Virginia Larzelere: Sentenced to Death for a Murder She Didn't Commit
The killer arrived just after lunch. Clutching a sawed-off shotgun in a leather-gloved hand, he slipped through the back door of a long, stucco dental office. But then, because he wore a ski mask and the afternoon burned hot, he coughed. Down a narrow hallway at the front of the office, a gentle and wavy-haired dentist named Norman Benton Larzelere put down some papers and walked back to investigate the sound.
"No!" the dentist yelled, running away when he saw the gunman. Seconds later, he reached the waiting room, swung open the door, and slammed it behind him. But the masked killer was close behind. He raised the shotgun and fired once. Buckshot blasted through the door and struck the doctor in the chest, inflicting what medical reports would later call a "sucking wound" and "profuse bleeding."
"Is that you, Jason?" the dentist gasped, seemingly identifying the assailant as his teenaged stepson. Hearing this, the gunman broke through a side exit and vanished down the streets of a small town called Edgewater, east of Orlando, without anyone having seen his face.
Inside the office, the dentist's wife and office manager, Virginia Larzelere, appeared at his side. His chest heaved as crimson spread across his white button-down. "Where's Jason?" he whispered, ashen and scared. "Was that Jason?"
Virginia Larzelere grabbed the phone at her desk. "Get me an ambulance!" she screeched at a 911 dispatcher, dissolving into incoherent wailing. "Someone just came in and shot my husband! Somebody shot my husband!"
It didn't take long for the criminal charges to arrive. On May 4, 1991, less than two months later, local police arrested Virginia Larzelere as she prepared to ditch town with a purse full of cash and gold. Based on the testimony of two witnesses, the state charged the slight 38-year-old mother of four with first-degree murder. Prosecutors accused her of ordering her then-18-year-old son, Jason, who was also charged with first-degree murder, to kill her husband so they could pocket nearly $2.1 million in insurance money.
At her trial eight months later, it seemed like a classic case of a psychopathic woman who would do anything for money. And after 14 days of testimony, she was convicted of hatching the plot, sentenced to death, and deposited inside a cell on Florida's death row for women in Broward County right next to Aileen Wuornos, the most notorious serial killer in Sunshine State history.
But the case against Virginia Larzelere, who's been in jail for 23 years now, wasn't nearly as strong as it appeared the day of her conviction. Six months after her trial concluded, prosecutors brought the same evidence against Jason, but he was acquitted after his attorney raised reasonable doubt and proved key elements of witness testimony to be lies.
Given the discrepancy in outcomes, it appears Virginia Larzelere received some bad counsel. But its shocking breadth emerged only in her appeals. At the time of her trial, her lead attorney, Jack Wilkins, was allegedly ingesting "gross amounts" of cocaine and methamphetamine, drinking a liter of vodka a day, and hiding tens of thousands of dollars from the government, according to appellate court records. And incredibly, Wilkins — who denied he did drugs but was later convicted of 16 felonies and sent to federal prison for four years for unrelated crimes — was also romantically involved with the court reporter, a newspaper account shows. So in 2008, citing the ineffectiveness of Larzelere's counsel, the Florida Supreme Court removed her from death row and gave her a life sentence.
But even now, she's locked up at Homestead Correctional Institution. Why? This is Florida, home to one of the most dysfunctional capital justice systems in the nation, where it doesn't take anything more than circumstantial evidence to put someone to death. It just takes a few people who are committed to a terrible lie.
If there are any clues to explain the injustice inflicted upon Virginia Larzelere, they're buried in a small, flat town outside Orlando called Lake Wales. Years before the Disney explosion, in 1952, she was born there into a three-bedroom house where unspeakable things happened.
Larzelere grew up tall and angular, with cascades of curly raven hair. One of four girls, she oozed charisma. Both parents worked for a local juice company called Donald Duck, and the family wasn't poor, recalls Larzelere, whom New Times interviewed several times in prison over the past two months. "But," says Larzelere, smiling sadly during a recent interview, "sexual abuse doesn't only happen in poor households, does it?"
