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His death sentence removed, man sues
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 27, 2000
STARKE -- After a judge and jury sentenced him to death in Florida's electric chair in 1993, Joseph Green Jr. wept inconsolably in his holding cell.
"It's going to be okay," his lawyer told him. "We're going to get a court to listen. This case is going to come back and haunt Bradford County."
Today, Green is a free man, and he's suing police, prosecutors and the prison system for $100-million.
Green, 44, spent nearly seven years in prison, including 31/2 years on death row, before he was exonerated in March.
In Starke, a small town near seven state prisons and the electric chair, Green was wrongly convicted of killing Judy Miscally, the popular society editor at the Bradford County Telegraph, when she stopped to use a convenience store pay phone.
The case hinged on the word of one witness -- a demented drug user with an IQ of 67 who had given contradictory statements about the killing.
"The trial was a fiasco. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be comical," said Green's current lawyer, George Nachwalter of Miami. "Seven years of his life were taken away. It was a living hell for him."
Green is suing Bradford County and its Sheriff's Office, the city of Starke and its Police Department, the 8th Circuit State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Corrections.
His civil rights lawsuit, filed this month in federal court in Jacksonville, accuses the authorities of intentionally railroading him. The suit alleges that they knew their star witness' testimony amounted to "false, coached, incredible and outlandish statements."
Green is one of 21 people released from Florida's death row since 1972 after evidence surfaced that they were innocent, or at least wrongly convicted because of judicial mistakes. No other state has set more condemned prisoners free.
But those who put Green on death row believe to this day that he's guilty.
Rod Smith, state attorney for Bradford and five other counties, says politics had nothing to do with his office's decision to seek the death penalty. He's now running for the state Senate.
The prosecutor in Green's case, William Cervone, is running for state attorney.
"Joseph Green can feel whatever he wants to," Cervone said when Green was exonerated. "He's the one who put himself in the position he's in. We believe the correct man was arrested."
Starke police Chief Jimmy Epps says he'll go to his grave believing Green killed Miscally.
Miscally, 47, was shot dead in 1992 outside a Starke convenience store, 11 miles from the death chamber at Florida State Prison.
A defense witness testified there were three killers, not one, as prosecutors asserted. But the Starke police discounted that witness and zeroed in on Green, who was living in the Starke Motor Court next to the convenience store. He was three days behind on his rent and faced eviction. He had been arrested 20 times over 17 years and had served three years in prison for second-degree murder.
But after Green went off to death row, the case unraveled. The Florida Supreme Court threw out the conviction in 1996, citing an illegal search warrant and prosecutors' overzealous questioning of a defense witness. The justices also ordered that the new trial be moved to Gainesville.
In June 1998, a circuit judge tossed out the testimony of the prosecution's key witness, 33-year-old handyman Lonnie Thompson, who had admitted smoking crack and marijuana and drinking quarts of beer on the night of Miscally's murder. He originally identified the gunman as white. Green is black.
Green's defense lawyer learned that Thompson had memory problems because he'd been knocked out several times. Psychiatrists concluded that Thompson was totally confused or lying, or both.
"His testimony was created by the police department. The State Attorney's Office had to know this testimony was trumped up," said Green's lawyer, Nachwalter. "It was a lynch mob mentality, and Joe happened to be the pigeon that they chose."
This past March 16, Circuit Judge Robert P. Cates, who had originally sentenced Green to die, reviewed the evidence and acquitted him. Green moved back to Miami, married and found a job changing tires.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.