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."

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Terrence McCoy