Her father, Pee-Wee Antley, had a heavy presence in the household. According to a biographical report submitted into evidence during Larzelere's appeals, he was a "chronic alcoholic, sitting on the porch drinking daily, with no outside hobby or social interest." In turn, he molested each of his four daughters, but especially Virginia, who, her sisters say, took the worst of it to protect her siblings. At age 17, Larzelere escaped the house and married the first of four husbands. And after Virginia moved out, sister Peggy Beasley testified, "she never moved back."
But she couldn't shake the memories of abuse. "They made her who she is," says her daughter, Jessica Larzelere, who's now 36 years old. And that first marriage, which lasted less than a decade and was marred by domestic violence, injected more conflict into her life. This perhaps caused her to be, at times, callous, manipulative, and given to impulse. "She is very intelligent and she had looks," Jessica added. "She used that to her advantage. She used sex to get whatever she wanted."
But her wants were often capricious. After that first marriage fell apart in late 1978, she bounced through two more husbands during the early 1980s, the second of whom she wed illegally because she was, technically, still married to the first. She developed a keen sense of business and by the mid-1980s was president of a construction company called V-Lar, based in Edgewater, a forgotten highway town of 15,000 along I-95.
On a weekday afternoon in 1985, Virginia visited a nearby dental office on Knapp Street, where she met a dark-haired dentist named Norman Larzelere. She now says she adored him from the start. The two made an odd pair: he wonky and careful, she vivacious and sexual. They married quickly, on June 14, 1985, and Norman Larzelere, whom everyone called Doc, soon adopted his new wife's two children, Jessica and Jason.
The family moved into the dentist's multiwing mansion in DeLand, which had housed aristocrats from a U.S. congressman to John Graham, president of First Union Bank. "Norm was my best friend," says Virginia, chestnut eyes electric with memories. "It's rare in life when you meet someone you can talk to about anything in the world."
Juanita Washington, who's now 82 and still in DeLand, was the Larzelere housekeeper. She remembers tending to an archetypal nuclear family. "There was nothing but love in that household," she says. "Nothing but love."
According to a financial statement from those years, times were indeed good for the dentist. He had a net worth of $1.1 million and owned boats, cars, and $200,000 worth of paintings and antiques. His home, tucked among oaks dripping Spanish moss, included a screened pool, a basketball court, and a guesthouse.
But despite the family's apparent wealth, disturbing problems simmered. In 1986, Virginia's business went bankrupt after she was charged in state court with embezzling $30,000 from a Daytona Beach construction company; she paid a settlement of $34,000, and the charges were dismissed.
More troubling, her six-foot, 130-pound son began to evince a temperament that was volatile and violent. "We were all close when we were young," says Jason's sister, Jessica. "But two years before my father died, I had a friend over. Jason was so angry that she and I had to lock ourselves in the closet as he was beating on the door. When we finally thought it was safe to come out, he punched me in the face and broke my nose."
Jason, who attended gay clubs in Orlando and collected drag-queen friends, also displayed an unusual and aggressive fealty to his mother. "He threw me down the stairs and broke my ribs by kicking me over and over again," his sister recalls. "I had told my dad that Mom was cheating on him with a patient of his."
Virginia Larzelere had, in fact, cheated on her husband with at least three other men, court records show. One of them was Phillip Langston, a six-foot-five exotic-animal and parrot collector who lived in a New Smyrna Beach hovel north of Edgewater. He slept with Virginia in 1989, and, he alleged in court, she once complained about her husband abusing her in a rage, saying she wanted to "get rid" of Norman for $50,000 — though Langston didn't think she was serious.
Another of Virginia's lovers was a Californian named Norman Lee Karn, who favored big black cowboy hats and dated Larzelere for three months in early 1989. After requesting $500,000 for his testimony, which authorities rejected, he claimed Virginia had asked one of his pals at a tavern to kill her husband so she could marry Karn. (The friend later testified it was just "bar talk.")
And on that warm afternoon in March 1991, when a masked man broke into Dr. Norman Larzelere's dental office with a sawed-off shotgun and unloaded a single round into the dentist, every eyeball in Edgewater settled upon Virginia Larzelere and her strange son, Jason.
Six weeks after the murder, on an early May morning, a jowly and good-natured detective named Dave Gamell, who often played Santa Claus for local kids, grabbed a phone at the Edgewater Police Station. It was a friend of Jason Larzelere's, and he said he wanted to talk. He knew where the murder weapon was.
So that morning, Gamell climbed into his car and drove through 37 miles of baking farmland to a weather-battered, beige house in DeBary, where he shook hands with a cherub-faced kid named Steven Heidle.
The 20-year-old, who shared an Orlando apartment with Jason and was paid by the Larzeleres to look after their troubled son, seemed terrified.
The detective listened to the boy talk for hours. Heidle said he performed household tasks for Jason and knew him better than most. Days after the murder, Heidle confessed he had climbed into his own mom's attic and retrieved a bag of cement and a sawed-off shotgun he alleged Jason had stashed there. Next, under the orders of Virginia Larzelere, a woman he claimed to have met only once before, he went to the Larzelere manor with the gun and cement.
Azure eyes big and glassy, Heidle stressed to police he did this only because of the control Virginia had over him. She was evil, he said. "She'd just had her husband killed," he later explained at trial. "She wouldn't think twice about killing me too."
When Heidle arrived at the Larzelere house that night, he joined Virginia and Jason, who was complaining about money. Virginia, sitting at the kitchen table, told Jason not to worry, Heidle claimed. Jason would get his $200,000 because he had "taken care of business."
Soon after that conversation, Heidle said, he connected with a chubby 22-year-old named Kris Palmieri, who had once worked at Dr. Larzelere's Edgewater office. At Virginia's direction, Heidle alleged, he and Palmieri took the sawed-off shotgun and a blue, .45 caliber Argentine pistol into the second-story bathroom. Crouching next to the tub, they wiped down both guns in muriatic acid to expunge the prints, he told police. They then stacked them in a plastic container and poured in wet concrete.
Next, Virginia told them to "dispose" of the guns. So Heidle and Palmieri left at dawn the following morning, driving north for hours. They finally discovered Pellicer Creek south of St. Augustine. There, they exited the car and tumbled the guns into its murky waters.
Heidle told police both weapons belonged to Jason; he'd even found a hacksaw resting next to a recently sawed-off shotgun at their West Orlando apartment.
The afternoon of Heidle's statement, Detective Gamell called Palmieri, who quickly buckled under interrogation. At 3:15 p.m. at the police station, she described how she and Heidle had dumped the guns. He had pulled the car over, she wrote in a sworn statement, telling police she followed Virginia's orders because of the control she had over her. "I took out my jack and spare tire and was making it look like we had a flat. I threw the cement container and guns over the side of the bridge, and it was about this time that I realized that maybe Jason did kill his father. Jason said he had killed his father for Virginia... He did not say why."
Heidle provided police with the motive: insurance money. He alleged he'd heard Jason say his mother had forged her husband's life insurance. "She said she's [forged] all of Norman's legal documents and it was no big deal," Heidle volunteered in his statement. And indeed, less than six months before the murder, Norman Larzelere had suddenly increased his insurance from $1 million to $2.1 million, according to court records. Heidle also accused Virginia of doctoring her husband's will, which, according to a copy obtained by New Times, left everything from Dr. Larzelere's estate to his wife and was signed within weeks of the dentist's new life insurance contract.
On May 3, a team of divers appeared at Pellicer Creek and searched its muddy bottom. Gamell stood above the water on the bridge, cradling a shotgun, watching for alligators. Heidle, his blond hair coifed and piled high on his head, pointed to where he'd deposited the weapons.
And sure enough, under ten feet of water and six feet of muck was a plastic container holding a rust-choked shotgun and a .45 Argentine pistol, which had been stolen from an Orlando gun shop. It was all the proof the cops needed. They granted Heidle and Palmieri immunity — meaning that unless they had pulled the trigger, they'd escape all charges.
