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Jerry Townsend

Other Florida Exonerations
In 1980 and 1982, Jerry Frank Townsend was convicted of six murders and one rape in South Florida. He was sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences. Nearly 20 years later, in 2001, he was exonerated for these crimes by DNA evidence that identified the real assailant.

The cases in Broward County and Miami-Dade County are closely intertwined. This summary and related coding is for the Broward Cases, which resulted in four wrongful convictions for murder. The companion summary and coding for two wrongful convictions for murder and a separate wrongful conviction for sexual assault in Miami-Dade are here.

In 1979, Townsend was 27 years old and working for a Miami equipment company. On September 5, a woman named Pilbyan Beckford reported she had been sexually assaulted in Miami. She and two witnesses identified Townsend, who was a block away, and he was arrested by Officer Bruce Roberson.

Beckford’s assault had occurred in the same vicinity as the murder three days earlier of 44-year-old Wanda Varga, which Roberson was also investigating. While transporting Townsend to the Miami Police Department, Roberson contacted his partner, Officer James Boone, to arrange for Townsend to be interviewed in that case. Separately, Boone compared Townsend to a police sketch of a suspect said to be involved in multiple rapes in Fort Lauderdale, in Broward County. Roberson contacted several officers in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, including Anthony Fantigrassi and Mark Schlein, to arrange for additional interviews.

From September 6 through September 10, Boone, Roberson, Fantigrassi, and Schlein interviewed Townsend. They stopped the tape recording of the interview at various times, either to coach Townsend or to prevent exculpatory statements from being recorded. During breaks in the recording, they took Townsend to the various crime scenes in the two counties, showed him pictures, and provided him with information about the crimes in order to assist him with retelling those stories on tape.

Townsend had been born in Mississippi and had also lived in Arkansas before moving to Florida when he was 16. He had dropped out of school in the fifth grade, when he was already 14 years old. He was intellectually disabled, with an IQ of 58, and his attorneys would later argue that he was particularly susceptible to the officer’s coercion.

Many of the details that Townsend provided were incorrect, including inaccurate races and ages of some victims. In one interview on September 9, Townsend told police that he killed three women in orange groves near Tampa, claiming he strangled two and cut the throat of the third. The next day, Townsend told the detectives that he shot all three women.

By the end of the fourth day, Townsend had implicated himself in 20 homicides in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and San Francisco, California. Townsend told the officers that the women he killed were all prostitutes and he intended to help rid the world of them. Townsend was recorded saying that if he got out of jail, “you all going to have to come and get me again,” because he would do the same thing upon release.

Prosecutors did not pursue most of the murders that Townsend “confessed” to because there was evidence that he could not have committed them. But based on his statements, Townsend was indicted with the rapes and murders of Thelma Jean Bell, Barbara Ann Brown, Terry Cummings, Naomi Gamble, Ernestine German, Sonja Marion, and Cathy Moore in Fort Lauderdale.

He was also indicted on the rapes and murders of Varga and 17-year-old Dorothy Gibson as well as the sexual assault of Beckford in Miami-Dade County. No physical evidence linked Townsend to any of the crimes.

The Broward County victims were all found partially nude or nude from the waist down and were concentrated in Northwest Fort Lauderdale.

Three of the murders had taken place in the summer of 1973. The body of Thelma Jean Bell, who was 20 years old, was discovered June 29, 1973. The body of 15-year-old Naomi Gamble was found July 20, 1973, seven blocks from where Bell was killed. The body of 21-year-old Barbara Brown, who was reportedly a friend of Bell’s, was found in the hallway of an apartment building on August 26, 1973.

The others occurred in 1979. Ernestine German, who was 23 years old, was killed near the intersection of NW 27th Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard on July 9, 1979. The body of Sonja Marion, who was 13 years old and the youngest victim, was found in a shed on the campus of Dillard High School in northwest Fort Lauderdale on July 27, 1979. The body of Terry Cummings, who was 21 years old, was found on August 7, 1979, in an abandoned home near the high school. The body of 24-year-old Cathy Moore was discovered on August 24, 1979, on the shore of a small lake a few blocks away from the high school.

Townsend went to trial in Broward County Circuit Court on the Gamble, Brown, and Bell cases in 1980. The jury heard the taped “confessions” obtained during his four days of interviews, and prosecutors also said that during this period Townsend had led officers to the Gamble and Brown crime scenes. He had been unable to show police the place where Bell’s body had been discovered.

The State also argued that police tested Townsend’s credibility by taking him to scenes of crimes they knew he did not commit, and Townsend denied any knowledge of them. On July 31, 1980, a jury found Townsend guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of Gamble and Brown. The jury acquitted him of murder in Bell’s death. Townsend received two consecutive sentences of life in prison.

Townsend appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by allowing the State to introduce evidence of six additional homicides and two assaults that Townsend was said to have confessed to. The Florida Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions on September 8, 1982, ruling that these additional crimes were similar enough to the crimes at trial to make them relevant evidence.

Following the appellate loss, Townsend pled no contest to the Moore and Cummings murders on October 4, 1982. He received two additional life sentences to run concurrently with the earlier sentences. In exchange for the pleas, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Townsend for the deaths of German and Marion.

On December 6, 1982, Townsend pled guilty to two counts of murder in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court to the Virga and Gibson murders and sexual battery in the assault on Beckford.

Because Townsend’s convictions classified him as a sex offender, his prison visitations were severely limited. He was barred from visiting with his daughter.

In 1998, Detective John Curcio with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department began reviewing Marion’s case, spurred on by the victim’s mother. Curcio submitted for testing a DNA sample found on Marion’s clothing. In 2000, the testing company found the genetic material consistent with the DNA of a man named Eddie Lee Mosley.

Mosley’s DNA had already been found consistent with genetic samples for seven murders in Fort Lauderdale between 1973 and 1987, including the murder of Shandra Whitehead. Frank Lee Smith had been convicted in Whitehead’s death in 1986 and would be posthumously exonerated in 2000. After being declared incompetent to stand trial, Mosley was involuntarily committed to a Florida psychiatric hospital in 1988 and died in 2020.

After the discovery of DNA consistent with Mosley’s in the Marion case, prosecutors asked law enforcement in Broward County to reopen all the cases in which Townsend, Mosley, and Smith were suspects. The state conceded that Townsend was entitled to new trials because his involvement in Marion’s death had been used to convict him of the other crimes.

On April 27, 2001, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne said that DNA testing showed that Townsend was not involved in the deaths of Gamble in 1973 or Cummings in 1979. The DNA results tied the deaths of both women to Mosley. Jenne said that there was either insufficient or no genetic material to test in the Bell, Brown, German, and Moore cases.

The Broward County State Attorney’s Office moved to vacate Townsend’s convictions in the Gamble and Cummings cases. A judge granted that motion on April 30, 2001. On May 15, 2001, separate motions to vacate Townsend’s convictions in the Brown and Moore cases were also granted.

Miami-Dade County vacated Townsend’s convictions in the Virga, Gibson, and Beckford cases on June 15, 2001. Townsend was released from prison the next day.

Jenne visited Townsend before his release and apologized for his agency’s part in his wrongful convictions. Jenne also announced that he was reviewing the methods Broward detectives used in cases involving suspects with intellectual disabilities. Townsend filed a civil rights lawsuit against Broward County and the city of Miami, which was settled in 2009 for $4.2 million.

In November 2020, authorities in Miami said that Samuel Little, considered the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history, had confessed to Gibson’s murder. Little has claimed responsibility for nearly 100 murders.

– Jolie Pringle

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 5/30/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1979
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes