Fla. parole commission gives 'prison Houdini' hope

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A man known as a "prison Houdini" might finally see freedom after more than 35 years — this time without an elaborate escape.

Florida's parole commission voted Wednesday to move Mark DeFriest's potential release date from 2085 to March 2015 in a case his lawyer calls a family matter that got out of hand.

DeFriest's father died when he was 19 and left him his mechanic tools. But DeFriest didn't wait for the will to be read before collecting them, using a key he had to his father's shed. His stepmother reported him to the police, and when they questioned him about it, he ran. It didn't help that he had a gun, though he never pulled it.

Once in prison, DeFriest kept trying to escape and succeeded seven times in 13 attempts. He was able to memorize the pattern on guards' keys and duplicate them with paper. He crafted makeshift guns from materials he found in prison. He was able to climb over razor wire. In one escape he stole a car and broke into a friend's home. More and more years were tacked onto his sentence until he essentially would have to be well over 100 before he was released.

"Mark is not a violent person, has never hurt anybody. He's been his own worst enemy in jail by escaping and committing some crimes," lawyer John Middleton told the Commission on Offender Review.

DeFriest was the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Gabriel London, who also addressed the commission. Middleton and London believe DeFriest is high functioning autistic and call him a genius. They say his mental health issues contributed to his inability to follow prison rules and argued that his crimes don't match the punishment received.

DeFriest still has time he has to serve for violations in other states' prisons. He has been kept in out-of-state prisons since 1999 for his own safety after witnessing guards beat another Florida State Prison inmate to death.

Middleton is working to have the remaining sentences reduced or dropped. He said in a best case scenario, DeFriest will be free sometime next year. At worst, sometime in 2018.


Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington .

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