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Friday, August 24, 2012

The Day God Died

By C. Michael Lambrix
July 2012

Never thought a common barnyard turkey would cause me to question my faith but there I was that last week of November 1988 watching a small T.V. through the bars of my cage as President Reagan proudly performed his time honored traditional ceremony of formally “pardoning” a big, white turkey there on the meticulously manicured front lawn of the White House, and yet all the while that big dumb bird just stood there completely oblivious to how the hands of fate had spared him an almost certain fate and he would be whisked away to live happily ever after on a farm in upstate New York.  Ignorance truly is bliss and that was one blissful turkey.

The irony of this is that as I watched this spectacle unfold, there I sat in a solitary cell on the bottom floor of “Q-wing” at Florida State Prison only feet away from the solid steel door that led into that chamber where ole Sparky awaited.  I was to be executed that following Wednesday, November 30 and unlike that lucky bird, there would be no hope for that last minute pardon as the politics of death eliminated any possibility of clemency.

I thought a lot about that turkey over the following days, even when I feasted on one of its brethren when they brought me my holiday meal.  Time is a funny thing.  Mostly when we look ahead, anxiously awaiting a particular event, time drags on forever…but not on Death Watch.  Each time I looked at the clock on the wall, it seemed like too much time had already passed and with each tick that clock pushed me that much closer to my final fate.

Before I knew it, there were no more days and the final 24-hour countdown was upon me.  Early the morning of that last full day the warden came down, pulled up a chair in front of my cell and even offered me a cup of coffee.  Then, with what seemed like genuine concern, the old man asked me how I was doing.  I didn’t expect that and I didn’t really know how to answer.  I had known Warden Tom Barton for a few years and never thought of him as a friend.

But there I sat face to face, separated only by a wall of steel bars as the warden proceeded to patiently explain how my last day on earth would go.  It wasn’t confrontational and there was no malice in his voice.  He was simply doing his job and it wasn’t necessarily a job he wanted to do. I wasn’t the first one that he had this conversation with, and I wouldn’t be the last.

Just as the warden had explained, shortly after he left, someone else came down to measure me for the new suit they intended to kill me in.  It was to be a special suit, with custom cutouts of the bottom of each leg where they would attach the electrode to the shaved area just above my ankle.  I felt almost obligated to thank them (but I didn’t) as they advised me that if I liked, I could also be buried in this new suit. 

Not long after that, the kitchen supervisor came down to ask me what I wanted for my last meal.  Back then, you could order pretty much anything you wanted and what I wanted was a pizza – a thick deep dish Sicilian style pan pizza loaded up with everything but anchovies – and while they were at it, I asked that they throw on an extra helping of cheese, as a man cannot get enough cheese on his pizza, especially when it is his last meal.

That was a long day as I anxiously waited to hear from my lawyer, hoping that the court had come to its senses and ordered my execution stopped.  But that call never came and the morning passed on into the afternoon and then that afternoon quickly approached the evening hours.

The prison had arranged for a last visit with family at 6:00 p.m. that evening and I was told to get ready.  For reasons I don’t understand, anytime a Death Watch prisoner was escorted from Q-wing to the front of the prison, they would lock down the entire prison and the condemned would then be placed in full restraints and leg shackles and led down the long hallway to the front of the prison, slowly shuffling by as countless other prisoners stared through the glass windows of the dayrooms, each fully aware that they were watching a dead man walking, and even when a familiar face was spotted, their eyes would turn away.

It was simply assumed that I would have that last visit as every condemned man had a last visit so they trussed me up and escorted me down that endless main hall and to the front where the visits would take place.  I was led to a small room where the sergeant stayed with me as the lieutenant went to see who would come.  It seemed like hours had passed before he returned and told me that no one was there yet but they would wait a little longer just in case someone showed up.  I wasn’t that surprised, as in the almost 4 years that I had already been there, my family had only visited once and I didn’t have many friends. A part of me knew that just as it was my fate to live alone, so too was it my fate to die alone.  After a while, they led me back down that long hall towards my Death Watch cell.  Nobody had come to say goodbye.

