© 2022 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Florida's First Death Row Exonoree Who Recently Passed Away Is Remembered

Witness To Innocence
David Keaton, Florida and the nation's first death row exonoree

The memorial service for David Keaton is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at New Bethel AME Church in Quincy. He’s Florida’s first death row exonoree in the modern era who recently passed away—who’s also known as the nation’s first man to be exonerated from death row.

“I was afraid. I mean they would go in there and beat you up, mess you up, hang you up…no one would ever hear anything about you again. And, I said okay, to prevent all that, I’m going go ahead and confess to the crime. I know I’m telling the truth,” said actor Danny Glover, quoting a line from “The Exonerated.”

“The Exonerated” is a movie that also has a play adaption about six death row inmates who were later found to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of committing.  Glover played the role of David Keaton, who after several days of interrogation confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.

At the age of 18, Keaton was arrested and convicted of killing an off-duty law enforcement officer during a robbery at a convenience store. The real Keaton says he ended up spending two years on death row, before prosecutors realized the mistake.

“I didn’t spend as much time as a lot of guys on death row because back in the early 1970s, I was like only 19 when I went to prison and was sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit,” said Keaton. “It was pretty hard because I couldn’t believe the police officers and everybody, the district attorney, didn’t really delve into my case to find out if I was really innocent. But, I couldn’t believe that they would sentence an innocent man to prison.”

Keaton is speaking in a youtube video in 2011 on the Witness to Innocence page. It’s an organization he helped found and he was heavily involved that brings together those exonerated all over the nation to help put an end to the death penalty.

“And, it didn’t really dawn on me until much later that I was actually on death row, and that’s when I broke out in tears,” added Keaton. “A grown man crying…I mean, men don’t cry, but I actually broke down and started crying that I was crying. I probably wouldn’t see my family anymore—even though they came down to visit—it was just the fact that one day, I’m going to die for something that I didn’t do.”

He said he knows what it’s like to be on death row, and feel hopeless.

“It was a horrible experience,” continued Keaton. “Locked up 24 hours a day. Sometimes in the afternoon, I used to crumble in the corner of my cell trying to get the last glimpse of sunlight because we would never go out in the yard, maybe once a month. It was something that I had to try and get myself used to.”

And, he said it was his faith in God and the encouragement from his family that kept hope alive for him.

“It was definitely hard, but eventually everything came out okay,” concluded Keaton. “I was eventually exonerated on that charge. That was the greatest feeling that I had to come out of prison.”

On July 3rd, at the age of 63, Keaton died in his Quincy home. He’d had some health problems in the last years of his life.

Mark Elliott says Keaton should have never been in prison in the first place. Elliott, the Director of the Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, has also worked with Keaton in the past. Elliott says he remembers Keaton as a soft-spoken, gentle, and nice man.

“And, everybody who met him and interacted with him said what a nice man,” said Elliott. ”What a nice human being. He was very creative. He struggled financially. The state of Florida never paid him one dime for the years he spent on death row for a crime he did not commit. So, he essentially lived in poverty, struggled mowing lawns and doing odd jobs and so forth to survive, and he eventually became disabled.”

An opponent of Florida’s executions, Elliott says there’s a component of the death penalty that people never talk about that relates to Keaton’s situation.

“There has never been a white person executed for the killing of an African American in the history of our state, going back to territorial days,” added Elliott. “And, that really speaks volumes about what the truth is behind how the death penalty is applied and to whom it’s applied to. Of the 25 people exonerated off of Florida’s death row, 80 percent are people of color. That again speaks to the reality behind it, the discrimination, the lack of fairness, and the equanimity of how it’s applied.”

In Keaton’s case, Elliott says he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that one of the three drugs used in Oklahoma Executions called midazolam is not “cruel and unusual punishment,” as lawyers representing death row inmates had claimed. It’s the same drug used in Florida executions—which caused the process to be halted. But, last month, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi recently asked the Florida Supreme Court to vacate the stay in the case of Jerry Correll, whose slated to be the next death row inmate put to death.

“You know the number of executions nationally has fallen to its lowest level in decades, and yet in Florida, it’s speeded up,” said Elliott. “It’s at a record setting pace now…it’s….For some reason, Florida is taking a different direction.”

If the stay is vacated, Correll could be the 22nd inmate executed under Governor Rick Scott—one more than the 21 that occurred under former Governor Jeb Bush’s two terms in office. Bush’s 21 death warrants has been the all-time record for a Florida Governor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.