Gary Donatelli, a seven-time Emmy Award winning director and cameraman, hopes to clear the name of Hattiesburg native Larry Floyd with his new grassroots documentary project, “Clearing Larry Floyd.”
At age 16, Floyd was wrongfully indicted for murder and forced to spend nearly 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary after his own father forced him to sign a guilty plea.
“He said, ‘Just sign this and trust me,’” Floyd said in the film. “I signed what he told me to sign. I didn’t know what it was.”
Floyd’s father, Junior Floyd, was Hattiesburg’s first black police officer. He was a powerful and well-respected hero in the black community, but Floyd knew him to be an alcoholic who regularly engaged in domestic violence.
Nevertheless, Floyd looked up to Junior and aspired to be just as successful. When Junior told him to sign a guilty plea and assured him that he would have to spend only two years in jail before he would be allowed to return home, Floyd trusted that his father knew what he was doing.
After 30 years behind bars, a grisly escape attempt and a decade in solitary confinement later, Floyd was paroled thanks to a letter writing campaign that reached more than 150 politicians. Since then, he has worked two jobs to make ends meet, raised a family and served the community as a security guard. Nevertheless, he remains a paroled criminal and a convicted murderer.
Donatelli hopes to change that through his documentary, which explores Floyd’s dramatic story and advocates for his exoneration and complete restoration of citizenship through gubernatorial pardon from Gov. Phil Bryant.
“I was initially brought to Larry’s story by a former student I had mentored who was part of a group trying to put together a motion picture based on Larry’s life story,” Donatell said. “The film fell apart, but I met (Floyd) at that time and was very taken by the fact that (Floyd) and his family were so adamant that he was not guilty of the crime he spent 24 years in prison for.”
Donatelli was also surprised by the weight the Floyd family name carries in Hattiesburg, particularly in black communities. Floyd himself is well aware of that weight.
“To me, freedom is exonerating my name,” Floyd said. “If I die today, I will be dying as a convict. I don’t want to die like that. I want my name cleared, because that’s the only way that I can ever be free.”
As part of the movement, he regularly speaks at various campuses, NAACP meetings, churches and youth boot camps. Earlier this semester, he spoke to Honors College students at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Stacey Ready, Honors College assistant to the dean, said she helped Donatelli find students to assist with the project.
“We met Larry and heard his story firsthand and got to know him as the humble, kind and sweet person that he is,” Ready said.
Donatelli contacted Ready last summer because he knew he wanted to film in Hattiesburg. Ready was eager to help and immediately found several willing students. Among them, junior kinesiotherapy major Shelby Auer volunteered to help with the movement after she was brought to tears listening to Floyd tell his story.
“With everything this man had been through, he still had faith,” Auer said. “All he was asking was for our help so that he could clear his name.”
Auer spread information about the movement on social media and even wrote a small portion of Larry’s clemency application.
“What (Donatelli) was doing sounded ground-breaking,” she said. “It was something I wanted to be a part of. I think this is something local that a lot of people still don’t know about and should be aware of because it is happening right in their backyard.”
Through his involvement in the project as an Honors College ambassador, sophomore biochemistry major Sam Gearhart said he was exposed to “an injustice that we can all help right.”
He said, “I am happy to be a part of the project because I know I am helping make a difference in a life that was wrongly taken away from someone who has proven himself to be an upstanding citizen.”
Donatelli and Floyd are actively searching for signatures on their “Petition for Justice” to Gov. Bryant. The petition can be viewed and signed on http:// www.clearinglarryfloyd.org, the movement’s official website