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Former Charleston baseball player released from prison on rape charges faces new allegations of human trafficking in Florida

TAMPA, Fla. — A former Charleston Wheelers player who had his rape convictions overturned after serving more than 25 years in prison is being held on a $500,000 bond at a Florida jail on new charges of human trafficking.

Jimmie Gardner (Hillsborough County, FL Sheriff)

Jimmie Gardner, 57, was in court Saturday after being arrested a day before in Tampa for allegedly inviting a 16-year-old girl back to his hotel room and offering the girl money in exchange for sex, which she initially agreed to before changing her mind.

Police said Gardner reportedly became angry and told the girl she needed to leave the hotel room, which sparked a verbal argument that quickly became physical when Gardner started choking her.

Gardner was wrongly convicted in the 1987 sexual assault of a Kanawha City woman and beating of her 82-year-old mother. The late Kanawha County Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib sentenced Gardner to 110 years in prison.

State Police crime lab boss Fred Zain was a critical expert witness for the state during Gardner’s trial. Zain was later discredited for falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions in Gardner’s case and 100 other cases that were reopened. Zain was charged with fraud but died in 2002.

Gardner was released from jail in April 2016 after his family posted bond on his renewed charges.

Just days before Gardner was set to be retried in Sept. 2016, Kanawha County prosecutors dropped the charges saying their case against Gardner wasn’t strong enough to present to a jury because former police officers and witnesses couldn’t recall important details from 30 years ago.

In the years after his release, Gardner became an advocate for criminal justice reform and inmate rights and often spoke in Tampa. In 2018, he married federal judge Leslie Abrams Gardner, the sister of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and Democratic activist Stacey Abrams.

Gardner is currently being held at the Orient Road Jail in Tampa.

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