By Pat Bliss
Preparation for Felix’s Parole Hearing
Attorney Reggie Garcia and I received notice about Felix’s November 19th parole hearing on November 3rd. We were surprised, as we expected it to be a month or two away. After much preparation and arrangements, I set out for Florida on the 15th, and arrived in Tallahassee, late in the afternoon of the 16th. On the following day, Attorney Reggie Garcia had set up a 2-hour video shoot at Sachs Media Group. Reggie, Gary Lieffers of Florida Association of the Deaf and I, all had on-camera interviews. Sachs Media edited the program and sent it out as a news release on the morning of the 18th. It went out to news outlets all over the state of Florida.
While the press releases were going out, Reggie and I met with two of the parole commissioners on the Florida Commission on Offender Review board. The meetings gave us the opportunity to learn what subjects they intended on questioning us about. It gave us a heads up as to what to be prepared for at the hearing. Afterward, we headed back to Reggie’s office to go over our transcripts and summaries. The press releases resulted in our receiving numerous calls for interviews. We scheduled an interview for Tuesday afternoon at 5:00PM, with Britanny Kleinpeter – reporter and anchorwoman – of WTXL/ABC 27. We followed that, with another interview at 8:30PM, with Jon Manson-Hing, representing two Tampa TV stations: Fox and CBS affiliates. After getting back to my motel room, I worked on my talking points. It was a long and tiring day, but I wanted our readers to get some idea of the amount of preparation that went into my part of the following day’s parole hearing.
Drama at Parole Hearing: Felix vs. Frank Garcia
Wednesday, November 19th, at 9AM, we arrived at the building where the parole commission is located. Reggie dropped me off at the front door as he parked the car. When I walked into the lobby, it was ablaze with activity. A personal escort led me into the parole hearing room, where a reserved seat was waiting. Reggie sat next to me. Chairperson Tena Pate announced that no paroles would be under consideration at that time, so we found ourselves having to forgo that option. We were however, still anxious to advocate for Felix, when our turn came.
There was another high profile case before ours. Mark DeFriest, a mentally ill inmate who had served over 3 decades, thus far. A British company documented his life story. His case received a continuance, for later in December. Then it was time for Felix’s case. Reggie and I walked up front and sat at the table. We only had a 10-minute time limit. Reggie went first, he told about the 7-hour alibi, and whom we believe framed Felix. Reggie held up an enlarged 1984 picture of Frank, Tina and her boyfriend – Ray Stanley – to show the board and the media, the participants. He stated their motives in blaming the actual shooting on Felix.
As planned, I would have the most amount of the time. I started with why I felt Felix is innocent, and why I stayed with his case for so long. When I first received Felix’s file I saw Tina and Frank’s un-filed affidavits, recanting their trial testimony, and how his inability to hear, played a huge part in the trial. I told them about the report of – court appointed – ENT specialist, Dr. Agliano. I noted its conclusion that Felix’s hearing inability was moderate to severe at time of trial. I stated that Felix had his Sixth Amendment rights violated. His trial attorney – in three different motions – issued a notice of Felix’s lack of understanding of the trial process, and his inability to defend himself.
I went into Felix’s 37 Certificates in skills learned. I told them he has a home to come to and supporters all around the country – Deaf and hearing alike – to help him transition back into society. I also stated that he is employable with his computer skills for one, and has a church family already waiting for him. I ended with, even if he receives 5,10 or even 20 years more, his character as a sweet, kind and generous person will not change. He is always looking out for others. I told how he gives to those with nothing, like sharing his soup with other Deaf inmates who have no one to visit them at Christmas. He has no criminal intent. In his thinking he harbors forgiveness, because he knows that failing to forgive only destroys one’s self. He has no malice against the Tramontana family, as he never met the victim, Joseph Tramontana Jr. Lastly, I showed the commissioners a hand made birthday card from the guys in Felix’s dorm at Tomoka. There are 63 signatures of thanks for helping them, thanks for being a role model and thanks for being a mentor. I ended with a plea to consider parole and if not, then the Lifer’s Program, which Felix will gladly accept.