Once securely in my cell again, I noticed that according to the clock on the wall, I now had less than twelve hours to go.  It would be a long night.  I sat silently in my cell as the guard sat just outside watching my TV.  I could see through the cracks in the venetian blinds that covered the distant window out on the catwalk that it was dark, and I remember wondering when the sun would come up and then realizing that I would be gone before it did.

I was lying on my bunk silently staring up at the cracks in the ceiling of my cell when the phone on the Death Watch sergeant’s desk suddenly rang, and I impulsively almost jumped from my bunk.  I watched as the sergeant opened the gate leading into the cellblock area, dragging the phone cord towards my cell, then handed the receiver to me through the bars, announcing only that it was my lawyer.  Suddenly my hand was so sweaty that it was almost difficult to hold the receiver as I raised it up to my ear.  “Hello,” I said…my voice was low, but noticeably trembling.

“Mike?” the voice asked.  It was Billy Nolas, my recently appointed lawyer who I had met only once before.  Cutting through the unnecessary formalities, Mr. Nolas quickly told me that the Florida Supreme Court has ordered a “stay of execution.” I would not die that next morning.  But then he paused, and struggling to find the words, Mr. Nolas then continued, “The court denied your appeal by a 4 to 3 vote and only granted a 48 hour stay of execution.”  He didn’t have to explain what that meant, as I already knew.  The Florida Supreme Court didn’t do me any favors.  I now had less than 48 hours to write up a new federal appeal and hope that the Federal Court could grant relief.  If not, by written order of the Florida Supreme Court, my temporary stay of execution would expire at noon on Friday, December 2, 1988 and the State of Florida would then proceed to put me to death.

Although I tried to lie down again, there would be no sleep that night. Then breakfast came and as the guard handed me my breakfast tray and a small half pint carton of milk, I could not help but notice that the expiration date stamped on the top edge of that small carton…December 4, 1988.  I was to expire before that milk.  I don’t know why, but that struck me deeply, branding itself into my memory.  I set the milk aside, sparing it a premature death and perhaps unconsciously showing it a measure of mercy and compassion that would not be shown to me.

Through the cracks in the blinds that hung over that distant window I did watch as the world outside slowly lit up in early morning light.  I asked the guard if he could open those blinds so I could see outside, but was told that the blinds cannot be open when anyone is on “Phase II” Death Watch for “security reasons.”  Imagine that. Mere sunlight was somehow a threat to the security of the institution when they planned to kill a man.

I couldn’t actually see the sun as it rose, but it was still a beautiful sunrise.  And as that nearby clock on the wall closed in on 7:00 a.m., I watched and held my breath in that moment, knowing only too well that was the moment I was supposed to have been put to death.  But the moment passed and the clock ticked once more and it was then 7:01 a.m. and I breathed again.

Although spared that particular fate, the next was once again closing in too fast.  I did not have days, as I only had hours and just as it had been a long, sleepless night, so too would it be a long and anxious day.

Shortly before lunch I again felt that distinctive hum hum through the concrete floor that I had come to know only too well – they were once again testing the electric chair on the other side of that solid steel door to ensure that it was working properly in preparation for my once again scheduled execution.  I could not hear what they were doing in that nearby room, but each time they hit the switch to send that cycle of lethal electricity to the chair, I could feel the hum on the soles of my feet as it raced through the floor, and knew what it was, as did the officer and sergeant who sat nearby.  Then there would be silence, a long and unnatural silence as if the world was holding its breath.

Even the seemingly ever-present pigeons outside went eerily silent.  But nobody said a word, and then just as quickly that moment passed and we all went back to what we were doing as if nothing had happened.

Although a part of me knew that my assigned lawyer was already down in Fort Lauderdale desperately assembling that crucial habeas appeal that had to be hastily handwritten and presented to the Federal Court before the stay of execution expired at noon on Friday, I still sat there alone, struggling with the lack of knowledge and the uncertainty of my still undecided fate, and it was that not knowing whether I would live or die that made my day unbearable.  But that day did slowly pass and once again night approached and that world outside the cracks in those blinds went dark again.

