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Pinellas death row prisoner, focus of Netflix’s ‘Girl in the Picture,’ dies

Franklin Delano Floyd was sentenced to death for the 1989 Pinellas County murder of Cheryl Commesso. He died this month of natural causes.
 
A poster assembled by St. Petersburg police shows Franklin Delano Floyd and several aliases he is known to have used. Floyd died last week after 20 years on Florida's death row.
A poster assembled by St. Petersburg police shows Franklin Delano Floyd and several aliases he is known to have used. Floyd died last week after 20 years on Florida's death row. [ HANDOUT | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 31, 2023|Updated Jan. 31, 2023

Franklin Delano Floyd, a notorious criminal whose tangled and horrifying life story was a focus of the popular Netflix documentary “Girl in the Picture,” died last week after 20 years on Florida’s death row.

Floyd died Jan. 23, according to court records. He had been incarcerated at Union Correctional Institution in northeast Florida.

His exact cause of death was not available, but an attorney who once worked on his case described the manner as natural. He was 79.

Franklin Delano Floyd
Franklin Delano Floyd [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

For the last two decades, Floyd had lived under a death sentence for the 1989 murder of Cheryl Ann Commesso, an exotic dancer whose skeletal remains were found in 1995 on the side of Interstate 275, near the Roosevelt Boulevard exit, in St. Petersburg.

“A better thing couldn’t happen to a worse person,” Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who prosecuted Floyd, said of his death.

Floyd’s legal case had reached a kind of stalemate, as he had been consistently deemed mentally incompetent in court for the last decade.

He was severely mentally ill, said Maria Deliberato, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who previously represented Floyd in his appeals. Floyd’s mental state, and the state’s continued pursuit of his execution, prolonged his case and made it much more costly, she said.

“Sentencing Mr. Floyd to death did not achieve any of the goals the death penalty purports to satisfy,” she said. “It didn’t keep the people of the state of Florida any safer, it dragged out the process for years and years, and it took a financial and emotional toll on everyone involved.”

Commesso’s murder was one in a trail of bad acts that marked Floyd’s long, troubled life.

When he was brought to trial in 2002, he was already serving five life sentences in Oklahoma and a 50-year federal sentence for other crimes, including the 1994 kidnapping of a young boy.

The Netflix documentary, which premiered last summer, was based on the books “A Beautiful Child” and “Finding Sharon” by journalist Matt Birkbeck. The show detailed Floyd’s activities from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, when he lived as a fugitive under a series of aliases while raising a girl who later became his wife.

Franklin Delano Floyd poses for a photograph in the 1970s with the girl he raised as his daughter, but who later became his wife.
Franklin Delano Floyd poses for a photograph in the 1970s with the girl he raised as his daughter, but who later became his wife. [ HANDOUT | Handout ]

Floyd began raising the girl, who was known to many as Sharon Marshall or Tonya Hughes, among other names, when she was a small child. They lived in several locations throughout the American South and Southwest. He made her work as an exotic dancer. They lived in Florida in the late 1980s, when she worked at the Mons Venus club in Tampa. Commesso had also worked there.

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They later lived in Oklahoma. She died there in 1990 in what was described as a mysterious hit-and-run accident.

It was later discovered that she was not related to Floyd. Her true identity was unknown for many years. In 2014, investigators determined that her real name was Suzanne Marie Sevakis. She was the daughter of a woman to whom Floyd was married in the early 1970s.

Sevakis had a son, Michael Anthony Hughes. Four years after she died, Floyd came to Michael’s elementary school in Oklahoma and kidnapped him and the school principal at gunpoint. He took the principal to the woods, bound him to a tree, and disappeared with Michael. When authorities found and arrested Floyd later, the boy was no longer with him.

Years later, Floyd told FBI agents that he’d killed Michael and buried his body near an interstate exit in southern Oklahoma, close to the Texas state line. The boy remains missing today.

Franklin Delano Floyd appears in court during the penalty phase of his murder trial in Pinellas County in 2002.
Franklin Delano Floyd appears in court during the penalty phase of his murder trial in Pinellas County in 2002. [ DIEZ, CHERIE | Times (2002) ]
Cheryl Ann Commesso
Cheryl Ann Commesso [ HANDOUT | Tampa Bay Times ]

Floyd’s connection to Commesso’s slaying came when the FBI began investigating a cache of explicit photographs that were found tied to the chassis of a truck that Floyd had once owned. Some of the images appeared to show a woman bound and beaten. Investigators later determined Commesso was the woman in the images and that Floyd’s hands were visible in some of them.

At his trial, and in the post-conviction litigation that followed, lawyers raised concerns about his mental state. He was known for rambling speech, angry outbursts and erratic behavior. In a 2009 court hearing, he professed a belief that he was the illegitimate son of the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He was repeatedly declared mentally incompetent to proceed and ordered to undergo treatment.

Prosecutors were skeptical of his mental illness.

“I think he was just a person that lived his life outside the boundaries of obeying the law,” Bartlett said. “He’d gotten away with it for so long.”