BRADENTON | The mid-morning air feels like a wet blanket, but to 74-year-old Calvin Thomas, that suits him just fine. In fact, just about anything does these days.
Using a cane to steady himself, Thomas directs his long-legged body to the chair at an outdoor table and slowly eases into it. A grin steals over his face as he takes in surroundings at the halfway house. It’s a place for those, like him, who are starting over.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing,” he says seemingly about nothing in particular and at the same time about everything.
Thomas nods toward the outdoor grill and explains that on his first night here there were juicy burgers with slices of cheese waiting for him when he arrived after the bus ride to Bradenton in Manatee County from Jacksonville, a place that long ago he called home. The meal, something so simple to many, was a far cry from those he had day in and day out while eating alone on Florida’s Death Row.
“God has blessed me,” he says. “I don’t have a sentence no more.”
Thomas truly is in the midst of a transition after being given another shot at life. He entered Death Row at the age of 18. Today, 56 years later, Thomas toddles on a cane and smiles broadly, revealing gaps where teeth once stood. Steadfastly, Thomas prays for forgiveness for his terrible misdeeds while offering up thanks for his blessings.
Blessings include an about-face with Florida’s tough-on-crime approach for juvenile offenders such as himself, a successful legal challenge that said the state’s parole system was lip service and a public defender who made Thomas’ case — the oldest of about 80 or so that will come through Northeast Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit for re-sentencing hearings — a priority.
At the halfway house just two months now, Thomas is a leader and an inspiration to others starting over.
“I know what I did was wrong and it was horrible,” he says. “I’m just sorry that I had to be part of something that caused problems and harmed lives. I’m just so sorry it happened.”
They were inseparable. If people saw one, they’d see all three. All went by nicknames. Seventeen-year-old Calvin Thomas was Pop; Harold Simon, also 17, was known as Jackie; and the eldest at 24, Willie Young, was called Booster.
Being black didn’t get you far in Jacksonville in 1960. The Ku Klux Klan held sway and economic opportunities were slim. But there was something that saved and then ruined these three young men: moonshine.
Thomas’ father peddled moonshine, the poor man’s gold, and so it seemed fitting that his son would too when Calvin Thomas Sr. skipped out on the family in the 1950s — leaving the eldest boy to help his mother support the then family of five. Ertha Lee Cooper worked as a maid to white families in Jacksonville.
Back then, a 5-gallon drum of moonshine fetched $25. In today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of $205.
Not bad, thought Thomas. Good money for someone who dropped out of school after eighth grade. And for a time, as long as there was a need for the homespun booze, Thomas, his buddies and his family were set.
“That was big money. That was the way of life,” Thomas recalls.
That is until one day in the spring of 1960. The three friends were walking through the woods to make a delivery when the rumbling of a truck churning up the dusty road caught their attention. They slipped off the path and into the bushes to hide. As the truck passed, they popped their heads up and saw their still, their entire operation — save for the barrel of moonshine that they carried — being carted away on the back of someone else’s truck.
They were devastated. To start over, they’d need at least $300 upfront to rebuild their still. Their business. Their lives. So they roamed the old Arlington neighborhood, begging for money from family and friends. Nothing.
The three friends then made a decision that ruined their lives — and the lives of others.
“We go across town,” Thomas recalls, “and we see this little grocery store and so we say, ‘Let’s go in there and get the money,’ and I say, ‘Are you sure?’ And Young says ‘Yeah.’ ”
It was closing time on June 9, 1960, for Catherine and Eugene Richardson at the Daylight Grocery Store on North Myrtle Street when Thomas’ two friends pulled handkerchiefs up to their eyes and entered the store. Thomas, the lookout, said he was checking out the back of the store when the gunshots went off near the front.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
“I ran and ran and ran. I ran down a dark alley, waiting and listening and I’m thinking, Lord have mercy. Then I heard someone say, ‘Hey, Pop. Hey. Hey. Hey.’ ”
It was Young.
“He shot Jackie,” Young said. “He was trying to shoot me, so I shot back.”
In just a few hours, there was banging at Thomas’ door. The police had come for him. Forty-year-old shopkeeper Eugene Richardson was dead. No money was ever taken.
Police yanked Thomas from bed and took him down to the station. There, in an interrogation room known as the Shoot, he was in instant fear. Growing up, he heard all sorts of stories of what happens in the Shoot. They weren’t stories any more. Thomas said he was forced down in a chair, his arms pinned behind his back.
“They whipped me. They beat me,” he said. Someone shouted: “Don’t hit him in the face.”
So they hit him in the chest, Thomas said.
Thomas confessed. Simon and Young did too, telling investigators that the plan was just to run into the store, grab the money and run back out. Obviously it didn’t go as planned.
“I’m just so sorry that it happened,” Thomas says. “I made this bad choice when I was young. It was the worst decision that I ever made in all my life and it cost me almost my entire life in prison.”
