The Florida Commission on Offender Review Wednesday will have an opportunity to free a deaf man who advocates staunchly believe was wrongly convicted and has served 33 years in prison for a Tampa murder he did not commit.
Among those testifying in his defense is a paralegal named Pat Bliss, who has been working without pay for nearly two decades to seek justice and freedom for Felix Garcia. Bliss, a former board member of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf,) is absolutely convinced he is innocent.
“I wouldn’t put 18 years, thousands and thousands of my dollars, more time than I can imagine on a case if I didn’t have total belief he was innocent,” Bliss said.
Attorney Reggie Garcia (no relation to Felix) and Gary Lieffers of the Florida Association of the Deaf also believe Felix was wrongfully convicted and his deafness played a critical role.
Felix received little assistance at his trial to help him hear the proceedings. Authorities gave him a hearing aid and turned up the volume in the courtroom, but that just sounded like incomprehensible noise to the deaf man and added to his confusion. He had no sign language interpreter.
Felix was convicted despite testimony from his then girlfriend and her mother that he was with them all evening and could not have been at the murder scene when the crime occurred.
“Felix was at his girlfriend’s mother’s home six miles away from 6:30 p.m. that night until 1:30 in the morning.” Reggie Garcia said. “So he had a 7-hour alibi before, during and after the murder.”
But the jury rejected the alibi and instead believed Felix’s brother and sister, who framed him for the murder. The brother, who’s also in prison for the crime, and sister have since admitted Felix was not involved.
“The injustice is huge,” Reggie Garcia said. “An innocent man has served 33 years in prison here in Florida for a murder he did not commit.”
A growing number of Floridians are seeking to correct that injustice, including hundreds of advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing who rallied for Felix on the steps of the Capitol back in March. Since then, more than 100,000 people worldwide have signed a change.org petition to seek justice for Felix.
Pat Bliss believes in her heart that Felix, a model prisoner and inspiration for other inmates, will get another chance at life outside prison.
“I think that God has a destination for Felix that we’ll never imagine. I know he’s got a future. I have been his encourager for 18 years,” Bliss said. “I know that he’s going to make an impact for the deaf community.”