Woman on death row fight­ing coro­n­avirus

Fought her mur­der-for-hire con­vic­tion since 1992

Orlando Sentinel - - Local & State - By Grace Toohey

It’s been more than 10 years since the Florida Supreme Court over­turned Vir­ginia Larzelere’s death sen­tence, in­stead hand­ing down life in prison for the 1991 killing of her hus­band.

But af­ter she tested pos­i­tive for the new coro­n­avirus at Home­stead Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion last week­end, her fam­ily fears her life is once again at stake.

“They’ve put her back on death row,” said

Jim McNulty, who she mar­ried in 2015 af­ter years of vis­its and ex­chang­ing let­ters. “I’m very con­cerned for her wel­fare.”

Larzelere, 67, was among the first at the women’s prison in Mi­ami-Dade County to test pos­i­tive. A week later, 231 in­mate tests had come back pos­i­tive as of Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to the Florida Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, a 32% pos­i­tive rate.

Un­til a few weeks ago, Larzelere was fo­cused on fight­ing for her ex­on­er­a­tion in the high-pro­file Vo­lu­sia County mur­der-for-hire case for which she’s been in­car­cer­ated for al­most three decades.

In 1992, she was convicted of first-de­gree mur­der for con­spir­ing to kill her then-hus­band Nor­man Larzelere, who was fa­tally shot by a gun­man in his Edge­wa­ter den­tist of­fice. She was ini­tially ac­cused of con­spir­ing with her 19-year-old son in a plot to rake in $2 mil­lion in in­sur­ance money, but her son was later ac­quit­ted in a sep­a­rate trial.

Just weeks ago, it seemed Vir­ginia Larzelere and her fam­ily had re­newed hope for a break­through in her case, as the Florida Jus­tice League, a crim­i­nal de­fense firm that spe­cial­izes in post-con­vic­tion ap­peals, had filed a new mo­tion seek­ing to va­cate her con­vic­tion.

But now the case is on the back­burner as she fights the virus, while many court pro­ceed­ings have been sus­pended.

“I thought that we were get­ting close,” McNulty said. “I’m feel­ing not as con­fi­dent right now be­cause of what’s go­ing on. … This virus is not in any­one’s con­trol.”

McNulty said his wife was sick long be­fore any women were tested at the state prison, which in­mates across Florida have re­ported. He ques­tioned why it took so long. Lazelere has asthma and pul­monary is­sues, McNulty said, and should be con­sid­ered a high­risk pa­tient.

“She re­ally hasn’t been well in a while,” said McNulty, who keeps in touch with her pri­mar­ily through phone calls. She has de­scribed a lack of en­ergy, headaches and no ap­petite, he said. She told him her tem­per­a­ture has been taken only once and it came back 101.7.

“It’s way past, ‘I don’t feel good,’” McNulty said. “It’s de­bil­i­tat­ing.”

He said she can no longer call him for more than a few min­utes, be­cause she has to stand to use the phone, and she’s got­ten too weak.

He thinks she should be taken to a hos­pi­tal, adding her med­i­cal care has been sub­par through­out her in­car­cer­a­tion, and now is no ex­cep­tion.

The Florida Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions says all in­mates are be­ing ap­pro­pri­ately cared for at its fa­cili

ties.

In an un­signed press re­lease Mon­day about the agency’s re­sponse to COVID-19 at Home­stead CI af­ter 73 in­mate tests had come back pos­i­tive, FDC of­fi­cials said they were chang­ing nor­mal op­er­a­tions to min­i­mize the virus’ spread, in­clud­ing halt­ing in­mate trans­fers and iso­lat­ing all symp­to­matic in­mates.

“FDC’s Of­fice of Health Ser­vices, in­sti­tu­tional med­i­cal staff and in­sti­tu­tional op­er­a­tions staff work hand- in-hand with the Depart­ment of Health to quickly en­gage and re­solve in­fec­tious dis­ease out­breaks as soon as they oc­cur,” the press re­lease said.

The re­lease said FDC had pro­vided ad­di­tional pro­tec­tive equip­ment to the fa­cil­ity and that all in­mates have been of­fered COVID-19 tests. As of Fri­day, 715 in­mate tests had been com­pleted, with 231 pos­i­tive. The fa­cil­ity has a ca­pac­ity for 668 women, but FDC has said test­ing num­bers can in­clude retests of in­mates.

On April 4, Vir­ginia Larzelere’s at­tor­ney filed the mo­tion for post-con­vic­tion re­lief, which cen­tered on the 1992 ac­quit­tal of her son, Ja­son Lazelere.

Pros­e­cu­tors had ar­gued that the mother and son con­spired to­gether on the mur­der, but that Ja­son Lazelere car­ried it out. With the son hav­ing been found not guilty, the state’s the­ory col­lapsed, Vir­ginia Larzelere’s at­tor­ney Shirley Bates ar­gues.

“You have to convict them of what they were charged with,” Bates said in an in­ter­view. The mo­tion calls Vir­ginia Larzelere’s con­vic­tion un­con­sti­tu­tional and a “trav­esty of jus­tice.”

While Florida’s Supreme Court found that her con­vic­tion could be up­held even if her son was ac­quit­ted, the de­ci­sion said pros­e­cu­tors still had to prove Vir­ginia Larzelere com­mit­ted “some act that … as­sisted the per­son who killed Dr. Larzelere.”

Bates said the state failed to do that.

R.J. Larizza, the state at­tor­ney for the 7th Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit, which in­cludes Vo­lu­sia County, would not com­ment on the new fil­ing, be­cause it is still pend­ing.

Larzelere

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