Clearing Larry Floyd
Did His Police Officer Father Wrongfully Convict Him?
BY GARY DONATELLI
Larry Floyd claims that as a teenager he was coerced into a murder confession by the first black police officer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
That officer was also his own father, Lawrence “Junior” Floyd.
After serving 10 years of his murder sentence in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman prison, Larry made a daring escape in 1991, leading to a classic manhunt in the pouring rain with dogs, horses, 4x4s, searchlights, helicopters, and a lot of angry corrections officers.
The beating he sustained by more than 20 of those officers after his capture nearly killed Larry—an attack that prompted an FBI investigation into the brutal conditions inside the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Larry, miraculously, survived and has even lived to tell his story—after spending nearly a quarter century in prison.
While Larry’s case helped prompt reforms, his father was a different kind of civil rights pioneer. Different eras, similar struggles.
Lawrence “Junior” Floyd: A Complicated Man in Changing Times
Hattiesburg, Mississippi is just 27 miles southwest of Laurel, a town considered Ground Zero for the third resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. Junior Floyd was hired in 1965 as an “Officer Friendly” by the Hattiesburg Police Department in reaction to the violence that forced-integration had sparked all over the South, but especially in Mississippi.
According to Larry, although Junior was involved in the arresting of black citizens, he also gained a great deal of power in the black community. “He was hired as a community cop to establish relations with people,” Larry explains. “He was very good at that and people trusted and loved him.”
It was also stressful. Junior was essentially the last black face that black folks in trouble with the law would deal with–before they’d have to contend with the white criminal justice system. And no one in the black community wanted that.
Lawrence “Junior” Floyd was eventually promoted to captain with the Hattiesburg, Mississippi Police Department.
“Becoming a black police officer in Hattiesburg in the early 1960s, especially the first black police officer, was more than just a small step forward for civil rights,” explains Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Stevenson continues, “It was a radical transition of the Southern society. The Floyd family became part of that radicalism, just by the act of their father putting on that police uniform. You cannot underestimate what a provocation that was, for an African- American to now represent the community with the lethal force and violence and identity that law enforcement represented in the Deep South.”
Tension in Hattiesburg at that time was understandably very high, and Junior was feeling it, particularly after one night when he was forced to detain and arrest a white person for the first time, because no white police backup arrived.
Bonnie Jean Best Smith, former two-time president of the Hattiesburg NAACP, knew Junior and his wife Lucille very well. Junior often came to Bonnie’s husband, a local doctor, to talk things out when he was troubled. “He was the first one to arrest a white person and that could have cost him his life,” she says.
“What the police chief wanted him (Junior) to do was go out there (in the black community) and be a ‘legal beating person’—(it was) brutality,” Smith explains. “He had to fight the orders. Most of the (black) officers didn’t stick and stay, but he stayed. He was tough enough to stand up and weather the storm, and work it out. You know, it was hard for him. I admired him. He was a firm man, and sometimes your family sees you in a different way.”
That’s a tricky part of the story. Folks admired Junior, a lot of folks, even son Larry. “I was proud of who my father was, I was proud to be his son,” he says, “and I always wanted to be like him when I grew up, in spite of everything he had done to me.”
So why then would a man like Junior arrest his son Larry for a murder so many people believed the son did not commit? And how much more is there to this story?
“The first time he hit me he got away with it”
Lucille Floyd, reflecting on her husband Junior Floyd, says, “The first time he hit me he got away with it.” She pauses and continues, “The third time he hit me I hit him back. When we got married it picked up…. he would get stressed from his job…it didn’t make it OK, what he did to me.”
Lucille had 14 children with Junior, including Larry. “Trying to take care of all those children, take care of him…keep his clothes clean, food fixed every day, I did my job he did his…He had other girlfriends, he would never admit it to me, children would tell me, nothing I could do about it. What he gonna do, he gonna do. I was always tired ‘cause I’d go to bed at 9 get up at 4:30…”
“Never was sick, all the time having babies,” she laughs, “ain’t never had no problems with that.”