The next day, police found Virginia driving out of town, with a purse stuffed with cash and gold. She swore she was innocent, but it was too late. "I've dealt with a lot of murders and a lot of deaths, and you know when someone mourns legitimately and when someone's overacting," Gamell said. "That's how she seemed."
To work the case, the state called in special prosecutor Dorothy Sedgwick, a round-faced woman from Orlando. She's a methodical, calculating lawyer and can be cold and aggressive. Or as one opposing attorney called her, "not a likable person" and "remorseless."
For her defense, Virginia enrolled Jack Wilkins, a prominent Orlando-area lawyer who was a friend of her family. At age 44, he was handsome, scruffy, and looked better-suited for a reshooting of Boogie Nights than a courtroom.
Which, all things considered, often suited his clientele. In 1990, Wilkins became one of the most recognizable and flamboyant attorneys in the state when he argued, unsuccessfully, before the state Supreme Court that a Polk County cinema called Varsity Adult Theatre had a constitutional right to sell porno. Wilkins, who had a reputation for hard partying and recently told New Times he drank nearly every night during that time, also banked more than $250,000 annually representing accused drug dealers. "And they paid me cash," he remembers.
Behind dark sunglasses, he embodied the persona of a rock-star attorney. "But I'd never done a capital murder case before," says Wilkins, who claims he tried to turn down the case three or four times. "My primary work was drug importing and distribution."
If statements entered by Wilkins' office manager and three former clients are to believed, however, his inexperience wouldn't be his most crippling problem. At the time of Virginia's trials, appellate records say, Wilkins was putting back a liter of vodka every day, snorting cocaine — even smoking meth.
Wilkins, who installed a bar in his Bartow office, allegedly told one client, Dennis Harris, that he bought meth by the "quarter pound," was on the prowl for a "cheaper drug supplier," and it would "keep him up wired for 6-7 days," court documents filed in a Larzelere appeal show. Another client, Ronald Bilbrey, testified he dealt Wilkins an ounce of coke per month at the time of Larzelere's trial and saw him snort some. And finally, there's Bernadette D'Alvia Eady. She testified that around the time of the trial, she and Wilkins had gone to the bathroom together at a "South Florida nude bottle club." Inside a stall, they drank vodka, smoked meth, and snorted coke off a toilet seat. Wilkins also allegedly confessed he bought meth at $2,000 an ounce.
The partying possibly even spilled over into trial, which began in early 1992 with Dorothy Sedgwick striding across a Daytona Beach courtroom in a blazer. While she was busy making the case that Virginia Larzelere was a cold, manipulative killer over 13 days of prosecution testimony, six trial attendees — including two prosecutors — remembered they smelled alcohol on Wilkins' breath, court records show. Sedgwick, who didn't immediately alert the court, later expressed dismay because, she said, it was "such a serious case."
But there were other serious concerns for Wilkins. In mid-February, at the height of the trial, he received a Florida Bar complaint that claimed he refused to refund a client a $25,000 retainer. What's more, the federal government later learned, he had substantially underreported that money on his income taxes — in addition to many other significant inconsistencies on his tax returns. (On September 22, 1995, Wilkins pleaded guilty to 16 federal charges that included the laundering of drug money, income tax evasion, perjury, and obstruction of justice. A federal judge in Tampa sentenced him to four years in federal prison, and he resigned from the state bar.)
It got worse. A 1992 report in the Daytona Beach News-Journal showed that the wayward Wilkins was also in a romantic relationship with the trial court reporter. According to that report, Sedgwick knew of the affair but didn't report it, though she'd been "somewhat concerned." ("She was my girlfriend," Wilkins claims.)
So maybe it was the booze, the alleged drug use, or the financial misdealings. Perhaps, even, it was the sex with the court reporter. But whatever the reason, Jack Wilkins reported he spent less than $3,000 on Larzelere's defense, according to court records. Then, after the state entered more than 70 pieces of evidence, Wilkins countered with exactly one day of defense. Worse, he didn't enlist even one expert to refute any of Heidle's claims, which were the crux of the state's case.
"There wasn't really much an expert could testify to," says Wilkins, who today lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama, with his wife. "And I've never used drugs in my life. I don't know where that came from. It's a bunch of bull... If you watched the trial tape, you'd see I didn't do a bad job."
His confidence wasn't born out in the result. On February 24, after just one hour of deliberation, the jury found Virginia Larzelere guilty of first-degree murder. But it didn't know Steven Heidle had lied about a few important things.
Weeks after Virginia's conviction, inside a 12th-floor office overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, a phone rang. Wearing sandals and a mustache, attorney William Lasley picked up. Tall and thin, he exuded self-assurance. He exclusively wore suits that cost more than $1,000, rented an oceanside penthouse condo, drove an all-white 944 Porsche Turbo, and accepted only murder-one cases.
Lasley had closely monitored Virginia's trial with mounting abhorrence — not for the state's allegations against her but because her defense was so awful. "It was just absolute incompetence," he said. "Wilkins wasn't a murder lawyer. Murder is the Super Bowl, and you don't go to the big game with your B team."
Now, he had just taken Jason Larzelere's defense. That same day, he placed calls to a dozen experts to dig into the state's evidence. What Lasley discovered over the next several weeks was shocking. Virginia Larzelere didn't forge the signature on her husband's will, according to handwriting expert Shirl Solomon from Palm Springs, Florida. Dated August 19, 1992, her assessment also showed the notary's signature was genuine. Then an insurance analyst confirmed the life insurance policies weren't excessive.
Heidle had also testified that Jason was obsessed with guns. He said the younger Larzelere owned a .45 Argentine pistol that Jason adored and that, before the murder, Heidle had seen a sawed-off shotgun sitting on a bed of metal shavings next to a hacksaw near the couch. When police had searched the apartment, they did, in fact, find metal shavings. But there was a problem, Lasley learned. Those slivers didn't match the alloy in the shotgun retrieved from Pellicer Creek.
Another bombshell soon arrived. At Virginia Larzelere's trial, Heidle and Kris Palmieri both testified they'd mixed the concrete at Virginia Larzelere's house. Police found concrete there inside a cooking pot, seemingly linking the older Larzelere to the murder weapon. But then, Lasley discovered, the concrete at Larzelere's place didn't match that found in the case with the guns in Pellicer Creek.
"This was vital exculpatory information," seethes attorney David Hendry, with the state Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, which has tried to get Virginia out of prison. "It would not only have impeached Heidle and Palmieri's testimony but it would have distanced Virginia Larzelere from the concrete-encased weapons. Had Wilkins presented [this], she would have been acquitted."
During the weeks before the trial, Lasley also built an unsettling profile of the state's star witness. Heidle was insecure, money-driven, and highly dishonest, his friends said. Four of them gave statements alleging he had lied to authorities. "Steve was always looking for money," said Sarah Gabrys, a drag queen living in Orlando who first met Heidle at a gay club. "It was his main topic of conversation. How he wanted money, how he'd get it, and what he'd do with it. Personally, I don't believe a word he says. People don't trust him."
Heidle also had a dark propensity for violence, friend Jeff Sansbury testified. One night at 2 a.m. months before the murder, in the parking lot of a gay club in Orlando called the Big Bang, Heidle pulled out a .45 Argentine pistol — the same gun he alleged was Jason's — and shoved it in Sansbury's face. So after the state filed murder indictments against the Larzeleres, Sansbury returned home, frantic, his 79-year-old grandmother, Hazel Johnson, recalled. "Jeff said, 'Steven's lying about Jason and Virginia,' " Johnson recalled.
On a separate occasion after leaving the Big Bang, another pal named Glenn Pace remembered Heidle melting into a rage, pulling a gun from the glove compartment, and waving it. "He said, 'Someone is going to die tonight,' " Pace recalled. "He was out of control." Pace also said the gun looked very similar to the .45 Argentine in state evidence.
So days before Jason Larzelere's trial opened in fall 1992 and more than a year after Norman Larzelere had been killed, the defense was ready. "There's no doubt in my mind that Heidle was the shooter," Lasley says. "Heidle had the murder weapon all along. It was in his house, and then he put it in the creek. And how often does someone who didn't commit the murder have the murder weapon?"
In the Palatka courthouse, near St. Augustine, Lasley settled at the defendant's table wearing a $500 pair of black leather shoes. Minutes later, he remembers, prosecutor Sedgwick materialized before him. "She loved to get in your personal space," Lasley says. "She bent over and was an inch away from me with her face. She said, 'I have won 32 straight capital cases. And this is going to be number 33.' "
"Get ready to be 32 and 1," Lasley replied.
And indeed, days later, in what one newspaper report described as Lasley's "Perry Mason strategy," he claimed Heidle was a killer, who had, with immunity, lied repeatedly to save his own skin. "All I had to do was replace Jason's name with Heidle and I had my case won," Lasley says now.
"Do you think it's funny that I'm accusing you of all of this?" Lasley bristled, when Heidle began to chuckle from the witness stand.
"Yes," Heidle said. "I do."
"I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God,' " trial observer DorrieJean Muller tells New Times. "This is what they convicted Virginia on, and it's a lie!"
After four weeks of proceedings, on September 20, Jason was acquitted. He sank his head into his hands and wept. His mother, meanwhile, was just months away from death row.
The first thing Virginia Larzelere heard on that May morning, as she breathed in the sterile air of X Dorm at Broward County Correctional, were the howls. Aileen Wuornos, eyes wide and hair stringy and unwashed, pressed her face against the glass of her cell and watched Larzelere glide past. Then Wuornos, who had been convicted of killing six men and was later immortalized in the 2003 Hollywood film Monster, began to grin. Death row had a new member.
"Hello! Hello!" Wuornos bellowed at Larzelere and dissolved into laughter. "How are you? How are you?" Then, as if in a dog kennel, the mania infected the other four women on death row, and they all rose and looked out from behind the plexiglass.
"Hello!" shouted Florida's Black Widow, Judy Buenoano, who killed her husband and son with arsenic.
"What took you so long?" boomed Ana Maria Cardona, who tortured and killed her son.
"Are you OK?" queried Andrea Hicks Jackson, who shot a cop six times after he tried to arrest her in 1983.
Larzelere ducked inside cell eight, found a new set of clothing, and crumpled on the bed, weeping. "I can't believe this is happening," she remembers sobbing into the pillow. "I can't believe this is happening."
Her disbelief wasn't unwarranted. If the tragedy of Virginia Larzelere shows anything, it is just how terrifyingly easy it is to be wrongfully convicted. Once an investigation starts moving in a certain direction, almost nothing can stop it. Little things, like the fact that Detective Dave Gamell jotted down Virginia and Jason's names as suspects within days of the murder, can balloon into confirmation bias. And that bias, not to mention the desire for a conviction, can blot out key problems in any case — like evidence exposing a lying witness.
There would almost be a dark, tragicomic air to it if this didn't happen so often. Quantitatively speaking, Florida has the worst capital justice system in the nation, having exonerated more people than any other state since 1973. The next worst is Illinois, which abolished the death penalty in 2011 after freeing 20 people, four fewer than Florida. (Illinois had found too much room for error.) Texas, by means of comparison, has exonerated only 12 death row inhabitants. To make matters worse, "In Florida, circumstantial evidence like [that presented in] Virginia's trial can put a needle in your arm," says Orange County Judge Marc Lubet.
After the state Supreme Court rejected her appeal in 1996, Virginia Larzelere thought that would happen to her too. But then she received a letter from West Palm Beach private investigator Gary McDaniel. The hulking and irascible detective had scoured every scrap of testimony in her case and thought Larzelere was innocent.
In 1998, he tracked down a curly haired petty criminal named Kristopher Harvey, who admitted his brother had stolen and sold the pistol that had wound up in Pellicer Creek. According to that interview, Harvey said, the Larzelere family had been targeted because they were rich. "Virginia Larzelere wasn't the one who bought any of our weapons, nor her son," he said. "Virginia Larzelere wasn't the one who did [the murder]. The guy who [got] the .45, he wasn't going to [rob Larzelere] and just get a little bit. He went there to get everything he could. And whatever happened, happened."
