Broward man wrongly imprisoned for 34 years could get $1.7M through new claims bill
Image via Innocence Project of Florida.

Holmes Innocence Project of Florida
He was sentenced to 400 years.

A Lauderhill man who spent 34 years behind bars for a crime investigators today agree he didn’t commit could receive more than $1.7 million in compensation through a bill recently filed for the 2024 Legislative Session.

It amounts to about $50,000 for each year he was incarcerated.

Sidney Holmes of Lauderhill was just 23 in April 1989, when a jury convicted him of armed robbery. The judge sentenced him to 400 years in prison — less than half the stretch the prosecution sought.

But findings by the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) under Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor determined it was “highly likely” Holmes was innocent and, if the case were tried today, he would not be charged.

To help make things right, Miami Gardens Sen. Shevrin Jones is sponsoring legislation (SB 6) to clear $1.72 million to Holmes, plus enough waived tuition for him to secure a bachelor’s degree or vocational certificate.

Holmes would be eligible to receive the money outright if not for a proviso unique to Florida called the “clean hands rule,” which denies payment to exonerees with more than one nonviolent felony conviction. Legislation to delete that restriction from state statutes unanimously passed in the Florida Senate in March before stalling on the House floor.

The only recourse for Holmes, who had two prior armed robbery convictions from 1984, is what is known as a claims bill or “relief act” like SB 6.

Claims bills are measures intended to compensate a person for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency. They arise when appropriate damages exceed what is allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity statute, which shields government entities from costly lawsuits, or are blocked under the clean hands rule.

Holmes was arrested Oct. 6, 1989, on suspicion of being one of three men who robbed a man and woman at gunpoint outside a Fort Lauderdale convenience store. No evidence tied him to the crime aside from the eyewitness accounts of the victims, Anissa Johnson and Vincent Wright, whose recollection of the incident the CRU deemed unreliable due to photo and live-lineup practices used then that today are not considered best practices.

Holmes was accused of being the driver in the robbery. A memo the CRU released recommending his release noted the driver in question never got out of the car and pulled up behind the vehicle Johnson and Wright were in.

Further muddying matters was a civilian investigation conducted shortly after the robbery by Wright’s brother, Milton, that resulted in Holmes being the only suspect in the case. It is now believed Holmes and his Oldsmobile, a common vehicle at the time, were both misidentified.

On April 26, 1989, Holmes was convicted of armed robbery. Because of his previous felony convictions, prosecutor Peter Magrino requested that Holmes be sentenced to 825 years in prison. Holmes received an even 400.

In the three and a half decades that followed, Holmes maintained he was innocent. In November 2020, shortly after Pryor launched the CRU, Holmes contacted the unit to plea his case. CRU investigators got to work alongside the Innocence Project of Florida and ultimately concluded Holmes should be released.

Johnson and Vincent agreed, telling CRU investigators that even if he was guilty, he’d more than paid his due. They and the original detectives on the case expressed shock at the sentence he received.

On Feb. 23, 2023, the CRU issued a 25-page memo recommending Holmes’ judgment and sentence be vacated and that the State Attorney’s Office should dismiss the charges against him.

“We have one rule here at the Broward State Attorney’s Office — do the right thing, always,” Pryor said about a month later. “As prosecutors, our agenda is to promote public safety in our community and to ensure justice is served.”

The 11th Judicial Circuit Court issued an agreed order to vacate judgment and sentence of Holmes March 13, 2023, with concurrence from the state, on the basis of reasonable doubt. The order stated “it is highly likely that (Holmes) was misidentified and is factually innocent of the armed robbery.”

That same day, the state filed a notice of nolle prosequi, a formal dismissal of charges by the prosecution, and Holmes was freed on Broward Circuit Judge Edward Merrigan’s order.

“I never lost hope and always knew this day would come” Holmes said that day. “I cannot wait to hug my mother in the free world for the first time in 34 years.”

Holmes’ exoneration follows that of Leonard Cure in 2020. They are the only two people so far to have their sentences overturned as a result of the CRU and Innocence Project’s efforts.

Since 1989, there have been 86 people in Florida whose convictions were later deemed wrongful, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. One is Robert Earl DuBoise, a Tampa man whom lawmakers agreed to pay $1.85 million for the 37 years he was incarcerated — after two years of prior legislative attempts.

Florida Politics contacted Jones for comment but received none by press time.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

One comment

  • Dont Say FLA

    August 10, 2023 at 9:28 pm

    Good thing Rhonda was an actual 6 year old when this man went to prison. Had Rhonda been Gov at that time, this fellow likely would have incurred the death penalty after 6 MAGAs agreed, “He definitely did it. Just look at him.”

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