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  1. Florida

At 15, David Welch did something awful. Is society ready to forgive him?

Florida has so far rejected his pleas for clemency, resentencing or parole
This mug shot shows David Welch when he was arrested, at age 15, and charged with murdering his father, Oscar Welch. Now 42, David Welch remains in prison with a life sentence. [Polk County Sheriff's Office]
Published Jun. 6
Updated Jun. 17

The lawyer met her client at a picnic table on the grounds of a central Florida high-security prison.

Sharon Stedman had been hired to assist David Welch in an appeal for clemency. On that day in 2003, he’d been incarcerated nearly a dozen years, since he was 15.

His wasn’t a case of a wrongful conviction or a misapplication of law.

Stedman sensed a different kind of injustice.

She read about it in the yellowed pages of a trial transcript, long forgotten in the back of a Polk County courthouse. She could see it in the quiet and guarded man who sat before her now.

She told him about a troubled marriage she’d endured. She told him about the fear that sent her fleeing onto the roof of her house. She told him about how, amid the abuse, death became an attractive fantasy.

David, she asked, did you ever experience any of these things?

His eyes welled with tears.

Until that moment, no one had helped Welch explore what led him to kill his father.

Stedman told him there was a name for it.

***

David Welch’s story begins in Polk City. It is a small town, north of Interstate 4, east of Lakeland, just far enough to feel far away from both Tampa and Orlando.

It was there, in a house on a short street, which sloped toward the shores of Lake Agnes, that Welch spent his childhood.

His father, Oscar Welch, was retired from a 27-year career in the U.S. Army.

His mother, Judy Cason Welch, like his father, had been married before. They had five children between them. All were adults by the time David was born.

Some of his earliest memories are of his father beating his mother. He remembers her fleeing behind a door, and his father breaking through. He remembers, at 4 years old, standing between them, trying to shield his mother from the blows. She once fled with her son to a friend’s house.

Her husband found them there and threatened that if she ever ran away again, he would kill them both.

Twelve days shy of David’s fifth birthday, Judy Welch left home late one night.

A news account says she was driving north just before 11 p.m. on a main road when her car crossed the centerline, slamming into the rear wheel of a semi-trailer. She was killed.

When David was as young as 6 and 7, his father started leaving him unattended. He worked the night shift at a local EconoLodge. When he wasn’t working, he liked to drink. It wasn’t uncommon for him to down a half-case of beer each night. He said it was to help him sleep.

Alcohol fueled violent outbursts. David remembers slaps, punches and lashes with a leather belt. He remembers a time - before he turned 10 - when his father choked him into unconsciousness. His offense: gloating over the results of an NBA playoff game.

He was a skinny kid with thin hair that swept down one side of his forehead to his brow. At school, people sometimes saw him with black eyes and bruises. No one thought much of it.

His closest family was Sherry Kimbrough, a half-sister. She was concerned about her brother’s relationship with his father. They lived separate lives in the same house, she would later say.

In seventh grade, David took up smoking and made his first “D” on his school report card. The next year, he moved on to marijuana and downed a quart of beer every other day after school.

He took advantage of his dad’s night-shift schedule, staying out at all hours. He skipped school for jaunts to Disney World.

His failing grades were a constant source of tension. To David, the criticism was less about his father wanting him to do well and more about his need to control his son. He once threatened to sit in on classes, to embarrass him. He said he wanted to see if David had any friends left after that.

David ran away three times. His father found him and convinced him to come home, but the fighting continued. They fought about grades and chores and a girlfriend David had, who was four years older. His dad made them break up.

In the summer before 10th grade, David confided to a female friend.

“I’m either going to have to kill my dad or kill myself,” he said.

She didn’t think he was serious.

In early November, he was watching TV with two friends at his house when he mentioned, again, that he wanted to kill his dad. He showed them a shotgun, a .16 gauge bolt action, and a .20-gauge shell tucked in a bandolier.

They didn’t think he was serious.

In all, David Welch told at least eight people he wanted to kill his father. He said he thought it might solve all his problems.

Some people egged him on.

“Did you blow him away yet?” he was asked.

One night, he went to bed early but woke after 10 p.m. to his father screaming. It took a moment to understand his slurred speech.

David had forgotten to finish the laundry. He got up and did as he was told. It was after midnight when he returned to sleep.

***

He woke before the sun came up on Nov. 4, 1992, an hour before he had to leave for school.

He was still angry.

