TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A deaf Tampa man who was convicted of a murder his lawyers say he didn't commit 33 years ago has a shot at freedom this week, and he has inspired legislation to help other deaf citizens who get in trouble.
When emergencies strike Florida, a deaf interpreter helps deliver the message, but when Felix Garcia was charged with murder in 1981, he had little or no idea what was happening or what he was signing. It was standard procedure for the era, but supporters think it's reason enough to revisit the case.
"(There was) no sign language interpreter at trial, which is very troubling because he didn't understand the proceedings," said attorney Reggie Garcia. "They gave him 'a hearing aid and a loud speaker.'"
Felix's brother, Frank, who looks like Felix, first implicated Felix at the urging of a since-deceased accomplice.
"(The accomplice) was Tina's boyfriend and pimp," Garcia said. "He was wearing the stolen jewelry. He blamed Frank, who was in the hotel room. He put a gun to Tina's head and said, 'You will blame your two brothers or I will kill you.' So, once (the accomplice) died, both of them came clean and said in affidavits that Felix had nothing to do with it."
More than 100 advocates for the deaf came to the Capitol last year to support legislation requiring interpreters for the deaf facing criminal charges. Last year the legislation gave the deaf an interpreter at court hearings.
State Rep. Ray Pilon, a former police officer, was one of the co-sponsors.
"Somebody who has this malady certainly deserves to be able to understand everything that's going on in a courtroom, in a real estate transaction," Pilon said.
Felix's supporters said they are hopeful that the commission reviewing his case will be supportive.