Woman on death row fighting coronavirus
Fought her murder-for-hire conviction since 1992
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
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.