Then, Mark Ober – State Attorney of Hillsborough County – along with Tramontana’s four sisters, tried hard to keep Felix from getting the relief of freedom. They were not present when we spoke. Mr. Ober spoke after the sisters, and showed documents to the commissioners to prove Felix was competent, and could understand and write legal documents. He showed two state expert witnesses – non-ENT specialists – reports stating Felix had no problem understanding, he could hear and he was competent to stand trial. He did not dispute the defense’s alibi witnesses or the time-line showing where Felix was at the time of the murder. In a surprise move, the commission let us come back to speak further. This was crucial to us. Generally, the victims have the last word. The court views any inaccuracies or exaggerations as true, when not disputed. I was able to dispute Mr. Ober’s allegations about Felix’s ability to understand legal proceedings, hear, and write legal documents.
First, I told them that I had written all Felix’s legal documents from 1996 on, and I stressed his inability – even today – to understand legal proceedings. I refuted Mr. Ober’s allegation that Felix’s hearing was just fine at time of the trial, according to Dr. Agliano’s report. I gave a visual description of the scale used to determine the degree of deafness, and where Felix stood versus someone who can hear. Dr. Algiano said that hearing is acceptable up to 25%. Ober said Felix was at 70%, at the time of trial. In truth, Felix was at a 40% loss, if not more. [See correction below. — ed.]
The commission ruled that Felix would receive a reduction of 12 months from his proposed parole release date to 8/10/2025. He will have another review in 3 years. Furthermore, he will go to the special 18-month transitional programming – generally known as the Lifer’s Program. Reggie and I were both happy with that because the alternative could have been no PPRD reduction, no change in housing, and the next hearing in 7 years. That is exactly what happened in Frank’s case.
In another surprise move by the Commission, Frank Garcia’s case was up next. Already, the camera operators and reporters were there, and they were not about to move out of that room! Reggie and I stood on the sidelines – close to the front – to listen again to Mark Ober and the sisters. The sisters said essentially, the same things but Mr. Ober was even more adamant to keeping Frank incarcerated. He had prosecuted Frank at his own trial in 1982. Then came Frank’s speakers to support him being granting parole. They were sister Tina and a younger brother – Michael – who was 15 years old when the crime occurred. It shocked many people to see Tina and Mike there for Frank, but not Felix. It was so obvious that their loyalty lay with one and not to the other. Mike was brainwashed by Frank into believing Felix did it, and Frank had a smaller part. Tina – who had recanted in a 1996 affidavit stating Felix had nothing to do with the planning or commission of the crime – now feels her freedom is more important, and will not admit again to any wrongdoing nor to exonerate Felix. She is the only one who can bring this case back into court, outside of the Hillsborough County State Attorney, making that move to overturn Felix’s conviction.
I was so upset that I could not think to ask Tina, specifically why she refuses to help Felix. All I could think to say to her was, why did you not testify for Felix as well. Her answer was because Felix didn’t ask her. Oh really? To do kindness to a brother you must be asked first? I can only conclude that everyone in that family believes Felix thinks – and acts – like them. His family had abandoned him, and Felix would not ask for their support at his parole hearing. The Garcia family has no concept of Felix’s limitations being deaf – his reading and verbal comprehension to start with. He has had no formal education as a deaf man. However, in the end, Reggie and I were able to educate the public a little about being deaf and caught up in the criminal justice system – via Felix’s case.
After the parole meetings were over – out in the lobby – reporters surrounded us. They wanted clarification on what went on, and our reaction to the decision.
They left, and it was finally a chance to calm down and regroup my thoughts, as to how to explain all that had occurred, to Felix, that coming weekend at Marion C.I. in Ocala, Florida.
Pat Bliss is a retired paralegal in criminal law. She continues to do legal work for indigent prisoner cases showing innocence. She is a Certified Community Chaplain, Certified as a volunteer for CISM (Crises Intervention Stress Management) and involved in community events.
[Correction: Ober did not have anything to do with the hearing test. The report by Dr. Agliano said Felix had a 70% loss at time of the trial. His opinion was that Felix had at least a 40-45% loss at time of the crime two years earlier – which was still a much more significant loss, than the 25% that is considered the limit of hearing with clear discernment. Dr. Agliano was the defense expert witness who testified at the trial, after having given Felix a thorough hearing test. The State expert witnesses were non-ENTs, who interviewed Felix and said he had no problem hearing them. –Ed.]