McDaniel asked Harvey if he knew Heidle, and Harvey responded that he did. Then, McDaniel recalls, he showed Harvey a picture of Heidle and asked, "Did your brother sell the pistol to this person?" Harvey nodded yes.
On December 17, 1999, Heidle hanged himself with an electrical cord. His mother, Patricia, found him near the family pool and cut him down with a knife. "I tried to catch him, but I couldn't," she told police, adding that he'd tried to kill himself seven times before that.
Larzelere suspected the suicide was related to her case, but there was nothing she could do. So she acclimated to a new life. "Death row is the last stop," she says. "Everyone is your friend. It's a sisterhood, because you never know when the death warrant will be signed. We share everything." She and the other women ate, showered, and took walks together every day. Everyone but Wuornos, that is. She sometimes screeched deep into the night, bathed only every other month, and referred to Larzelere as Cher.
Soon, however, the sisterhood broke apart. On March 30, 1998, Buenoano became the first woman Florida had executed in 150 years. Next went Wuornos, who once whispered to Larzelere that she'd actually killed 17 men, not six. Larzelere was eventually left alone inside the pink-paneled X Dorm — as Florida's only female death row inhabitant — with nothing but memories. "I never thought for one minute I'd be found guilty of murder," she told New Times. "Not for something I didn't do. I'm guilty of a lot... I cheated on my husband. I was a home wrecker. I only cared about money. But I'm just not guilty of this. Do I deserve to be punished for the things I've done? Yes. But do I deserve this? No."
She added: "My reputation convicted me, and I never got the benefit of the doubt."
But in 2008, she finally did. Citing the fact that Larzelere's attorneys hadn't called a single witness to testify on her behalf at her sentencing, the Florida Supreme Court removed her from death row. "In the years that I've been up here, I don't remember a situation in which we have had as many problems with the lawyers," said Justice Charles Wells, who had then sat on the high court for 13 years.
Larzelere's attorney, David Hendry, had pushed the court to vacate her conviction, but on February 28, 2008, it rejected that appeal, ruling that experts at trial wouldn't have saved Larzelere. "Given the overwhelming evidence of Larzelere's guilt, even favorable testimony by these sorts of experts would not have undermined our confidence in the verdict," the court said, remanding her case back to a lower court for sentencing.
That August, Circuit Judge Joseph Will gave her a life sentence. And, perhaps, that modicum of leniency will be enough. She's up for parole in 2015 and then, finally, the system may set her free. Helping that cause, while incarcerated, she's been disciplined only once, on September 23, 2004, for a minor infraction, according to her prison record.
Hendry isn't satisfied, though. "This is an unsolved murder," he tells New Times. "There were inconsistent verdicts. One jury acquitted the alleged shooter, but another jury convicted Ms. Larzelere of masterminding that same shooting. So what really happened? Who was the shooter? We don't know. But the bottom line here is there was more than enough reasonable doubt. If we don't know who the actual shooter was, we have doubt."
On a recent Thursday afternoon at Homestead Correctional Institute, inside a room bathed in blue and pastel, Virginia Larzelere, now 61, contemplates her fate. Hands stitched together on her lap, she laughs softly and shakes her head. She hasn't seen her son, Jason, or daughter, Jessica, in more than a decade.
So she finds satisfaction in the small things. She crochets, prays, and teaches English. She also nurtures hope. "One day, it will all come out," she sighs. "People will know what happened and know that everything they've heard about me wasn't true."
Then, slowly, she withdraws a letter. It arrived last year without a return address, she says, signed by someone named Kris and addressed to "Ginny" — which is what Kris Palmieri once called Virginia. (Repeated attempts to contact Palmieri weren't returned, and New Times couldn't verify the letter's author.) "I know you didn't have Doc killed," it says. "And I never thought you would be convicted. Then it was too late to say anything to correct it. I am sorry. I tried to find Jason to apologize, but couldn't. I lived a lie all of these years. I understand you are fine and hope you'll accept my apology."
After reading the letter out loud, Virginia carefully folds it up. She isn't sure it's genuine. But she hopes it is.
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