He thought of killing himself. At the same time, he thought that maybe if he could scare his father, he would leave him alone.

In the dark, he stepped down a short hallway to the living room closet. He pulled out the shotgun and crept into his father’s room.

A TV set on the dresser glowed, the volume turned low. Oscar Welch lay on his side, clad in boxer shorts, arms folded over his shirtless chest, sound asleep. Beside him, an alarm clock ticked toward 5:40 a.m.

David Welch moved to the other side of the bed, behind his father. He stared at him, clutching the gun. His mind raced.

What am I doing? he thought.

What if he wakes up? What if he sees me?

Just then, the alarm clock sounded, the shrieking buzzer like a siren. Welch jumped. He pulled the trigger.

The blast shook the room. In the dim light, he saw blood.

Oscar Welch was found dead on Nov. 4, 1992, at his home in Polk City. [Polk County Sheriff's Office]

***

His public defenders gave him sweaters and dress shirts to wear for his trial. Over the course of four days in January 1994, Welch listened to lawyers debate legal concepts he didn’t understand in between arguments over what went through his mind to make him kill his father.

Kimbrough, his sister, had died of cancer before the trial, as had a grandmother.

From the Jan. 25, 1994 edition of the Tampa Tribune. [TIMES]

Prosecutors portrayed Oscar Welch, 60, as a concerned parent, who struggled to right his wayward son. They mentioned the pair had clashed over grades and the teenager’s attitude. Some neighbors and acquaintances said they’d heard David Welch was involved in a cult.

Oscar Welch, as seen in a photo that ran in the Tampa Tribune. [Times 1993]
David Welch, as seen in a school portrait that ran in the Tampa Tribune. [TIMES]

The state’s lawyers emphasized the repeated comments Welch had made to friends. It was evidence, they said, of premeditation.

The jury heard how, in the hours after the murder, Welch drove around town in his dad’s pickup, how he visited the mall and tried to buy sneakers and stereo speakers with his credit cards.

They heard how he met up with several friends and told them what he’d done, and when they didn’t believe him, he took them back to his house.

They heard how he swung between laughter and tears, and that over lunch at McDonald’s, he kept asking questions.

Will I go to hell?

If I see my dad in heaven, is he going to be mad at me for what I did?

His defense never called a single witness. They had a deposition from Richard Matthews, one of Welch’s classmates, who said he’d seen Welch come to school with “big old shiners.”

At trial, abuse was mentioned in fleeting moments.

Jerry Johnson, a next-door neighbor, said Oscar Welch told him that he once had to slap his son in the mouth.

In closing arguments, defense attorney Robert Norgard suggested that the crime was something more akin to second-degree murder or manslaughter.

“There’s no question that he was a very troubled young man,” Norgard said.

The jury deliberated about four hours. Their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder.

Judge Daniel True Andrews sentenced Welch on the spot. He explained that the mandatory penalty was life in prison. Welch would be eligible for parole in 25 years.

He asked Welch, then 17, if he wanted to say anything.

“No, sir,” Welch said.

“For the record,” the judge continued, “he’s remanded to the custody of the sheriff. He’s no longer a juvenile.”

***

David Welch shuffled between a handful of adult prisons, struggling to learn the culture of incarceration, shielding himself from predatory advances.

In letters, he described constant danger.

“If a rape occurs, it is not uncommon,” he wrote. “It seems like everyone has a knife. Someone gets stabbed every other week. No one wants to be here.”

Things could have gotten much worse, were it not for some of the people who became Welch’s closest friends.

While he was still awaiting trial in the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center, he met a group of volunteers for Youth for Christ. They came periodically to conduct church services.

Ann and Tom Thayer were among them. They told Welch that God loved him and that there was a plan for his life.

Of all the young people they tried to reach, Welch stood out. They noticed how polite and humble he was, always concerned for fellow prisoners who didn’t get visitors.

They were the ones who eventually sought legal help.

They tracked down Sharon Stedman, a petite woman with a rapid-fire Southern drawl. Word had gotten around that she was good at clemency petitions, though she was an insurance attorney by trade. By her own count, she’d managed to convince the state’s highest officials to grant mercy to at least a half-dozen men. She pegged herself “to the right of Attila the Hun” on matters of criminal justice and only championed cases she felt were righteous.

Sharon Stedman, an Orlando attorney, has been trying for years to help David Welch win clemency. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

That day in the prison yard, before the curious gazes of the tattooed guys who milled about the grass, Welch spoke through halting sobs. For the first time, he talked at length about what he went through - the beatings, the unearned punishments, the feeling that his father didn’t love him.

