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Friday, November 15, 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part 4: Between Life and Death

By Michael Lambrix

Part 3 can be read here

In the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens begins his fictional story with the words: “It was the best of times and the worst of times,” and those words could apply as equally to that first year I spent on Florida’s Death Row.  I suppose it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest that my first year as a condemned man was the best of times by any measure. But everything is relative and what I soon discovered after coming to The Row is that even in the worst of times it is the importance of holding on to hope not only when you have reason to, but even more importantly, when that reason is taken from you.

Charles Dickens wrote his story around the French Revolution, which I doubt many would have thought of as the best of times.  It was a dark day in history, when death came to many, and yet for those who survived, it brought hope.  And it wasn’t that much different on The Row. That first year the stench of death was always around us, yet in the very midst of the darkness and despair, there was hope and it was that hope that gave each of us the strength to survive another day.

I came to The Row in early 1984, at a time in which Florida only too proudly claimed the record not only for the largest number of people condemned to death, but, the most executed.

This is the dark side of the Sunshine State. Its zeal to kill is only exceeded by its indifference towards sending the innocent to Death Row.  When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in the 1972 landmark decision of Furman vs. Georgia by a marginal vote, the Court allowed the states to rewrite their death penalty statutes with the misplaced presumption that if the states would establish statutory provisions that “genuinely narrowed” the class of individuals eligible for the death penalty through the adoption of aggravating and mitigating circumstances applicable to each case, then the imposition of the death penalty would not be unconstitutionally arbitrary.

Florida was the first state to quickly adopt new laws that complied with the Supreme Court’s criteria before most other death penalty states could adopt new laws of their own.  By 1973, Florida was already sending men to their new Death Row – as I write this today (February 2013) one man a few cells down from me (Gary Alvord) has now been here on Florida’s death row for 40 years as of this year. (Admin note:  Gary Alvord died of natural causes after this essay was submitted).

But adopting new death penalty statutes was not enough.  In the years before I came, Florida quickly became the poster child for state-sanctioned death, with its Death Row growing by dozens every year.  And the politicians running for elected office shamelessly exploited the public’s unquenchable thirst for vengeance, fanatically promising to put those condemned to a quick death.

By the time I came along, Florida was intoxicated by its politically driven blood lust and as I joined the ranks of the condemned, the cold machinery of death had already been cranked up and killing the condemned became a statewide obsession.

John Spenkelink was the first one to be involuntarily executed after the new death penalty was re-instated.  Although some might argue that Gary Gilmore (in Utah), upon which the book and then movie The Executioner’s Song was the first one after Furman v Georgia, Gilmore was a “voluntary” execution – he effectively used the death penalty to commit suicide and made no meaningful attempt to challenge his death sentence.

Florida was determined to be the first state to carry out an execution upon someone who was not willing to voluntarily die, and in May 1979 they succeeded in putting John Spenkelink to death.  Texas wouldn’t carry out its first post-Furman execution for a number of years after that, and by the early 1980’s a diabolically perverse competition arose between the states to see who could kill the most condemned prisoners – and at least in those early years, Florida easily won.

Florida carried out its next execution in November 1983 when they put Robert Sullivan to death.  Within just a few more months, Florida killed Anthony Antone in January 1984, ignoring the fact that Antone did not commit any act of murder himself, and evidence that he did not participate in the act of murder – the co-defendant who was convicted of that killing actually was sentenced to life.

I came to The Row that last week of March 1984 and quickly learned of the ritual of death.  In the first year following my arrival, Florida executed nine men.  Florida was perversely proud of “Ole Sparky,” its handmade electric chair, and each execution brought on a spectacle not unlike that of a circus – a contemporary lynching in the old town square, with the crowds gathered outside the prison, openly cheering, drowning out the smaller segregated group of those who opposed the state taking a life.  And the media would come from around the state to cover the event.

Inside the prison, this ritual brought on another layer of despair, as the prison officials seemed to go to great lengths to make sure that each of us knew they were killing one of us.