That was Wednesday night, November 30, 1988 and that was the day God died.  I had not slept in days and I would not sleep that night.  I cannot begin to describe how overwhelmed and abandoned I felt, and in those hours as I sat alone I knew that even God had abandoned me.  I knew only too well that if the Federal Court denied that request for a full stay of execution, then I would die.  Perhaps my hope had already died as I found myself not only struggling with my faith, but with even accepting my fate.  And then there was that damned turkey that I just could not get out of my head.

Perhaps if only I had committed the crime I was convicted of and condemned to die for, I could have embraced my fate as the will of God, but I knew that I had not. (Please check out www.southerninjustice.com).  The depth of my despair was and continues to be beyond comprehension, as I could not understand how it was at the age of 28 (in 1988) I sat in that solitary cell only a few feet away from the solid steel door that led into the execution chamber while the final hours of my mortal existence methodically slipped away.  How could this be?

“At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Elio, Elio, lama sabachthami?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (NIV, Mark 15: 33-34)

From the time that I was old enough to remember, I never once questioned whether God existed. I was always taught that He did and in the earliest days of Sunday school I was told that God created Santa Claus, which explained the miraculous manifestation of presents under the tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus, so I knew that God had to exist.

While growing up in the suburbs at Marin County, California it was our Sunday morning family tradition to dress up in our best and pile up in the station wagon, and off to church we would go.  Following the service we would jump back into the wagon and often head over to my grandparents’ house on the shores of San Pablo Bay (for those unfamiliar, the northern part of San Francisco Bay) just up from the infamous San Quentin State Prison, for a Sunday brunch. Grandpa would say grace as we all gathered around to eat, carefully avoiding the cardinal sin of staining our starched white shirts and yet seeming to always find a way to do so.

From the very first day that I attended grade school, the entire class would stand as one as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, proudly crossing our hearts and pledging our faith and loyalty to both God and country.

After school would come our scout meetings, where once again we would stand united and swear our oath to God.  How could I have any doubt that this God existed when nothing in my early life ever compelled me to question this existence?

But what is faith if it is never truly tested?  And where do we draw the line between the intellectual indoctrination of “belief” and a true faith and understanding of God?  In the years to come, I would search for answers and a truth I could believe in. But in that moment, in my heart, I had only the God that I was taught to believe in and a God that in my heart and very soul I truly did believe in. I now know that the more profound truth is, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “If there wasn’t a God, man would have to create one.” I now know the substantial distinction between the God that we create out of our inherent need to commune with something greater than us, and a God of spiritual substance beyond that taught to a child.

When I look back today and read the words I had written long ago in a futile attempt to define my own spirituality – “Life is the mortal condemnation of an eternal soul” – I smile.  How simplistic, how pathetically convenient, and yet, how true, but completely inadequate in the years that followed, as I have discovered that life itself is a spiritual journey and that with each experience we encounter, our spirituality evolves.  What we once believed without question as a child now humors us as we’ve grown.

The God that I believed in as a child, the God that I was taught to never question, died the night of November 30, 1988 and yet in that death arose something far greater that remains and continues to evolve.

There I was that night, exhausted and overwhelmed, both psychologically and physically and I did not recall actually falling asleep, but in my attempt to understand what next transpired, I must assume that I did.

Nothing ever before and never since has seemed so real as that light that completely enveloped me as I was catapulted into complete consciousness.  The cell that I was in and all the tangible steel and stone that surrounded me disappeared and that light engulfed all that was.  I cannot explain it, nor can I deny it.

There, as I lay on that bunk a beaten and broken man forced to confront my own mortality, that unexplainable light appeared and in that moment I felt not pain or despair, but an overwhelming and all-consuming sense of peace and tranquility.  And although not an audible word was spoken, I “heard” a voice that then assured me that it would all be alright and that I was not alone; that I never would be alone.

I felt the presence of God.  Not that indoctrinated image I was taught to intellectually believe in, but a spiritual presence that in that instance instilled within me the knowledge that whether I would live or die did not matter as my mortal existence was just a small step on this eternal journey and that there was something far greater awaiting me beyond this physical prison we dare to call “life!”

