Hands still in the air, I shouted that I was unarmed, that we didn’t need any accidents. Car windows closed, air conditioning on, I prayed they understood what I said. I asked the lead detective, Gerald Rauft, what I was being charged with.
“Murder,” he said.
Murder? That didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t murdered anyone. I would have remembered. It turned out that the murder had occurred on February 17, 1975, over three years before, committed by drug addict and petty criminal Larry Wingate, whose wealthy father, Wingate bragged for years, had spent a fortune bribing cops and prosecutors to get his prodigal out of legal troubles. In exchange for several dropped drug charges and immunity from prosecution for first degree murder (and no telling how much money in bribes), Wingate agreed to commit perjury, testifying that “Charlie told me he shot someone.” Immunity, one must recall, is given only to the guilty. The innocent don’t need it.
Traffic was blocked north and south on the four-lane divided highway as I slowly got out of my car and climbed into the back seat of the nearest police car. After a confrontation between Rauft and a sheriff’s deputy, angered that police outside their jurisdiction had created a huge traffic snarl in his, the police car convoy slowly untangled and escorted me downtown to the detective division.
After demanding a lawyer and phone call for a couple of hours, detectives escorted me downstairs, where reporters and television cameramen waited, just in time for the six o’clock news, live from police headquarters.
My first visitor was a famous lawyer known for being the personal advisor to Santo Trafficante, reputed head of the Mafia in Florida, who had accompanied Trafficante to the House committee investigating the Kennedy assassination, where Santo pleaded the Fifth Amendment. My girlfriend saw my arrest on the news, and called her uncle, unbeknownst to me, the Mafia boss’s consigliere.
The lawyer cut to the chase. He’d already talked to the prosecutor. For a very large cash payment, the murder charge would go away. I told him that I hadn’t killed anyone, that I was innocent, and didn’t have that kind of money, anyway. He said, otherwise, the prosecutor would seek the death penalty, electrocution in “Old Sparky.”
Many things happened. The State offered me increasingly lenient plea bargains for reduced charges and a guilty plea, avoiding a jury trial, resulting in possibly five to seven years in prison, no minimum, no mandatory, no parole.
I refused. Perhaps I should have taken the deal, and fought my conviction from “out there.” My trial was a travesty. Perjured testimony by convicted felons seeking immunity. No physical or forensic evidence linked me to the shooting scene. The only eyewitness, a thirty-eight year old custodian and church deacon, swore that I was not the shooter, who was several inches shorter and many pounds lighter than both of us.
It didn’t matter. The fix was in. A compromise verdict by a split jury resulted in a life sentence, minimum twenty-five years before parole eligibility. Years later we learned that the corrupt prosecutor had tampered with the jury. No matter. The beat goes on.
14,975 days later, I have survived forty-one years in some of Florida’s worst, most violent prisons. I have seen thousands of men come and go to and from prison over the years, many of them due to my help. Hundreds of prisoners with life sentences and similar convictions, some with multiple murder cases, robberies, and kidnappings, have been paroled and live in freedom to this day. Not me. My parole release date remains at July 4, 2017, yet I sit in prison, still.
The corrupt prosecutor, angered that the jury did not vote death, was heard to say, “Norman will never survive a life sentence.” Angered that I have so far survived, the prosecutor has repeatedly politically tampered with the parole commissioners, who, conveniently, owe their jobs to him, as the chairman of the Parole Qualifications Committee.
How will it end? It has been a long, hard struggle. I have lost virtually everything except my faith in God. I was twenty-eight years old the day I was arrested. Today I am sixty-nine years old. A few aging family members and friends have stood by my side.
I fight on.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
Charles Norman #881834