Larry says, “My father was very abusive toward my mother. Out of all the kids I was the one who would defend her. When I became a teenager and could fight (him) it got worse. I just wasn’t going to stand by and let him abuse my mother anymore. I got tired of seeing her with black eyes and bloody lips. I got to the point where I wanted to kill him.”
According to Larry and family members, one night when Junior came home drunk (as he often did), Larry pulled out a knife in anger. As his brother Tony and his mother tried to get him to drop it, Junior pulled out his service revolver and fired shots at a fleeing Larry. “A bullet hit the mailbox,” Larry says. As Junior jumped into his squad car in pursuit of his son, Lucille and Larry’s sister Valerie got into the family station wagon to, hopefully, locate him first. They did.
“We found Larry and told him to go, and that’s what Larry did,” says Valerie. Lucille called her sister Pat in Las Vegas, and Aunt Pat arranged for Larry to catch a bus to come out and live with her.
The Murder That Changed Everything
Around that time in the late 1970s, Junior was under a lot of pressure to solve the murder of a white man, W.C. Sibley, at the West Pine Street Liquor Store. A group comprised of members of local government, law enforcement and business owners from the white community, known as the Citizens’ Council, posted a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the armed robber who shot and killed Sibley.
A witness had said he saw a young black man in a maroon stocking cap running across the parking lot. Another found an open cash register in the store and Sibley on the floor with a severe head wound, but still alive. He died eight days later. The heat was on to find the responsible party.
For whatever reason, Junior went with a couple of officers to the home of Mack Adams looking for Larry. Mack was a childhood friend of Lucille who lived alone. At different times since Larry was 11 he would occasionally stay with Mack out in the country when he and Junior couldn’t get along.
“He came when his daddy had put him out,” Mack says. “Told him to leave so when he left he came to me. I had him for about two and a half, three years.” Then when Larry was 15 Junior came and took him home.
“One day his daddy came back and told me, ‘I want him back,’ so I had to turn him loose, let him go. He said he’d lock me up if I didn’t because Larry was under age then, so he went on back home.”
Junior had probably figured Larry came to Mack’s after the bullet in the mailbox incident.
The night of the liquor store shooting Mack remembers, “It came on the news, and after that he (Junior) was here and we had the whole house surrounded. I said, ‘He’s not here, you remember you came and got him.’ He said Larry had killed somebody.”
“I just figured he didn’t do it,” Mack says. “His daddy said he did, said they wanted him, saying ‘We gonna get him.’ And after that he went away.”
Imagine what was going on in Junior’s head at that time, a man with a wife and 14 kids, including one that wanted to kill him (not to mention a girlfriend across town with two more kids), and the chief breathing down his neck for an arrest.
Whether he did it to neutralize a threat, to please the chief, or because he really believed Larry did it, Junior had Larry arrested in Las Vegas where he eventually found him working and living with his aunt; Junior escorted Larry back to the Forrest County, Mississippi Jail.
Larry Confesses, is Convicted, and Sentenced
Although 16-year-old Larry wasn’t in town at the time of the crime and there was no evidence to tie him to the murder, he says he trusted his father’s advice and signed a guilty plea.
According to Larry, “When I get to his office I’m sitting there with my father, I’m crying, I’m asking my father ‘what’s going on, you know I haven’t did anything.’ He told me ‘Shut up, you know you did it.’
“He tells me, ‘Just sign this. Trust me. I’m going to get you out of this here.’ So I signed what he told me to sign. I didn’t know what it was. My father said, ‘Well, you did a good job. Here’s what you do, you go to prison, you stay in there two years, you keep your mouth shut. Stay out of trouble and I promise I’ll have you back home’.”
Larry Floyd is photographed on his way into Parchment Prison.
The promise of just two years behind bars never came to be. At age 18, Larry was convicted of being an accomplice in the store robbery. As he understood it, he received two sentences, each for ten years, to be served concurrently (meaning only 10 years in all). But on the day he was supposed to be released, it was discovered that the judge’s actual sentencing order was for two non-concurrent 10-year sentences—20 years!
