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Murder witness admits he lied

He says he identified the man, later sent to death row for a Starke woman's killing, in 1993 to stay out of trouble.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 28, 2001

A drug user with an IQ of 67 was the key witness in a case that sent Joseph Green to Florida's death row eight years ago for murdering a woman in Starke.

The witness, Lonnie Thompson, told a Bradford County jury that Green shot Judy Miscally outside a convenience store on Dec. 8, 1992.

Now, however, Thompson says he doesn't know who committed the murder. In an affidavit obtained this month by one of Green's former lawyers, the 40-year-old handyman says he was just trying to stay out of trouble when he identified Green.

"Once they got me to say it was Joseph Green who shot Miss Miscally, I believed if I said anything else that I would be in bad trouble with the law," Thompson says in the affidavit.

Green, 45, is already out of prison. He had served six years and seven months, including 31/2 years on death row, when he was released from custody because of serious problems with his case.

Green is pursuing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Bradford County authorities, and Thompson's affidavit is likely to be a key part of his case.

Green's civil lawyer, George Nachwalter of Miami, said the affidavit shows that police and prosecutors coached Thompson, a man with memory problems who had been drinking and taking drugs that night, into giving false testimony.

"The whole case against Joseph was an out-and-out lie," Nachwalter said.

State Attorney William Cervone, who prosecuted Green, scoffed at the affidavit and said he still believes he is guilty.

"It's obvious Lonnie Thompson didn't write that," Cervone said. "That's just some lawyer taking advantage of that man and putting words in his mouth. Isn't it ironic that Joseph Green gets the case dismissed because of an incompetent witness and now he's using that person to justify a lawsuit where he's trying to make money over this?"

Mrs. Miscally, 47, a popular society editor at the Bradford County Telegraph, was shot dead at the convenience store. Before she died, she told a paramedic the gunman was a skinny black man in his 20s.

One witness said she saw three attackers, but within hours the Starke Police Department had zeroed in on Green. He had a lengthy criminal record and lived in a motel next to the convenience store.

At first, Thompson told Officer Jeff Johnson that the killer was a white man. He said he was standing across a busy, five-lane highway 86 yards away that night when he witnessed the gunman shoot Mrs. Miscally after a struggle.

Three hours later, however, Thompson told Bradford County sheriff's Deputy Raymond Shuford that the killer was Green, who is black and slender.

"At first I told the truth to Deputy Shuford that I couldn't tell who the man was that shot Miss Miscally," the affidavit says. "Deputy Shuford kept on asking me if the man was Joseph Green no matter what I said. So finally I said, yes, it was Joseph Green so he would leave me alone."

In October 1993, Green was convicted and sentenced to die after Thompson testified that he was the shooter. But in November 1996, the case started coming unraveled.

First, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the verdict, citing a faulty search warrant and a prosecutor's overzealous questioning of a defense witness.

Then in June 1998, Circuit Judge Robert P. Cates, who had originally sentenced Green to die, called Thompson an unreliable witness and tossed out his testimony.

Green was released from custody in July 1999 to await legal developments in his case. Nine months later, Judge Cates acquitted him, saying there was no evidence tying Green to the murder.

It marked the 21st time since 1972 that a person condemned to death in Florida had been freed when it became clear he was innocent, or at least the victim of serious judicial mistakes.

Green returned to his hometown of Miami and filed the civil rights lawsuit accusing Bradford authorities of railroading him. The lawsuit seeks $100-million.

Green married a nurse and found a job in South Florida changing tires for $50 a day. But life wasn't easy. In November 2000, he was arrested on cocaine charges in Miami-Dade and sent back to state prison. He was recently released.

A court-ordered mediation to try to settle his lawsuit against Bradford authorities is set for Thursday in Jacksonville.

John Jolly, an attorney for the Bradford County Sheriff's Office, said he had not seen the affidavit. Regardless of Green's guilt or innocence, Jolly said, "Our position is that there was a reasonable basis for the arrest of Joseph Green."

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