Stedman called it battered child syndrome. The concept was largely unknown, and far from being recognized by the court system, in the early 1990s. It’s a psychological phenomenon in which a child experiences abuse so severe that he believes the only way to escape is through death - his own or a parent’s.

She drew up a clemency package. It contained a letter from Welch in which he talked about the crime and the reasons it happened. He explained that he’d felt both relief and regret, and how he considered suicide right after.

“I only wanted to stop him from hitting me,” he wrote. “But I knew that eventually he was going to kill me.”

Extended family members also wrote letters, saying it was common knowledge that Welch grew up in an abusive household, but no one could ever do anything to stop it.

Ted Smith, another Youth for Christ volunteer, wrote that Welch “did not receive proper justice based on his age and understanding of what he did at the time.”

Smith has served on several juries, including in a death penalty case, and he believes in harsh punishments.

But in Welch’s case, he wrote to the clemency board, “The time he has served is more than enough to pay for his crime.”

Stedman sent her letters, made her calls. She drove to Tallahassee and wandered the halls of the Florida State Capitol. She lobbied the governor’s staff and cabinet officials, imploring them to look at Welch’s case, to consider commuting his sentence.

She did all that for years. And, for years, the answer was no.

David Welch described his troubled childhood in a 2007 letter. [Dan Sullivan | TAMPA BAY TIMES]
The letter was part of Welch's efforts at clemency. [Dan Sullivan | TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Welch had been given a life sentence as a teenager. [Dan Sullivan | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

***

In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion that offered a way out.

The 4-3 decision known as Atwell vs. Florida found that juvenile offenders serving life or lengthy sentences must have their cases reconsidered, even if they are eligible for parole.

The case drew on a set of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which found that juveniles are less capable of understanding consequences and that those guilty of serious crimes must be afforded a meaningful opportunity for release. State lawmakers responded by changing juvenile sentencing laws to require judges to consider a defendant’s age, maturity and state of mind before imposing a lengthy sentence.

The Atwell case ultimately led to the release of about 65 people.

In 22 cases, courts determined that a long sentence was still appropriate.

More than 100 others, including Welch, awaited resentencing.

A new sentencing hearing could last a day or more, during which Welch would be allowed to present testimony about his upbringing. He could call psychological experts, who could talk about battered child syndrome, and how it relates to homicide.

Welch typed out a six-page legal document. He noted that his original sentencing hearing was perfunctory, and that the abuse he endured was never considered. His request for a hearing was filed June 9, 2016. Two months later, local prosecutors agreed to proceed.

Welch found a new lawyer, David Carmichael, a former prosecutor. He hired Brooke Butler, a mitigation specialist. Over two years, he prepared for the hearing.

In July 2018, the Florida Supreme Court decided that people like Welch were not entitled to new sentences after all. The court cited an obscure federal ruling about a prison geriatric release program to reverse the Atwell decision.

“In 25 years of doing this, I’ve never seen the carpet yanked out from under someone so thoroughly as (it was for) David Welch,” Carmichael said.

***

Other than clemency, parole was David Welch’s only viable option for release from his life sentence.

Florida abolished parole in 1994, but it still applies to those who, like Welch, were sentenced earlier. But for that, he had to wait until he had served a minimum of 25 years.

Even then, the odds are daunting. Of the more than 4,000 state prisoners eligible for parole, less than one percent are typically granted release in a given year.

But in 2017, Welch put together a parole package, explaining what he endured as a child and the profound sense of regret for what he’d done. He noted that he earned his high school diploma in prison and an associate’s degree in biblical studies from Vision International University. He listed classes he’d taken on domestic violence, anger management and criminal thinking errors, and vocational trades he’d learned in computers and print graphics.

On July 27, Welch’s supporters gathered in Tallahassee before the Commission on Offender Review, the three-person panel that decides who gets paroled.

As a red digital clock counted down from 10 minutes, his mother’s sister sat before a microphone.

“David wasn’t raised in an ideal situation,” Martha Holland said, her voice trembling. “In fact, there’s family knowledge of abuse to him and his mother. And I have to wonder why we were never questioned.”

Then came Alex Lucio, a Youth for Christ volunteer. He told commissioners Welch had a job waiting for him after prison.

