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'I just got off death row'

Those words have become a mantra for a former death row inmate as he struggles to find a job and deal with life's day-to-day problems.

Published November 16, 2003

TAMPA - As students in the job training class told their stories, Sandra Holton heard it coming. She knew what her husband was about to say.

Please don't say it, she prayed.

She knew he would. He always did.

Not again. Please.

"I just got off death row," Rudolph Holton said.

Heads turned. Sandra lowered her head.

The teacher had asked students to explain their criminal pasts. People brought up the usual drug charges and domestic disputes. No one, except Rudolph, mentioned a murder charge.

Sandra, 37, knew her husband couldn't keep his secret.

But how was he going to survive if he kept blurting out those words? How could he find a job and stay out of trouble? How would he deal with the rush of emotions - shame and anger, love and lust - that she felt?

When Rudolph, now 50, was sent to death row, he was 33. For the next 161/2 years, until January, he lived in an environment where condemned men marked their days.

He developed social habits by talking through bars to other inmates. He learned about survival by watching his back in the prison yard. He acquired job skills by figuring out how to make something from nothing, such as heating water in his cell using a razor blade, Popsicle sticks and dental floss.

All along, he maintained his innocence. But it took years for his attorney to convince others that someone other than Rudolph had killed a prostitute that night in 1986.

Finally, Rudolph was released into the world, with a JCPenney winter jacket, $100 cash and no clue of what else life would bring.

He knew he could make it behind bars. But what about the outside?

* * *

One recent night, he was lounging in a sofa chair watching Monday Night Football while Sandra soaked in the tub. Her 16-year-old daughter, Tiffany, was asleep in their $550-a-month home off Nebraska Avenue.

All of a sudden, Sandra started screaming.

"Rudy! Rudy!" She heard something outside.

By the time Rudolph walked to the back yard, the shed door was open.

The new lawn mower was gone - and, with it, Rudolph's livelihood.

He and his wife jumped in their car and drove around the block, looking for someone pushing a mower. But the streets were empty.

Rudolph trudged back inside, depressed. A friend had paid for the mower.

He dreamed of running his own lawn care business and already had talked a few people into letting him cut their grass.

Now what would he do?

* * *

The next morning, Sandra got up before 8 a.m. and smoked a cigarette. Rudolph dug through papers, looking for the lawn mower receipt.

Police needed the serial number to identify the mower at pawn shops.

Meanwhile, Rudolph needed a job.

He had not earned steady wages for more than 16 years. In his 20s, he laid pipes. He loaded ships at the Tampa banana docks.

While serving time on other charges, he worked as a custodian at the Florida State Prison. One of his tasks was cleaning the electric chair.

Now free, he would walk along Hillsborough Avenue and enter stores, asking for work. When employers asked about his experience, he blurted out the truth.

"I just got off death row," he would say.

He didn't get any offers.

Finally, someone told him about the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa Inc., a nonprofit run by community activist Chloe Coney. The center helps felons and other hard cases find work.

His appointment was at 9 a.m. Nov. 4.

It was the morning after the mower theft, and the Holtons barely spoke as they got ready to leave home. In the parking lot outside the center, they held hands.

Inside, there was a room full of people filling out forms. Everyone was quiet. Rudolph signed in and took a seat.

In the class, the instructor asked everyone to write the word "J-O-B," then create a word for each letter.

How many people had a resume? the instructor asked.

"I put in about 15 resumes," Rudolph said.

After class, the Holtons met with a job counselor in a cubicle. Rudolph crossed his arms and stared at her.

"What was your last employer?" she asked.

The couple looked at each other.

"Self-employed," Sandra said, meaning the lawn jobs.

The counselor wrote it down.

"Can you do carpentry? Painting? What did you do in prison?" she asked.

He had spent much of his time in prison trying to get released.

She teased him. Maybe he wanted to work as a lawyer.

"It's too stressful," he answered.

* * *

Outside, they piled into Sandra's Mazda and rolled down the windows. The air conditioning was broken, and Sandra had no money to fix it.

They headed to Home Depot, hoping the store had kept a record of their mower purchase. They still needed the serial number for police.

But the store hadn't kept a record. The two left in silence.

Back home, Rudolph went through the paperwork again.

"I put it with the rest of the bills," he said.

