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Man visits mall, makes some wishes after release from death row
By JACKIE HALLIFAX
Posted January 25 2003, 5:19 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Rudolph Holton tossed a few pennies in a shopping mall fountain Saturday, his first full day of freedom after 16 years on death row. He made a wish as he threw.
``For guys on the row who are left, trying to get help,'' he said as he walked on.
Holton, 49, was released Friday after prosecutors determined they didn't have enough evidence to retry him for the 1986 murder of a Tampa teen. He was the 25th Florida death row inmate to be freed in the last 30 years.
At Governor's Square Mall on Saturday, Holton alluded to other inmates being freed from Florida's death row.
``Too many people getting off death row,'' he said. ``That should be telling them something, that the system's got a lot of holes in it.''
Holton had been 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.
About 10 days before she was murdered, Graddy told police another man raped her. But Holton's defense attorney was never given that report. Also prosecutors said a hair in Graddy's mouth came from Holton; DNA testing later determined it was Graddy's. And jailhouse witnesses recanted their testimony against Holton.
Last month, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision that Holton deserved a new trial.
Holton arrived at the Tallahassee mall with his two children Saturday.
``I don't even know what I'm looking for,'' he said as he read down the list of stores.
But he knew he wanted a Tampa Bay Bucs jersey, a hat and dress shoes. He also wanted to get an adjustment made to the watch his son gave him Friday.
As he tried on the red football jersey, his daughter gave her approval.
``Oh, Daddy, that's fine,'' said Sontrivette Daniels, 31, of Lakeland. ``You look awesome.''
Rudy Holton Jr., 28, of Inverness, gave his father advice in the selection of his shoes.
Holton got everything on his list except for the hat. He also said he'd like to find an hour glass.
``I wouldn't mind having one of those,'' he said.
As he left the mall, he said hasn't made a lot of decisions about his future.
``One day at a time,'' Holton said as he walked across the parking lot. ``I want to go to church and give my testimony.''
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times - January 25, 2003
RAIFORD -- Rudolph Holton, who spent 16 years, six months and 29 days in prison waiting to be put to death for a murder he said he did not commit, walked off Florida's death row Friday.
Waiting for him at the prison's entrance were his lawyers, Linda McDermott and Martin McClain, and investigators Jeff Walsh and David Mack, who found the witnesses that helped win Holton's freedom. He had $100 in his pocket, courtesy of the state of Florida.
Wearing sunglasses, Holton shook slightly as he leaned against his lawyer's car and addressed reporters and four antideath penalty protesters. He said he is innocent, and his lawyers proved it.
"I forgive everybody," he said. "I am sorry for all the people I hurt, doing burglaries, doing drugs ...
"I forgive the system for what they did to me."
Holton is the 24th person released from Florida's death row since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1976; 54 people have been executed. That makes roughly one condemned man released for every 21/4 the state has killed.
Is he really innocent, or did he just get off because of some mistake along the way?
Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente called it "one of the closest cases to potential for actual innocence that I have seen."
Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober wouldn't say what he thought, only that his professional responsibility is clear. He doesn't have enough evidence to try the 16-year-old case.
"The state of Florida does not have a reasonable likelihood of obtaining a conviction. Therefore, I am ethically precluded from going forward," Ober said. "It does not mean he is innocent."
McClain said it doesn't matter what prosecutors think. "They can say whatever they want. The truth is as a matter of law he is innocent. He is innocent just like you or I."
The man who prosecuted Holton, Joe Episcopo, said he should be free. "I am sorry it happened. At the time I believed what I was doing."
In late 1986, Holton was convicted of murdering Katrina Graddy, a 17-year-old prostitute who was raped with a beer bottle, strangled and set on fire in an abandoned crack house near downtown Tampa.
Holton was a high school dropout with a $1,000-a-day drug habit and a long record of burglaries and thefts.
No physical evidence linked him to the murder. At trial, Episcopo said a hair found in the victim's mouth had to be his; recently conducted DNA tests proved it was not.
The key witness was Flemmie Birkins, a Hillsborough jail inmate who testified that Holton admitted to him that he strangled a girl and set her on fire. Facing life in prison on his own charges, he got probation after he testified.
Years later, Holton's attorneys tracked him down and he said he made up Holton's confession to save himself from prison.
Ober said Friday that Birkins has changed his tune again and is back to saying that his original story really was true. Ober would not say why Birkins changed his story and would not say if he would bring perjury charges against Birkins for lying.
Gov. Jeb Bush's spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hirst, said the governor "is considering whether an investigation is warranted related to the conditions under which the witnesses recanted their trial testimony."
Said McClain: "He can investigate all he wants. He is relying on something Flemmie Birkins said because someone threatened him with jail."
Holton's release came two weeks after former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 156 prisoners on that state's death row. Ryan cited the use of jailhouse informants as one of the reasons he declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.
The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that prosecutors be required to put all deals with informants in writing, and urged judges to read juries special instructions about how to evaluate informant testimony.
A prison lieutenant came to Holton's cell Friday morning and told him to put his stuff in his locker. He assumed he was being transported to Tampa for a hearing. As he was led out, he told the other inmates he'd see them when he got back.
"If you want, you can come back," the lieutenant said. "You're a free man."
"I just broke down and started crying," Holton said.
Outside, he zipped up the winter coat his attorney bought him at JCPenney after Christmas.
What did freedom feel like?
"Oh, man, it's cold."
Did he want to stop for ice cream?
"I want a Klondike bar."
"I am ready to get a job." He said he might work as a longshoreman or maybe work for the circus as a clown.
What did he think of the death penalty?
"It has a lot of holes in it, and it don't work," Holton said. "I hope the governor takes a real good look at it."
"I don't know how to explain my mixed feelings," McClain said. He is thrilled that Holton is free. But ..."Sixteen years are gone. That is just a feeling of happiness mixed with a sense of injustice."
Holton's release comes the same week that Gov. Bush proposed eliminating the state agency that represents death row inmates. The governor says it will save money to pay private lawyers to do the job.
"It seems a recipe for chaos," McClain said. Holton's case, where a lawyer from the state agency (McDermott) dogged the case for six years, "speaks for the fact that there is a need for full-time attorneys on the job."
Ober pointed to problems in how the late Hillsborough Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe III conducted Holton's trial. The case went to a jury five months after Holton's arrest. Most murder trials take at least a year's preparation.
"In a case of this magnitude, no one should rush to justice," Ober said.
He referred to the way Coe handled one defense witness statement as a "hatchet job."
Holton's defense lawyers identified an alternate suspect, David Pearson. Just 10 days before she was murdered, Graddy told police that Pearson had raped her. A witness also heard Pearson threaten her.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Perry ruled that Holton should get a new trial because prosecutors failed to give Holton's trial lawyer the police reports about Pearson. Last month, the state Supreme Court agreed with Perry.
Pearson says he didn't kill Graddy, and he gave prosecutors a saliva sample.
Holton's lawyers called Pearson the real killer. "Maybe (Ober) does not know" who did it, McClain said. "But I know. Rudolph Holton didn't do it. David Pearson did."
Holton does not want to return to Tampa, he says he's afraid police will be after him. He says he wants to find a quiet home far away, work in his yard, play basketball and barbecue. He says he wants to enroll in a drug treatment center to guard against a relapse.
He was 33 when he was arrested, he is 49 now. His children, a daughter who was 15 and a son who was 13, are 31 and 27. He has six grandchildren he has never seen. His lawyers left him in a hotel room in Tallahassee on Friday night, and his family is scheduled to come meet him.
Graddy's mother, Eva Lee, still lives in the Central Park Village housing project where she lived with Katrina when she was killed 16 summers ago. She's not sure who did it any more, she just wants police to find her daughter's killer.
"I sure do," she said. "Because somebody did it."
TALLAHASSEE - Of all the
conspicuous capitalism of a
modern shopping mall, it is a small
kiosk of wall calendars that gives
Rudolph Holton pause and breaks
his stride on his first morning as a
After serving 16 years, six months
and 29 days on Florida's Death
Row -- for a crime that
prosecutors no longer believe they can prove he
committed -- those little boxes of days, strips of weeks
and pages of months had a different kind of meaning
''Everything feels like it comes so fast now,'' said
Holton, shopping with his two grown children at
Governor's Square mall in Tallahassee.
In his pocket: $100 courtesy of the state of Florida.
