TALLAHASSEE — One gray morning earlier this week, people trickled into an office building on the outskirts of the state capital. They signed in at a desk and entered a drab conference room, filling about 80 padded chairs that faced the back of a lectern and the front of a dais.
In the crowd were 18 people who had crisscrossed the state for a chance to stand at that lectern and ask for mercy.
They were there for a man whose worst mistake came when he was 15. It had cost him the last 27 years of his life. He was, at that moment Wednesday morning, more than 400 miles away, in the day room of a prison dormitory, waiting and praying.
His was one of more than 30 cases to be considered by the Commission on Offender Review, the three-person panel that decides which of Florida’s inmates deserves parole.
They worked alphabetically by last name. It was past noon before the chairwoman said, “Item 31 on page 16. David Welch.”
Welch murdered his father, Oscar Welch, on Nov. 4, 1992, in their home in Polk City, about halfway between Tampa and Orlando.
In June, the Tampa Bay Times detailed the crime and the theory that it was the response to years of abuse Welch endured from his father. That defense was never considered at trial, and Welch received a life sentence.
He appealed for clemency, but his efforts were always rejected.
He tried to get re-sentenced, citing changes in Florida’s juvenile sentencing laws. But last year, the state Supreme Court decreed that those laws did not apply to people like him.
He asked to be paroled twice. Each time, the commission ruled against him.
But this time, Welch had a stack of certificates he’d earned in the Corrections Transition Program. It is a college-style curriculum run by Florida International University that prepares long-incarcerated men for life after prison.
This time, Welch had a recommendation from a parole investigator. She visited in September. She learned how he teaches classes and supervises fellow inmates. In prison, he’d earned his high school diploma and vocational training in computers and print graphics. He had a tech support job waiting for him and a place to stay for a year in a transition house.
This time, he also had a letter from his father’s sister. Pat Weiffenbach wrote in July to tell the commission she had forgiven her nephew. She believed he had matured, expressed remorse and deserved a second chance.
Another aunt, an uncle and a cousin were among those in the hearing room Wednesday. Friends who’d known Welch since his first days in jail, having met him through a faith-based fellowship program, came as well.
Tony Pedone and David Goodwin, both parolees and alumni of the transitions program, had served decades alongside Welch. They operate the Life Sentence Prisoner Relief Program, which helps guide inmates to better their chances of rejoining society.
They had 10 minutes to make the case for Welch, as red numbers ticked down on a digital clock.
They spoke of a man who loves God and feels a calling to serve others.
"David Welch will come out of prison and do just as well as I’m doing, if not better,” Pedone told the commission.
David Carmichael, the lawyer Welch’s supporters had hired three years ago to handle his resentencing, felt compelled to keep up the cause.
He met with the parole commissioners and gave them a packet of information detailing all that Welch had accomplished in prison. As he took to the microphone, Carmichael offered Welch’s achievements, and his legion of support, as evidence of his character.
Jerry Hill was the last person to step to the lectern.
Hill, the retired state attorney from Polk County, had once called Welch a cold-blooded killer. In two prior parole hearings, he had implored commissioners to keep him in prison.
Now, he smiled as he spoke of the man he met a few months ago when he visited the Everglades prison. He didn’t go there to talk to David Welch, he said, but he did and was impressed with his achievements and his status as a leader among his peers.
Hill called Welch an asset and said it would be a shame to deprive society of his abilities.
“I think when he was 15, he was in the winter of his life,” Hill said. “It was bleak. It was dark. But he’s shown me who he really is.”
The clock ran out. At least two commissioners must agree for an inmate to be paroled.
Commissioner Richard Davison spoke first.
He acknowledged Welch’s successes, but he thought one more year in the program was necessary.
“It is my opinion that he is not quite there yet,” Davison said.
Commissioner David Wyant noted the violent nature of Welch’s crime and said such decisions are never easy. But he, too, acknowledged Welch’s accomplishments. He agreed with the recommendation that Welch should be paroled.
Chairwoman Melinda Coonrod had the final say.
“My vote," she said, "is also to parole.”
Spectators shifted in their seats. Some exhaled. They traded handshakes and back pats.
The commissioners ordered Welch, now 42, to complete one year in a faith-based, post-prison program. They will monitor his progress. He will be released Nov. 12.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Welch scrolled through email messages on a prison-issued tablet. Notes from his supporters trickled in with the news. He began to cry.
“Prior to today, I never knew if I would ever be free again,” he wrote back.
He knows challenges lay ahead. So much has changed in 27 years. Cell phones. Cars. The price of food.
But he also knows that he will have help. And he has nothing but gratitude for the people who believe in him.
He ended the day in the prison chapel, voicing prayers of thanks.
This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Melinda Coonrod is the chairwoman of the Florida Commission on Offender Review. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name.