For reasons I cannot be sure of, the State of Florida was not allowed to use the public power source to electrocute its condemned.  I have been told that the electric company would not allow it, but I’ve also been told that it was a “security precaution.  The state didn’t want to risk not being able to carry out an intended execution if someone simply cut the power off.  Where the truth actually lies, only they know.  But what I do know is that each time Florida carried out an execution, they would crank up the huge generator just outside the prison office near the wing of the prison where executions took place, and the whole prison would be taken off the public electrical source, and temporarily switched over to generator power.

Within a few weeks of my arrival to Death Row, Florida focused its attention on Arthur Goode, scheduled to be executed on April 5, 1984.  I didn’t know Goode, as he had already been moved to Q-Wing Death Watch a few weeks before I came to The Row, but this was the first execution actually carried out since I arrived, so that first experience remains branded upon me.

Back then the executions were carried out around sunrise of the scheduled day, but the ritual would begin long before they got around to actually killing the condemned man.  Although we typically would be fed breakfast (in our cells) early every day, on execution days it would come at least an hour earlier, often as early as 5:00 a.m. as they had to first feed us then collect the food trays and get them back to the kitchen up front before they locked down the whole prison during the execution itself.

Feeding us before they carried out the execution also made sure we didn’t try to sleep through it.  Because it would still be dark outside, each of us would have our own cell light on at the time, which back then was a crude single incandescent light bulb hanging down by two wired from the ceiling of the cell.

At some point between passing out the breakfast trays and picking them back up, all the lights would momentarily go off, leaving us in darkness.  In the distance we could hear that generator come to life and then the cell lights would flicker just a bit before coming back on.  We knew what this meant as other than the periodical test of the generator during the afternoon a few times a month, when they switched over to generator power in the early morning hours we knew that it meant whoever was on death watch did not get a last minute’s stay of execution and they were now preparing to put him to death.

We would not be allowed to escape our own involuntary participation in this ritual of death, and most of us on The Row would turn on our small black and white TV’s, tuning in the Jacksonville stations to watch the live coverage from outside the prison, each hoping that a last minute stay of execution would come and each of us would continue to watch in collective silence until the TV would show someone emerging from the rear of Q-Wing and waving a white towel, which meant that they had carried out the execution. That was the pre-arranged signal.

Barely a month after Arthur Goode was put to death, Florida killed Aubrey Adams and it was this second execution since my arrival that had an even greater impact, not only on me, but on others around me.  The execution of Adams was a reality check for many of us who held on to the hope that our own wrongful convictions would be corrected, and truth and justice would be allowed to prevail.

It’s one thing to execute someone who has confessed to a heinous murder, but it’s another thing entirely to put someone to death who may very well be innocent.  Out there in the real world this is a never-ending source of intellectual debate, but in here it really hits home as for those of us who have maintained our innocence and have only our hope to cling to.  The execution of someone who has substantial evidence of actual innocence undermines our own ability to keep that hope alive, and it drives home a truth that each of us try desperately to avoid…the politics of death that drive each execution do not care whether you’re innocent or not, and only the hopelessly naïve would think that each man put to death was guilty.  Our judicial process is not that perfect and inherently lacks the moral character or professional integrity to admit to its own mistakes.

The execution of Aubrey Adams illustrated this truth and for the first time it caused me to question “the system.” Until that time, I remained blinded by my own disillusion, telling myself that our legal system would correct its own mistakes, and as a society we would never allow an innocent person to be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.  Looking back, I can now only smile at just how incredibly green I was, as the execution of Aubrey Adams and others that followed forced me to accept the reality that they will put the innocent to death, and even worse, as a society we really don’t even care.

A month after Aubrey Adams, Florida put Carl Shriner to death, and the month following that they killed David Washington.  It seemed that each month since I came to The Row they killed another one, and that dark cloud of death hung heavy over us condemned.  But then that cycle was broken – no executions were carried out in August of 1984 and it seemed that the Courts were becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of adequate legal representation made available to those facing imminent execution.

But such an inconvenience as the lack of qualified lawyers to represent the condemned would not be enough to deter Florida’s ritualistic lynchings, and although nobody died in August 1984, Florida made up for this lapse by killing both Earnest Dobbert and James Dupree Henry in September of 1984.

