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Charges dropped against Florida inmate after 16 years on death row

Rudolph Holton
Rudolph Holton

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RAIFORD, Florida (CNN) -- After spending 16 years on Florida's death row Rudolph Holton was expected to be a free man sometime Friday.

Holton was expected to be released sometime Friday afternoon after local prosecutors decided they did not have enough evidence to retry him for the 1986 murder of a Tampa-area teenager.

"Due to the unreliability of witness testimony and the lack of physical evidence, the state of Florida cannot proceed to trial," prosecutors said in a statement released Friday.

Holton, 49, was convicted in 1986 of raping and killing Katrina Graddy, a 17-year-old prostitute, and then setting her on fire in an abandoned drug house.

About 10 days before she was murdered, Graddy had told police another man had raped her. The police report with that accusation was withheld from Holton's attorney until March 2001, nearly 15 years after Holton's trial, Holton's defense attorneys said.

Because of that error, the state Supreme Court ruled in December that Holton deserved a new trial, upholding a November 2001 decision by a judge.

Martin McClain, the attorney representing Holton, cited other problems with the case. For instance, a hair in Graddy's mouth that prosecutors said came from Holton was later tested and found to be Graddy's.

Florida Circuit Court Judge Daniel Perry overturned Holton's conviction "because critical evidence had been withheld from the jury that convicted Holton," said a statement from Holton's defense attorneys.

"(Holton's) case went before a Circuit Court and the Circuit Court ordered a new trial," said Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey. "The state's attorney's office decided not to retry the case."

Holton becomes the second person to be released from Florida's death row in about a year. Juan Melendez walked out of prison a free man last January after he won a new trial and prosecutors declined to try him again. In December 2000, DNA evidence cleared death row inmate Frank Lee Smith of a 1985 murder. But it was too late for Smith, who had died of cancer 11 months earlier.

Defense attorney McClain is a member of Florida attorneys' group called Capital Collateral Regional Counsel-North, which contends that Florida's capital punishment system is "plagued by error."

According to CCRC-N, Holton is the 23rd Florida death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973 and the fourth "in the last 25 months."

But Hillsborough County's prosecuting attorney, Mark Ober disputes that claim because of the term "exoneration."

"I quarrel with that choice of words," he said.

"We're simply not in a position ethically to go forward," Ober told CNN. "That does not equate with Mr. Holton's being innocent -- no, it does not."

Nationally, Holton is the 103rd person freed from state death rows since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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