In racially divided Jacksonville, the pace at which the case moved through the court system was swift. The crime was in June. The trial in September. The sentencing in October after a motion to vacate the guilty verdict was denied. On Oct. 31, 1960, Thomas and Simon and Young became the 18th, 19th and 20th prisoners on Florida’s Death Row, Thomas said.
LIFE IN A BOX
Day by day his life was spent in a 6-foot-by-9-foot box at the Florida State Prison.
Because Death Row inmates aren’t allowed in the chow line of the general prison population, food is brought to their tiny cells. Showers, that brief reprieve outside the cell, lasted only minutes every few days. It wasn’t until Thomas was in there a few years that the state built a small recreation yard for Death Row prisoners to occasionally get a little bit of air and sunshine.
Life in the world outside his box slipped past Thomas. Outside the prison walls, the nation went to war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Assassins killed President Kennedy; the president’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy; and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thomas tasted freedom when a judge granted his release in 1979, but he returned on a parole violation in 1989. He was behind bars when the World Trade Center was attacked.
When Thomas first went to prison, Dwight Eisenhower was the nation’s 34th president. A few months before his latest release, the country’s 45th president, Donald Trump, moved into the White House.
Thomas was supposed to die before any of those events ever happened.
The fact he is alive today is remarkable, said Bill White, the former public defender for the 4th Judicial Circuit.
“If he was white, he had a shot,” White said of the court system in Jacksonville in 1960. “If he was black, he had no shot.”
Across the South, young black people were rounded up guilty or not. There were lynchings and Death Row wasn’t just a place for the most heinous of killers. Rapists and robbers were sent there as well.
Back then no blacks were allowed to serve on jury duty. Back then the KKK held sway. Back then a first-degree murder conviction automatically sent someone to the electric chair.
All three young men were tried for murder although only one, Young, was the killer. It took 33 minutes for the jury to deliver a guilty verdict.
THE WANING HOURS
Thomas could take no more than five steps before reaching the end of his cell, so he’d turn around and pace another five steps back to where he started. He did that again and again in the Ready Room, his last stopover before the death chamber next door.
Days earlier on Oct. 3, 1963, two of the largest men Thomas had ever seen came to his cell and moved him there. Florida Gov. C. Ferris Bryant had given the OK to kill him.
Before he would die, Thomas had choices to make: Gray, blue or black were Thomas’ color choices for a suit — care of the state — to be buried in. Thomas chose gray and the men took out measuring tapes to get his size. His final choice in life was when he ordered his last meal. He picked pork chops — hands down his favorite — as well as shrimp, steak, crab, fried fish and lots of banana pudding — all gifts for the guards, as he knew he’d be too nervous to eat his last meal.
“I thought maybe I’d just have a sip of juice or a bit of milk in the morning to settle my stomach,” Thomas said.
As hours ticked closer to 8 a.m. on Oct. 7, 1963, the time when Thomas was set to be executed in the electric chair, he paced his cell. He cried out to God.
“Don’t let them kill me. Don’t let them kill me.”
Just 14 hours before Thomas was set to die, he saw two men, strangers, standing with a sergeant outside his cell. “Are you Calvin Thomas Jr.?” one asked.
“Yes sir,” he said.
“We have a stay of execution for you.”
Thomas dropped to his knees. He cried. He prayed.
“I’ve been crying and praying ever since, you know. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful,” he said.
Back in Jacksonville, an expected funeral turned into a party, said Marion Erwin, who was 15 when her brother was sent to Death Row.
“We were just elated that he was not put to death,” she said.
It didn’t dawn on her or her family that a commuted death sentence didn’t necessarily spell freedom.
TIDE OF CHANGE
By the mid-1960s, America began to change.
The faces of young blacks on Death Rows across the land filled newspapers and news magazines. Everyday people began to react, to think twice about the death penalty, White said.
The change in opinion, coupled with scores of legal appeals by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, put the brakes on the use of Florida’s electric chair. Then came the landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed capital punishment.
In Florida the ruling meant the sentences of 95 men and one woman were commuted to life in prison. No longer would they see the same fate as Frank Johnson of Duval County who on Oct. 7, 1924, became the first Department of Corrections inmate to die in Florida’s first electric chair.
Four of the first five Death Row inmates killed in the chair were from Duval.
Three months after the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty, Thomas, Simon and Young were transported back to Jacksonville so that their death sentences could be set aside and they could be re-sentenced.
Young asked Judge Marion Gooding for credit for the 12 years that he’d already served.
Gooding said no. “I am not willing to do it. This was a very vicious murder … and frankly I have no sympathy with you whatsoever.”
What the judge refused to do in 1972, the Florida Department of Corrections did seven years later when Thomas, Simon and Young were released on parole. For Thomas, the allure of drugs, booze, sex — making up for 20 years of the outside world that that he missed — pulled him in. He was sent back to prison in 1989 when he stabbed his girlfriend during an argument. Police records say her injuries were moderate.
A judge in Duval sentenced Thomas to 4½ years in prison for the battery charge. But because Thomas violated his parole, he’d now have to complete his life sentence and try again to get out on parole.