He called the woman whose lawn he was supposed to cut.

"Somebody has stolen my lawn mower," he explained.

Before he went to Florida's death row in 1986, Rudolph had been a petty burglar, breaking into houses and stealing TVs to get money for drugs.

He wasn't a careful thief; he was caught walking down Ybor City streets in daylight hauling stolen TVs.

This time, he was on the other side. This time, he knew how crime felt.

Rudolph went outside to check the mail.

"Mailman came," he said as he looked at the letters. "Bills."

* * *

Sandra first saw Rudolph on the news. He had just gotten off death row.

"The first time I saw him, I thought, "What a beautiful body,"' she said.

He started hanging around her. Soon, he moved in.

The arrangement served Rudolph well. Except for relatives, he had nowhere to live and no one to assist him.

Sandra went to work and paid the bills, while Rudolph looked after the house and Tiffany.

Other women had promised to stick with him. But when he was released, they disappeared. Sandra stayed.

When he thinks about her love, it steals his breath and puts a tear in his eye.

"We both really need each other," he said.

"I can sit down and talk to her about things I can't talk to anyone about. She really listens."

One night, talking in bed, she asked him: Will you marry me?

He asked her to get on her knees. She did.

"Yes, pumpkin," he said.

They planned to buy a house together in Spring Hill, but on closing day, the deal fell through. They needed better credit.

That night, Aug. 2, they found a notary and got married in a rainstorm. They celebrated at Red Lobster.

* * *

The relationship divided Rudolph and his family. When the two hooked up, Sandra was divorcing his uncle, Lawrence Holton Sr.

Back in November 2002, while Rudolph was still on death row, Sandra told police that the uncle had pointed a gun at her and threatened to kill her. Lawrence Sr. denies that charge.

Then in May, the uncle's son, Lawrence Holton Jr., showed up at Sandra's house to claim some belongings. According to police reports, Lawrence Jr. raised a fist at Rudolph, who then raised a stick. Lawrence Jr. said Rudolph raised a machete, but police found none.

They did find Rudolph, who explained, "I just got off death row."

He said he had feared that Lawrence Jr., who was later arrested on unrelated rape charges, might break in and attack them or Sandra's daughter.

"The only thing I did was protect myself," Rudolph said.

Lawrence Sr. urged authorities to prosecute his ex-wife's new beau. He reminded them that Rudolph had just gotten out of prison. He also told a Times reporter he hoped for Rudolph's arrest, noting that Sandra had caused his arrest.

Police had left the house in May without taking anyone in. The couple thought the incident was over.

But in August prosecutors charged Rudolph with aggravated assault.

No one served him papers. He learned about the arrest warrant a month later from the Times.

The next day, he turned himself in at the Pinellas County Jail in Largo, rather than the Hillsborough County Jail. He had bad memories of the Orient Road jail, and he didn't trust the officers in Tampa.

* * *

When Rudolph bailed out of the Pinellas County Jail, the woman at Quick & Easy Bail Bonds gave him a business card. On it was the name of lawyer John Trevena.

Maybe this lawyer would help, he thought.

Rudolph wanted to sue the state for putting him on death row. He wanted money; he thought he deserved it.

In some ways, Rudolph knew that prison had saved him. If he had stayed on the streets, stealing to feed his drug habit, he probably would have been killed or would have overdosed.

But when he thought about the years he lost, when he contemplated his future, he couldn't help but cry.

"It's like I spent all that time for nothing," he said one afternoon at home.

Sandra rubbed his back, trying to comfort him.

"It seems like no one cares," he said.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he forgets that he is free.

"I wake up at 4 o'clock or 5. Sometimes I think they are getting ready to feed us," he said.

For days, Rudolph went through the Yellow Pages calling lawyers. But no one wanted his case.

All he needed was enough money to buy a house far off in the woods. He hoped to get a job without much stress.

Finally, he called Trevena, who was known for taking on prosecutors.

Trevena agreed to help.

* * *

On Nov. 6, the Holtons headed back to the job center. In the parking lot, he wore a headset, plugged into jazz.

"You don't need that in there," Sandra said, pulling off the headset.

"I'm not in there yet," Rudolph said.

He put it back on. He looked away.

"I'm the child," Rudolph said. "She's the mother."

