No early release for deaf Tampa inmate convicted of 1981 murder

Published Sept. 27, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A deaf man from Tampa who was convicted of murder more than three decades ago will continue serving life in prison after state parole commissioners agreed Wednesday to make no changes to his sentence but to reconsider his request for early release again in 2020.

The earliest Felix Garcia could be released from prison is still Aug. 10, 2025, but his legal team continues to seek an earlier date.

Garcia's lawyer Reginald Garcia, who is no relation to the inmate, insisted Felix Garcia is "completely innocent" of the crime for which he was convicted — killing Joseph Tramontana in 1981 in what his attorney described as a "jewelry and cash heist" at a motel room on Fowler Avenue in Tampa.

Garcia's supporters maintain he had a seven-hour alibi that accounted for his whereabouts before, during and after the crime. They argue he was framed by his siblings — including older brother Frank Garcia, who's also in prison — and previously argued that Felix Garcia didn't get a fair trial because of his deafness.

But parole commissioners were not swayed Wednesday by arguments of Garcia's innocence.

"As far as I'm concerned, there is no question about guilt in this case; it was fully litigated in our judicial system," Commissioner Richard Davison said. "The issue that I'm dealing with is simply what has he done since his incarceration that would move him toward parole, if at all."

Garcia, who will turn 56 later this week, was moved from Florida's state prison system to a prison in Virginia 18 months ago. Services are offered to deaf inmates there — such as individual counseling and sign language interpreters — that Florida's Department of Corrections did not provide Garcia, said Pat Bliss, a retired paralegal who has fought for his release for 22 years.

Bliss beamed with pride in talking to reporters about Garcia's progress, saying he is now thriving under the new opportunities afforded to him.

"He has benefited tremendously under the Virginia system. His whole focus is on parole," Bliss told the commissioners.
Bliss said Garcia took a horticulture class at the Virginia prison and is working full-time at a nearby plant doing silk-screening. She said he created a computer program to show the plant managers how they were wasting ink, which increased profits.

Garcia did not appear at Wednesday's hearing. Bliss read aloud to the commissioners a letter he recently sent her: "I've learned a lot and I'm a lot better off physically and mentally than I was a year ago. Virginia has so much to offer its prisoners."

The three members of the parole commission, called the Florida Commission on Offender Review, said they were "unfamiliar with the programs Virginia has" and want to see how Garcia fares with more time in that system.

"I want to monitor it because I'd like to see exactly what programs he's taking and how well he's doing in these programs," said commission chairwoman Melinda Coonrod, who agreed with Davison in setting the three-year review date.

Commissioner David Wyant wanted more time — five years — before Garcia's next review hearing.
Several of Tramontana's sisters offered emotional testimony and pleas for the commission to keep Garcia behind bars. They described Garcia as a "calculated cold-blooded murderer" who killed their brother "execution-style."

"We ask for your mercy on our family," one said.

Another decried the "media circus" the family must endure by having to return to Tallahassee so frequently to repeat their request in the high-profile case. They asked for seven years until Garcia's next review date, and one of them sighed heavily when Davison proposed only three years.

In contrast to Garcia's last review hearing in 2014, the family was not joined Wednesday by anyone speaking on behalf of the Hillsborough County state attorney's office. Last time, then-state attorney Mark Ober argued against shortening Garcia's sentence.

Reginald Garcia, who has represented Garcia pro bono for six years, had asked for only a two-year wait until Garcia's next hearing but he said he was pleased with Wednesday's outcome. He noted that Felix Garcia remains optimistic he'll one day be freed.

"He has a smile and a hopeful spirit," Reginald Garcia said.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at (850) 222-3095 or Follow @ByKristenMClark