© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Director, Advocates Push Freedom For The So-Called 'Houdini of Florida'


This Wednesday 51 people will get a hearing before the Florida Parole Commission. But only one of them is the subject of a documentary.

The majority of the people going before what was the Florida Parole Commission are violent offenders. Their crimes include sexual assaults, murder and attempted murder, burglary with a weapon, aggravated stalking and assault. Then, there’s Mark DeFriest.

 “I know a lot of secret prison crafts. Weapons, locks and keys, stashes, all sorts of shit.  My prison file is two-and-a-half feet thick. It reads like a 007 novel.”

That's an excerpt from a documentary film about DeFriest that has aired in several film festivals this year.

Many of the articles published about DeFriest have highlighted his history of escaping from prison. According to a documentary about his life, he’s managed to escape 13 times since being originally locked up in 1980. He ran from police when they tried to question him about his theft of tolls that were willed to him by his deceased father. The will was contested at the time.

“Mark, in an 18 month period escaped from ACI, Florida State Hospital, Bay County Jail from there different cells, Leon County Jail," says Gabriel London, the director of the film, "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest." 

London along with DeFriest’s wife and his attorney teamed up with the psychologist whose original assessment of DeFriest at the time helped ensure his conviction. All are now pushing to now get him released.  That psychologist has now joined several others who believe DeFriest he has an undiagnosed mental illness.

“Mark is a brilliant mechanical mind and I think that’s what the film is all about," London says. "Here is a brilliant person with no social skills. He’s a funny person, but he doesn’t know when to stop telling the same joke.”

What started as a four-year prison sentence now stretched to more than 34 years and counting. Much of that time has been served in solitary confinement, where DeFriest says he’s been beaten, raped, tortured. His current sentence stems from an escape from the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee—where he manufactured a pop gun using a tube of toothpaste and stuck up a guard as he fled. He was charged with escape and attempted murder and received a life sentence as re-enacted in the documentary.

That sentence was vacated in 1995.

DeFriest’s pattern of defiance and disciplinary problems inside prison have pushed his parole date to 2085--past the point he’s scheduled to get out of prison in 2035. At that point he’d be 75 years old and will have served most his life locked up. From 1981 through 1999 he accrued more than 200 rule violations. London says DeFriest hasn’t had any infractions in two years and his supporters hope to get his parole date drastically reduced. The next attempt will be Wednesday, when a panel of the Florida Parole Commission takes up DeFriest’s case again. The last time the panel met IN 2012 it extended the parole date due to two infractions DeFriest received.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.