He saw the make-your-own-teddy-bear store and the
cookie shop that sells cake-sized chocolate-chip
wonders. He considered buying a Van Halen CD, until his
daughter said it would be cheaper somewhere else. And
after 16 years in a drab world, he was awed by the
explosion of color on sports jerseys in a brightly lit
Sports Fan-Attic shop.
''I don't even know where to start,'' Holton said, his
eyes darting and flashing like a child's at his first circus.
``All the colors, the bright colors.''
It was just last month that the Florida Supreme Court
ruled that Holton deserved a new trial.
The court said that Holton, convicted in 1986 of raping
and killing 17-year-old Katrina Graddy and setting her
body on fire, deserved a new trial because his defense
lawyers during the trial had not been told that the victim
told police 10 days before her murder that she had been
raped by another man.
In recent years, as lawyers from the Capital Collateral
Regional Counsel began digging into Holton's case, more
problems arose. A hair in Graddy's mouth that
prosecutors said came from Holton was later found to
be from the teen herself. And jailhouse witnesses who
had testified against Holton recanted their testimony.
Friday, Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober
filed documents to free Holton, pinning his decision on
the ``unreliability of witness testimony and the lack of
But for the man on Death Row, Friday had started like
any other day. Holton -- whose prison duties
sometimes included sweeping and mopping the floor of
the state's old execution chamber, the one with a
famed electric chair at its center -- had no idea that
Ober, 150 miles away, was filing court papers to
abandon the case. When the guards told him to pack his
belongings, Holton figured he was heading back to
Tampa for a hearing.
He cried when they told him he was free.
His children were caught so unawares that they could
not reach the prison in time to see him walk out.
Instead, daughter Sontrivette Daniels, 32, and son
Rudolph Holton Jr., 28, met him late Friday night in
Saturday morning -- after a hotel breakfast that Holton
said was ''pretty good, and at least it was hot'' -- they
took him on his first real shopping trip since Ronald
Reagan was president.
He paused to toss pennies into the fountain at
Governor's Square mall, underhanding a dozen copper
wishes into the water.
''For the guys on The Row,'' he explained. ``To get
Holton is the 23rd inmate in Florida to walk away from
a death sentence since 1973. His is the fourth case in
the past three years in which new evidence has either
exonerated an inmate or raised reasonable doubt about
his guilt, according to the Washington-based Death
Penalty Information Center.
Holton's daughter said her family feels sorry for the
relatives of Katrina Graddy, the teenaged victim. ''They
deserve a very good investigation from the state,'' said
Daniels, who works for a telecommunications company
in Lakeland. ``They owe them that and they never got
Prosecutors maintained Friday that nothing had proved
Holton's innocence, only cast doubt upon his guilt. ''I am
not saying loud and clear that Rudolph Holton is
innocent,'' Ober told reporters at a news conference.
``I am saying we cannot prove his guilt beyond a
LIFE UNDER A SHADOW
Holton acknowledged that he will have to live with that
shadow for the rest of his life.
''Some people are still always going to think I'm guilty,''
he said Saturday.
Holton admits that even before his murder conviction,
he was not what most people consider a good man. He
had a $1,000 a day drug habit, and a criminal record for
offenses such as burglary and grand theft, and he had
served ''a couple of years, here and there,'' according to
his lawyer, Linda McDermott.
But Holton said he wants to start a new life.
''I'm going to go to church and give my testimony,'' said
Holton, who was spiritually adopted by the late Rev.
James Hardisson and his wife, Mary. Hardisson, an
outreach minister, was Holton's spiritual advisor when
he first went on Death Row. He calls Mary his mother,
and she is the one he plans to turn to as he orients
himself in freedom.
Holton wants to spend a few weeks visiting family in
Tampa and Lakeland. Then he'll return to Tallahassee to
make more concrete plans.
First, though, he plans to watch his beloved Tampa Bay
Buccaneers in tonight's Super Bowl -- watch them as a
free man, on a couch, with a good, long sandwich.
''I'm just going to try and take it one day at a time,'' he
said, walking slowly through the mall in shiny new
He also bought a pair of tan leather ankle boots, his
children approving of them far more than the black
cap-toes he first eyed. But Holton is a fastidious man --
he made his own bed at the hotel on Saturday morning
-- and was disappointed to find out that the store did
not sell neutral-colored shoe polish.
''It's OK,'' he said. ``I got time.''
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