“The focus on David at 15 is difficult,” he said. “Because I know kids that are 15. They’re not adults. They don’t think like adults. And who they grow up into isn’t always who they are at 14 and 15 years old.”

The witnesses were thanked, and Lucio was asked to step aside. More testimony had to be heard.

Jerry Hill approached the microphone. The retired state attorney from Polk County sent many killers to prison and now, he regularly showed up to parole hearings to make sure they stayed there.

He gave his own assessment of Welch. He recounted the details of the crime, how Welch had told friends he wanted to kill his father, how he showed them the body afterward, “like he’s a trophy.”

“This kid is a cold-blooded killer,” he said. “I suspect he’s got a bit of conman in him to come up with this new defense.”

To let Welch go after only 25 years would be “a tragic mistake,” he said.

The commissioners conferred, they noted the severity of the charge, that it involved a firearm. They set another hearing for a few months later.

For now, Welch would stay in prison.

David Welch has been in prison for 27 years for the murder of his father. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

***

Mark Welch wasn’t at the hearing. He is Oscar Welch’s son from a previous marriage.

He had infrequent contact with his father growing up and only met David once. Still, he doesn’t believe the tales of abuse. He thinks his half-brother is where he belongs.

“I don’t think he should ever see the light of day,” he said.

Pat Weiffenbach wasn’t at the hearing, either.

She is Oscar Welch’s younger sister, his closest living relative. She’s 76. She lives in Illinois. She knows how cruel people can be, even to their own family.

She remembers her father, whose idea of discipline involved swinging a belt with a metal buckle and putting out cigarettes on her skin.

She also remembers Oscar, who tried to shield her from their father’s rage. She remembers “a wonderful man,” who years later offered help after an unexpected pregnancy.

She remembers the day she got the call. A voice thousands of miles away told her that her brother had been murdered. She cursed her nephew for what he’d done. And, for years, she wouldn’t talk to him.

In occasional letters and Christmas cards, Welch told her that God had changed his life. He spoke of trying to make amends.

Eventually, she wrote back. And in the early 2000s, she visited Avon Park Correctional Institution.

They wept when they saw each other.

They kept in touch for awhile, but eventually drifted. Years passed before another letter arrived.

Welch sat on his prison bunk last year and stared at his aunt’s address on the envelope. He prayed before opening it.

“I do love you David,” she wrote. “I think it’s time I said so. Also I feel it’s time to forgive you! You were young, various things entered into it.”

They called and talked. She told him again: 25 years was long enough. She had questions, too.

Are you ever going to get out of prison? And what could I do to help?

***

David Welch is 42 now. He’s short, paunchy, bald-headed, with a lumbering gait as he strolls the paved pathways through the center of Everglades Correctional Institution.

David Welch is now incarcerated at the Everglades Correctional Institution. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

He’s been here, near Miami, about a year. Decades of good behavior have put him on minimum security. Among his fellow long-timers, he is a leader. He teaches classes in the Corrections Transition Program, including one whose focus is about finding meaning in life when you’re stuck in a situation that seems hopeless. Part of the message is that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.

It’s also about learning to accept responsibility.

“I’m responsible for my actions,” he says. “But who I am today is not who I was when I was a teenager.”

He isn’t bitter about his situation. In fact, he’s grateful. At his last parole hearing, the commission agreed to send him to the transition program, which is run by Florida International University and a last stop for many before they’re paroled.

His next interview is in September.

At night, he returns to a two-man cell in a non-air-conditioned building. He prays before he sleeps.

He can quote favorite Bible verses, including Ezra 7:10: For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

He is polite and seems sincere, confident but cautious.

“I still miss my father,” he says. “As strange as that may sound.”

He thinks of what he would say to his dad - that he’s sorry, that he forgives him, and that he hopes he can be forgiven, too.

David Welch has won supporters over the years who feel that he's been punished enough. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included the wrong month for the Florida Supreme Court decision on resentencing.

About this story

This story is based on a Polk County Sheriff’s Office report on the homicide of Oscar Welch, Polk County Circuit Court records, written transcripts of David Welch’s trial and pretrial depositions, letters he wrote from prison, audio recordings of his parole hearings, documents and letters in the files of attorney David Carmichael, email correspondence and an interview with David Welch at Everglades Correctional Institution, and interviews with Brooke Butler, Ted Smith, Sharon Stedman, Tom Thayer, Pat Weiffenbach, Mark Welch and experts on juvenile resentencing and battered child syndrome.

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