TALLAHASSEE — Felix Garcia is in prison for murder, his defenders say, in part because he did not want his hearing impairment to be mistaken for stupidity.
Garcia, 52, is serving a life sentence for a August 1981 killing in a north Tampa motel room, the result of a drug robbery gone bad.
Now, he’s asking Gov. Rick Scott to set him free.
His brother, also charged in the robbery, later framed Garcia by getting him to pawn a ring stolen from the dead man, Joseph Tramontana Jr.
Despite an alibi that put him six miles away from the crime, Garcia’s defense suffered at trial because he read at a fourth-grade level and he didn’t have a court-appointed sign language interpreter, according to his clemency attorney, Reginald Garcia.
Advocates for deaf Floridians referred to his case at a Tuesday rally at the Capitol, to press for legislation requiring state oversight of sign language interpreters.
In Felix’s case, he was instead given a hearing aid and a loudspeaker, according to records.
When asked why he was giving incriminating answers at trial, he said he just kept saying “yes” because “if I say no, they’re going to think I’m stupid.”
“They’ll keep repeating the questions,” he told his lawyers. “I just wanted to get off the stand and go home.”
Felix was convicted in July 1983 on charges of first degree murder and armed robbery based on the signed pawn ticket and his sister’s boyfriend’s testimony, according to Reginald Garcia, who is not related.
The boyfriend, now dead, was never charged in the robbery and killing.
Reginald Garcia is representing Felix in his case before Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency.
Garcia is asking to have the sentence commuted to time served.
“He has an amazing spirit,” Reginald Garcia said. “He’s a happy man. He’s just not happy he’s in prison.”
In the last 10 years, only six people convicted on murder charges have been granted commuted sentences, according to state records.
Garcia said that the brother, Frank, who was separately convicted, later recanted his testimony implicating Felix. A judge held an evidentiary hearing in 2006 but did not rule in Felix’s favor.
“Frankly, I think the judge just didn’t know who to believe,” Reginald Garcia said.
State Attorney Mark Ober, whose office prosecuted Garcia, declined comment on the case.
Felix Garcia’s case goes before the clemency board in September.
During his years of incarceration, he has earned a GED and numerous technical certifications, Reginald Garcia said.
While Felix seeks his freedom, his brother is asking for his forgiveness.
“I did the best I could to make a wrong that I did right for you,” Frank wrote to Felix in 2010. “You don’t understand the pain in my heart, because I am to blame for us doing 30 years so far in prison.”