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    A free life is a miracle for Calvin Thomas after he serves 57 years of a death sentence

    May 02, 2017
    By: Jack Strickland

    Calvin Thomas walked to freedom last week. The 74-year-old native of Jacksonville has been in prison since he was 17. It has been 57 years since he was sentenced to death in a Duval County courtroom.

    It is no small miracle that Thomas is alive. His death warrant was signed in 1963. He was moved to “The Ready Room” next to the electric chair as preparations were made for his execution. The courts granted a stay of execution hours before he was scheduled to be put to death.

    In 1972 a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Furman v Georgia, ruled that the death penalty, as it was imposed in America, was arbitrary and unconstitutional. All death row prisoners had their sentences overturned. They were re-sentenced to life. 

    States were required to pass new legislation structuring their capital punishment laws in accordance with the new Supreme Court guidelines before executions could resume for newly sentenced prisoners.

    Court decision saved his life

    That Supreme Court ruling undoubtedly saved Thomas’ life. There is little doubt that he would have been executed before the end of the 70’s had he remained under the sentence of death.

    Thomas stayed in touch with changes in the law at the prison law libraries available to him at the different prisons where he was quartered. Family and friends never gave up on winning his freedom.

    A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roper v Simmons, ruled that juveniles were not mature enough to understand court procedures and the magnitude of serious crimes and should not be sentenced to life in prison.

    The court overturned life sentences imposed on juveniles.

    Almost six decades

    Thomas used this and other court rulings to get his case back before the courts. With the help of the 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s office in Jacksonville, he was able to get his sentence overturned. He was re-sentenced, last week, after pleading guilty to the charges.

    Circuit Judge Mark Borello sentenced him to time served. That sentence gave Thomas credit for almost 6 decades of prison time.  The judge also imposed two years of probation, to follow the prison sentence. The first year of probation is to be served at a rehabilitation center.

    The judge pointed out that the conditions of probation were specifically designed to train Thomas to live in the modern world which is now alien to him.

    Thomas will have a year of supervised probation in the community after he leaves the re-hab center. His former lawyers, family, and friends stand ready to help him complete his adjustment to modern life when he returns to Jacksonville in a year.

    New world: everyone is in a rush

    Thomas had never seen a cell phone or computer. He has never used modern conveniences we take for granted in today’s world. When he was set free he stepped out into a world that is shockingly different from the one he left in 1960. He seems to be adjusting well.

    His sister Marion Erin is a lifesaver for him as she steers him around obstacles and unfamiliar conditions.

    He said the hardest part of his adjustment is adapting to the fast pace of today’s world. Everybody seems to be in such a big hurry. He said it is nothing like the laid-back, easy going, world he lived in as a teenager all those years ago.

    Radiates joy to others

    Friends say his positive attitude in prison has been a real inspiration to everyone who knows him. He has always radiated joy and been thankful to be alive. His mission in life seems to be to uplift everyone around him and make their lives happier.

    People meeting him have a hard time believing he was sentenced to death for first degree murder. He looks and acts more like a deacon at the First Baptist Church than someone who lived on death row. But, the facts surrounding his residence on Florida’s death row are well documented.

    Times were tough when Thomas was a black teenager in segregated Jacksonville during the 1950’s. Jobs were few and far between. If a teenager could get a job it usually didn’t pay much. Thomas and a 17-year-old friend came up with a plan. There was a demand for moonshine whiskey in their neighborhood. A 24-year-old friend knew how to make “Shine.”

    He also knew how to build a still. They needed $300 for materials to build a still and run off the first batch of “Shine.’ They didn’t have any money. They decided to rob a neighborhood grocery store to get the money.

    They didn’t intend to hurt anyone. They were simply going to run in, grab the money, and run away.

    Robbery went awry

    Things went terribly wrong. The 24-year-old friend had a gun and was in charge. Thomas was at the door of the store and did not see what happened. He later learned that the store manager resisted. There was a tussle. The gun went off. The manager was hit and his wound was fatal.

    The court found the shooter guilty of first degree murder. The two teenagers were convicted under Florida’s felony murder law that holds that if a person dies during the commission of a felony all participants in the felony are equally guilty of the murder. All three defendants in the grocery store robbery were found guilty, sentenced to death and sent to Florida’s death row to await execution.

    Thomas has vivid memories of death row. Like it was yesterday, seared into his psyche are memories of the morning, more than 50 years ago,  when Florida Department of Corrections Captain J.C. Combs appeared, unannounced, at Thomas’ death row cell door. Two lieutenants accompanied him.