Disappointment turned to frustration and outrage, prompting Larry’s daring escape. With the help of a smitten female prison guard who lent him her clothes and gave him keys to a vehicle, Larry dressed up as a woman and managed to drive right out of the prison yard. Clever as it was, he drove too fast and crashed; the prison manhunt ended a day later with Larry’s re-capture and severe beating.
Larry spent the next 10 years in solitary confinement, a place where he somehow managed to begin forgiving his father. The hatred, he says, was eating him up inside.
But was Larry really guilty?
Does a teenager who experiences domestic abuse, and then fights back, keep that rage inside the family? Or does it prompt him to take it outside the home? More to the point, did Larry? There were whispers around the community that some people thought Larry must have been involved in the murder; why else would Junior have arrested him? But there were also whispers that said otherwise.
Larry’s sister Sheila, an independent business woman and longtime supporter of Larry, says, “I’ve been a beautician for years, and I have old clients who said, ‘Your brother didn’t do that, everybody knows that, but they had to pin it on somebody.’ Back then people had a lot of fear for their lives, so that kept a lot of people from talking. There are a lot of secrets in Mississippi. I think if a lot of people had spoken up that back then, then he wouldn’t have been in prison. He’s my inspiration now, because if you’re a murderer, you’ll come out of there filled with hatred in your heart, and every time you talk to Larry he’s smiling, he’s got this aura, and other people see it too.”
John Hailman, an author, professor and former state prosecutor who devoted more than 20 pages of his book, From Midnight To Guntown, to Larry’s story, observes, “I am a prosecutor, I am not pro-prisoner…I am cynical after all these years, but I have noticed that when people who are innocent are convicted, and there are instances when (innocent) people are convicted, they serve 20 years, and this shocks me. When they get out, it’s amazing how little they’re bitter, and they have not become criminals after they are locked up. A criminal is a criminal, if he goes to prison it just gets worse, but these honest people who get convicted, I am always amazed at how forgiving they are.”
Larry was finally released from prison in 2001, and has always maintained his innocence.
Since then, the Mississippi Innocence Project (MIP) has taken an interest in Larry’s case. Its investigation could lead to proof of coercion in how his confession came about, but more importantly, it has brought a chance for closure, and possible exoneration for Larry.
Tucker Carrington, Larry Floyd, and members of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law work on Larry’s case.
But it could take a while. ”These cases can take years to develop, and then because of the pace of the courts it can be years litigating the case,” says MIP’s Tucker Carrington. “I hope that’s not the situation we find ourselves in with Mr. Floyd. One way or the other, I think this case needs closure.”
“It’s important to me because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with a label on top of my head and chains on my ankles you can’t see but are still there,” says Larry. ”I don’t want to go to my grave as a convict.”
Today, Larry continues to rebuild his life. When he first got out, he worked for several years as a security guard. He said at the time, “I think the reason I’m in this uniform today is that when I was a kid my father was my role model, my hero. My father was cool and everybody in the community liked him and respected him, and I wanted that.”
Lieutenant Charles Mercer of the Hattiesburg Police Department met Larry after Larry called police for assistance one day. “Larry is definitely a good man, and it doesn’t matter what uniform you wear–security, sheriff or police–we all work together for a common goal and that’s to make sure of the safety of the citizens nearby. He didn’t do (act) like other security guards in the past and call for our assistance and run off. He stayed right there and helped take care of a situation and got the job done.”
After getting out of prison, Larry Floyd worked as a security guard in Hattiesburg.
Larry explained, “After being in prison 25 years, security’s been instilled in me. I’ve been in security all this time, what else would I know how to do? I know things to look for. I don’t think there’s an officer out here who knows a criminal better than me.”
Inside his home, Larry keeps one possession close—his father’s Hattiesburg Police Department captain’s shield. “When my dad died my mom gave me this,” he says.
“She said my father told her to give me his shield. I’m not sure why he gave it to me. He never apologized to me. Maybe it was his way, I don’t know…he gave me his shield. How could a dad do that?”
Gary Donatelli and Larry Floyd during a shoot for the upcoming documentary, Clearing Larry Floyd.
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