“I hate it. I hate it. I hate it,” Thomas said of failing to stay out of trouble in 1989. “I did something stupid and that hurts. I wasn’t ready. I really wasn’t quite ready to get out. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I thought the world owed me something and I felt like I had to catch up.”
Much changed in the judicial system in the 57 years since Eugene Arnold Richardson was killed. Back then Florida law allowed for anyone connected with a crime that ends in a killing to meet the same fate as the actual killer even if the penalty was death. Today, only the killer can be condemned to die and not the accomplices.
Also a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision said it is unlawful to sentence juvenile killers to death. Both Simon and Thomas were juveniles at the time of Richardson’s death.
More legal rulings followed regarding automatic life sentences for juveniles and death penalty decisions. All the while the number of cases that were going to be sent back to the 4th Judicial Circuit for re-sentencing hearings were mounting. Thomas, who had a relatively blemish-free inmate record and who was asked to start a prison ministry in the gang-plagued Columbia County Correction Institution, estimates that he went before the parole board 10 times seeking another shot at freedom. Each time he was denied.
Even though parole was largely done away with 34 years ago, the parole board still exists to hear older cases like Thomas’. For years lawyers have argued that few convicts who were juveniles at the time of their offenses, and who are eligible for parole, are really given a meaningful shot at freedom. A Florida Supreme Court case said as much last May.
“It’s not a system that really works,” said Stephen Harper, Florida International University law professor. “… People accused of first-degree murder were not very likely to get out.”
The Florida case regarding parole opened up that possibility for Thomas on April 24.
Using a cane to steady himself, Thomas methodically made his way through a Duval County courtroom and stood before Judge Mark Borello. Because his case dated back longer than any of the roughly 80 re-sentencing cases that are expected to come back to the circuit due to legal decisions, the Public Defender’s Office made Thomas’ case a priority, said Kate Bedell, his attorney.
As Thomas stood in court, Borello looked through the paperwork. Borello spoke of Thomas’ conviction from nearly 57 years ago. He spoke of the death sentence. He spoke of Thomas’ old friend Young being 81 years old and how his old friend Simon died of natural causes nine years ago.
Borello remarked that Thomas lived a relatively problem-free life behind bars. And then it was time for Thomas to be sentenced. The 56 years, 10 months and a day since Thomas was sent to Death Row as a teen was enough time behind bars for the man who went into prison as a teen and came out an old man.
“Time served, Mr. Thomas,” Borello said. “Good luck to you, sir.”
Thomas was stunned. He was free.
“I was praying the judge would have mercy on me and consider the time I spent in prison,” he said. “I thought maybe I was hearing things or that it was a joke and then the public defender said, ‘We did it.’ ”
The cook at the Bradenton halfway house greets Thomas as she walks past the tidy outdoor area where he sits on a steamy summer day.
“Good morning, Mr. Thomas,” she says. Thomas follows her inside.
The living room and kitchen are tidy. So is Thomas’ four-bunk room.
The pride of starting over and the giddiness of his new blessing has yet to wear off.
Thomas nods over to his collection of donated shirts that hang in his section of the closet. He points to the four pairs of shoes lined with almost military precision under the side of his bunk.
For the next year Thomas will call the Harvest House home. There is a curfew, a job requirement and a program that consists of Bible study and anger management.
Borello told Thomas that if he is successful after a year of working the program at the halfway house, he can come back to Jacksonville for one more year of probation.
So far Thomas has done much more than work the program. Because of his age, his ailing back and positive attitude, the Harvest House gave Thomas the job of house leader. In this peer support position, he makes sure that all the chores assigned to about a dozen men starting over like Thomas get done.
Thomas has taken the peer support idea outside of Harvest House as well. Not long after arriving here, he shared his life story, that of a young man messing up terribly and landing on Death Row only to throw away his first chance of freedom to today when he spoke to the 125 men and women participating in Harvest House’s Freedom Program.
“I wish I could live my life over again, but I can’t,” he says. “I must go on from here and make the most of it, which I am going to do.”
Thomas hopes to continue to share his story and speak at churches and schools, basically anywhere he can encourage people to think hard before making rash decisions.
“He’s awesome,” said Erin Minor, the executive director of Harvest House.
Just as Thomas feels blessed to have landed at the halfway house, Minor said the blessing is shared. “What a privilege for us.”
As Thomas winds his way through what will be his home for the next year, he takes out a set of keys and remarks that he — an old man who ordered his last meal from Death Row — now holds the the keys to the halfway house’s otherwise secure pantry.
“Can you believe it? I’m finally getting another chance at life to get away from prison,” he says. “I’m so grateful to God, I can’t say enough I just can’t say it enough. I can’t stop smiling. I’m a free man. It’s great to be free to see all the beauty of the things God created; to see the birds flying. … It’s great not being in there. It feels so good and I’m never going back there.”
With that, a smile breaks across his face.
The Florida Times-Union