    They were there to notify Thomas the Governor had signed his death warrant. Captain Combs read the death warrant to him. Thomas remembers the death warrant having a black border with a black seal adorned with black ribbons. It was signed by Florida Governor C. Ferris Bryant on October 2, 1963.

    Four days to live

    It was served on Thomas on the morning of Thursday, Oct,  3, 1963.  That was four days before the death warrant ordered that Thomas be executed in Florida’s electric chair at 8 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, 1963. A couple of hours later, Thomas remembers two of the biggest men he had ever seen came to remove him from his cell and take him to the “ready room” next to “the chair.”

    Thomas said they must have weighed 300 pounds each and stood at least six-feet-six. They placed “wrist breakers” on each of his arms. A wrist breaker is a single handcuff with a handle the guard can twist to tighten the cuff to cause the prisoner to comply with the guards directives. The guard can apply enough pressure to break the prisoner’s wrist if he resists being taken to his death in “the chair.”

    Thomas’ head was shaved so the electrode in the death helmet would make a good connection as electricity was channeled into his body through his head. He was measured for the suit of clothes he would be buried in. He was given the opportunity to order his last meal. Thomas said in keeping with protocol on death row at the time, he ordered everything. 

    Steak, pork chops, shrimp. crabs, fried fish, cheese burgers, and lots of banana pudding. He knew that what he didn’t eat would be shared with prison guards—his executioners—and fellow prisoners he left behind. He said he knew he would be unable to eat any part of the last meal because of the stress and because he knew that, a few hours after his death, what he ate would be listed as “stomach contents” on the medical examiners autopsy report.

    Then came the surprise

    Thomas’ younger brother, Edward, has indelible memories of the occasion. He was in the army stationed in Texas. He was given emergency leave to come home to attend to his brother’s affairs and funeral. Edward Thomas remembers he was expecting a solemn neighborhood when he arrived at his mother’s house a few hours before the scheduled execution.  Instead a big party was underway. As he got out of his car someone yelled to him, “They are not going to kill Calvin in the morning! He got a stay!”

    At his sentencing last week Judge Mark Borello noted that Thomas had an exceptional good conduct record during the half century he was in prison. He had only four write-ups. One was for talking loud on death row. Another was for eating chicken and rice that had been taken out of the prison dining room. The other two were for lesser infractions and Thomas does not remember what they were for. The judge cited that good conduct record as grounds indicating that Thomas is worthy of living in a free society.

    Thomas expressed deep appreciation to assistant public defenders Camille Burban and H. Kate Bedell , and their staff,  for their untiring dedication and hard work in fighting for his freedom. Thomas said he developed an incredible bond with his defenders. He seems to view them as treasured and deeply loved members of his extended family.

    “Earth Angel” sister Marion and the Parvins

    Thomas wants to honor his younger sister Marion. He says she stood by him through the hard times as no one else did. She was a teenager living in New York when he was sentenced to death.  Marion moved back to Jacksonville to be close and to support her big brother. Thomas said she has been unwavering in her stand by his side ever since. Thomas calls her his Earth Angel. He says she kept him focused on God and credits her for the positive attitude that is his trademark.

    He saluted Ms. Eloise Parvin for for providing light during the dark hours over the last 10 years he was in prison. He said he and Ms. Parvin became pen pals. Mail call is the most important part of the day for most prisoners. A letter from “the free world” is a prisoner’s lifeline for hope and inspiration. He said he exchanged several treasured letters each month with Ms. Parvin. 

    Thomas also enjoys a family relationship with Ms. Parvin and her husband, “Deacon Bill.”  She works with a prison ministry sponsored by the Neptune Baptist Church at the beaches in Jacksonville. Thomas looks forward to joining her in her ministry sometime soon.

    For Calvin Thomas responsible adult life begins at age 74. He grew up and became a senior citizen in prison. For the first time in his life Thomas will soon be able to make his own decisions.  He is well prepared for the opportunity to chart the course for living the life of his dreams.  He plans to make the most of it.

    He wants to speak to at risk young people who are on roads that could lead them to prison. He thinks he can steer them in the right direction. And, he wants to speak to college groups and civic organizations to help them make a difference in the lives of today’s young people.

    Thomas seems to be dedicated to the program he practiced in prison. He is clearly determined to uplift those around him and make our world a better place. As he steps forward in freedom he is on the way toward making a real difference.