Inside, the counselor had landed Rudolph a job interview on a construction site in New Tampa.

Rudolph and Sandra set out for the interview. As they drove up Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Sandra admired the palm trees and nice homes. They passed the Men's Wearhouse, and Rudolph pointed at it.

"When I get some money, I'm going there," he said.

"He doesn't need more clothes," Sandra said.

At the construction site in the sprawling subdivision, cement trucks and pickups lined the street. Cranes moved trusses. Construction workers stood on roofs.

Rudolph, accompanied by a reporter and photographer, asked the crew chief for a job.

"Got tools?" the chief asked.

Rudolph didn't answer. Instead, he said: "I just got off death row."

The crew chief needed bodies, badly.

"Then, you're ready for work," he said.

He gave Rudolph a list of required tools: a hammer, a measuring tape, a level and a tool belt.

Work starts at 7 a.m., the chief said.

"Tomorrow, I'll fill out an application," Rudolph offered.

No application was required. Only tools.

Sandra wrapped her arms around him and planted a kiss.

"I knew it, baby! What did I tell you!" she said.

In the car, she held his hand.

"This means a lot," she said. "He can feel like himself again."

Driving home, Rudolph noticed a souped-up pickup on Bruce B. Down Boulevard.

"One day, I would like something like that," he said.

* * *

He had no money for construction tools. He had no ride to work.

Sandra's job at a dialysis clinic started about 5:30 a.m., but she told Rudolph he could take her car while she was at work. The car would give him freedom.

But Rudolph said no. He's too afraid to drive, and besides, he doesn't have a license. He never had one.

"My feet get jumpy on the pedal," he said. "I am afraid of getting pulled over, of getting harassed."

Sandra offered him money for the tools. She could borrow from her sister, she decided.

That weekend, they drove to Kissimmee, where her sister lives. A tire blew out on Interstate 4.

Rudolph could feel the stress mounting.

He found himself opening beer bottles and cursing at Sandra, resenting the way she nagged, even talking about leaving.

"I have to get out sometimes," he said.

Everything made it worse - the tools, the job, the car problems, the pending criminal charges.

Monday would have been his first day on the job.

He dropped Sandra at work and headed to the construction site in New Tampa in her Mazda. Before he left, she gave him a copy of the car's vehicle registration, just in case he needed it.

On Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Rudolph saw police lights in his rear view mirror. He pulled over, and a sheriff's deputy ordered him out.

Driver's license, please.

"I just got off death row," he said.

He told the officer he was driving his wife's car and trying to get to work.

You can go to jail for driving without a license, the deputy said.

But then the deputy cut him a break. He gave Rudolph a warning and told him to head straight home.

He never made it to work. Not that day or any last week.

* * *

On Friday, Rudolph had an 8:30 a.m. court date before Circuit Judge Anthony K. Black on his new aggravated assault charge.

He emerged from his house dressed neatly in pressed slacks, a sweater and black leather shoes. He carried a briefcase.

Sandra came out in her pajamas, yelling at Rudolph and pointing her finger. They had been arguing about something.

"This is your choice," she said.

In the car, Rudolph stared out the window.

"This gets me stressed out," he said.

He kept checking his watch. He didn't want to be late.

In court, he looked at old newspaper articles that had been written about him. The pictures showed him in his prison uniform from death row.

A bailiff approached.

"You know when court starts, you can't read," the bailiff said.

"I know," Rudolph replied.

A lawyer held out his hand.

"Mr. Holton," he said.

Rudolph met his court-appointed attorney, Bob Fraser, for the first time. He gave Rudolph a business card.

Rudolph studied the card. Fraser's offices are in Lakeland and Brandon.

"Lord, have mercy," he said. "I can't get over there."

As he waited for his case to be called, Sandra slipped into the courtroom, dressed for work, and sat in the back. She came to be with her husband.

He motioned for her to join him. She didn't respond.

Outside after court, Sandra walked several feet in front of Rudolph. He called her name, but she still didn't answer.

She walked one way; he walked the other.

Then, she shouted to him: "Don't forget to go to the CDC."

That's what she calls the job center.

She looked at him. He looked at her. Then, he walked over.

They talked about the worst that could happen - five years in state prison.

Five more years.

Then they left together, a little distance between them, a husband and a wife headed for home.

- David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or

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