Longform

Virginia Larzelere: Sentenced to Death for a Murder She Didn't Commit

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"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.

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Terrence McCoy