracted, creative people, we walked in circles. Familiar streets morphed into mazes. Finally, we discovered a coffee shop back where we'd started.

Tibbs scooped up two pastries in one hand. I wondered if a puppy could fit in his palm. I pictured an actual wrinkly-faced dog.

We sat at a table too small for a table.

Slowly, Tibbs recounted his story. In 1974, he was enrolled in a seminary. Taking a leave of absence to roam America, Tibbs was hitchhiking when the police picked him up. The crime had occurred more than 200 miles south.

Although Tibbs resembled nothing of the rape victim's original description, she identified him as the one. An all-white Florida jury convicted Tibbs of rape and murder. Sentence: death.

Tibbs' former partner organized the Chicago Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee. Then Pat Toohey, a 70-year-old West Virginian, read about Tibbs, visited him and formed the Ft. Meyers Defense Committee. Tibbs said, "Friends were instruments that God used to save my life."

Through extensive support and activism, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Finally, after three years on Death Row, in 1977, Tibbs was exonerated of his crimes.

At first, he felt "the universe had gone awry." Later, he believed that God had called him to prison so that he could return and tell people what it was like.

Deeply sighing, he asked, "Have you ever been somewhere where you can't leave?"

"Yeah," I whispered, wincing.

Tibbs didn't pry. Instead, he grinned a miniature horizon. Like he knew. Like he used one of his hands to shovel my brain's driveway. He said, "Buddha said, 'Angry thoughts arise and dis-arise if you allow them to.' "

"Are you Buddhist?" I asked.

"No. A spiritual searcher split between gangsters and cowboys," he said.

Walking back, Tibbs stopped to say, "I'm glad I met you, darlin'," giving me his Chicago address so we could trade poetry. He was heading home to work on his autobiography.

We lingered outside The Hilton, and I realized that without my tumor I never would've met Delbert Lee Tibbs. I never would've known the way his 6-foot-3 frame cast a calming shadow over restless downtown or the feel of his hand swallowing mine when we shook, saying goodbye.

Few notes were taken. Sometimes recording is best done inside.

As Tibbs strode into the hotel, I thought about the way one moment could alter a life forever. I headed to the car, walking down the street left of center, my usual style. Suddenly, usual didn't feel quite right.

This year, my friend D recovered from two brain surgeries. At work, I watched an anorexic girl's face change from drawn to full, beginning to glow. This morning, a woman smiled at me. She had no hair, no eyebrows, but her expression told me that whether or not the cancer returned she was made of sun.

Perhaps we've all begun individual journeys into tiny Death Rows. Perhaps we're sent there to learn powerlessness, to believe in missions and miracles, delivering us to the spiritual place in between gangsters and cowboys where some are released by a stroke of love, luck or grace.

CONTACT C.A. MACCONNELL: letters(at) Out Loud runs every week at and the second and fourth issues of each month in the paper.