For the first time, I knew with absolute certainty and a spiritual clarify beyond that words can possibly convey, that God did exist but that it was not this God that man has manipulated and conveniently created in our own image.  That not only I, but that all of us truly are “created” in His image, but that “image” is not the churches we build on or the idols we create; it is one of a spiritual consciousness that transcends our mortality.  We are all one – and that one is of all.

I spent the rest of that night in that Death Watch cell sitting quietly at the edge of my bunk.  But I no longer felt overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness and no longer tormented myself with the uncertainty of my fate.  Rather, my now imminent execution became irrelevant and I sat there only trying to understand that experience.

Then morning came and I ate like I hadn’t eaten in months, and I drank that little carton of milk without any further thought of that expiration date stamped upon it.  The Death Watch sergeant noticed the change in my attitude and demeanor and came over to the cell front and talked to me.  It was a long conversation of no substance, and I cannot recall what was said, but it didn’t really matter.  Something within me had changed, even transformed, and it was projected outward.

Again, I spent that day of Thursday, December 1, 1988 there in that Death Watch cell awaiting word from my lawyers as to whether I would live or die – but it no longer mattered.  That sense of peace and tranquility became part of me and I wasn’t abandoned or afraid.  I knew that, although in a solitary cell, I was not alone.

The day passed on into the evening and the evening gave way to the night and no word had yet come. Time ticked on my temporary stay of execution, which was to automatically expire at noon that following day.  But that night I lay down on my bunk and I slept and although it may very well have been my last night in this mortal life, I slept like a baby.

The following morning, what was to be my last morning, was just another morning.  The warden came down to talk to me again and only did I find out that even if the Federal Court denied my stay of execution, they had no plans to carry out my execution that day as it was a Friday, so the warden told me that it would be early that next week.  And remarkably, I was alright with that.

Later that morning the phone call came, and my lawyer advised me that the Federal District Judge William Zloch had entered an “emergency order,” granting me a full stay of execution and went to extraordinary lengths to have that order served upon all parties to ensure that my execution would not be carried out.  Within hours I was removed from Death Watch and moved back to the regular Death Row wing among the men that I came to regard as my family.

In the coming years that followed, I often struggled to understand my experience and attempted to share that experience with others, such as in the book “Welcome to Hell” (edited/compiled by Jan W. Arriens, 1991)

But I found that most are at best unreceptive, and often even hostile.  I learned to keep my experience to myself and find comfort in the knowledge that what I felt was real.  Those few who knew me best before I was placed on Death Watch and the person I was (and am) after that experience know this has transformed me at a fundamental level.

I am not a “holy-roller,” nor am I compelled to force my faith upon others, as few can understand why that dogmatic structurism of organized religion simply doesn’t matter – the physical churches and pretentious congregations are not what God is about.  They are merely manifestations of our futile attempt to understand God in that image we have so desperately created.  Only when one confronts and overcomes that intellectual indoctrination of what we are taught to believe God is, and embraces the spiritual essence and substance of what God truly is, can one then find true peace and tranquility and continue on this eternal journey of spiritual evolution.

I write this today only because someone familiar with what I wrote about my experience many years ago asked me how I felt this affected who I am today.  And the answer is an easy one – I am still a mortal man condemned by the imperfections that plague us all, and perhaps that is all I will be in this life.  Regretfully, I still respond in anger when I know I have the strength to rise above it and I still succumb to the temptations and weaknesses that inherently define our humanity.  Quite simply, I remain an imperfect man in an imperfect world struggling to justify my condemnation.  But the reality is that we are all condemned, and at the end of the day, mortal death is an absolute certainty.  Nobody gets out alive.

But even as much as that unique spiritual experience remains a part of me and always will, there’s also a part of me that now feels betrayed by that implied promise that was never kept and after all these years, almost a quarter century now since that Death Watch experience, I remain in a solitary cell on Florida’s death row, still condemned to death for a crime I know I did not commit and my mortal fate remains uncertain.

When I realize that, I do again feel an increasing bitterness towards the never-ending injustice so deliberately perpetuated against me, and anger towards the malicious mistreatment of all of us here on Death Row. I find myself questioning my experience, but when I do, I find confirmation and that sense of peace and tranquility and I’m reminded that it’s alright to question my faith, as only when faith is truly tested can it remain a true faith.

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017






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