Longform

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

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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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Terrence McCoy