That dark blanket of death hung heavy and it seemed that if they were not actually killing one of us on the next wing over, they were counting down to that next execution.  But this pace of executions could not be sustained as Florida continued to refuse to establish any meaningful process for the timely appointment of qualified lawyers, instead relying upon a small group of committed volunteers who labored continuously to find lawyers willing to represent the condemned – and few, very few, were willing.

By the latter half of 1984 the Florida Supreme Court finally began to take a stand against the arbitrary and dysfunctional system of recruiting volunteer lawyers only at the last minute and began to issue stays of execution to send a long overdue message that unless Florida established a means in which to provide competent legal representation to the condemned before their death warrant was signed, the Court would not allow executions to proceed and this unconscionable machinery of death would grind to a halt. 

Almost immediately, the pace of executions dropped by at least half.  In early November of 1984 Florida put Timothy Palmes (who we knew as “Milkman”) to death, then it wasn’t until the end of January of 1985 that the next was killed.

That execution of James Raulerson hit especially close to home for me, as from the time I came to The Row. J.D., as I knew him, was my cell neighbor.  He was the first person I actually knew on The Row that had been killed.  J.D. had been convicted of robbery and the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville, although there was no intent to kill anyone.  Like the majority of cases in which the death penalty is imposed, J.D. was convicted under Florida’s felony murder law, which allowed a person to be convicted of capital murder for the death of anyone if it was the result of the commission of another crime…no intent to kill is necessary.

In J.D. Raulerson’s case, he and his cousin had decided to rob a restaurant and were still inside when the police came and surrounded the place. A gunfight ensued and a police officer was killed.  J.D. consistently insisted that he never shot at the police, and that the officer died by “friendly fire” – another cop’s bullet hit him in the heat of combat.

But it didn’t matter.  Under Florida law someone died during the robbery – and J.D.’s own cousin was shot and killed during that gunfight, and that made J.D. legally culpable for both the death of the police officer and his own cousin’s death – even though there was no question that the police had shot his cousin.  When it came time for the State of Florida to execute J.D. on that cold winter morning of January 30, 1985, hundreds of police officers gathered outside the prison gleefully cheering on his death while wearing custom made t-shirts that said “burn, baby, burn.”

That was the first time that I saw just how low we can go as a society, and why, despite pretense, we really have not evolved beyond that image of the old west lynch mobs.  That’s just what it was that day, only it wasn’t ignorant villagers intoxicated by their blood-lust and joyfully cheering on the death of another human being; it was those representing law enforcement that created this circus atmosphere.

Within that first year that I was on The Row, Florida put nine men to death.  But for each one they executed, at least two more men came to The Row, and the ranks of the condemned continued to grow.  It didn’t take long before I was no longer one of the new guys and became part of the greater whole.

By 1985 the pace of executions dropped dramatically as politicians struggled to find a solution to the problem of the condemned having no reliable means of securing legal representation.  Florida was determined to lead the country in executions, and soon it was the politicians themselves advocating for the first-ever state funded agency established exclusively to provide post-conviction legal representation to the condemned.  The argument in favor of establishing this proposed agency was simple; by providing state-funded lawyers, the Courts would allow executions to continue.

With this cloud of death hanging over all of us, it was only too easy to abandon all hope and accept our fate.  But even there in that shadow of death, there was reason to hold on.  The particular tier I was housed on that first year housed a total of 16 condemned prisoners, as although each tier had 17 cells at that time, an “inmate runner” occupied the first cell on each death row tier.  It was his job to pass out meals, then collect the food trays, and distribute cleaning supplies each day.

Of the nine men put to death that first year, I only personally know one, and during that same period of time on my floor alone there were five men who would walk off death row and back into the real world.

That’s what hope is all about:  finding reason to sustain the strength within.  Although each execution brought home the reality that I was condemned to die and death was a very real possibility, I found my own strength sustained by the hope that came when another man won his freedom.

It’s easy to assume that every person sentenced to death has to be guilty, but our legal system is plagued with the imperfections inherent to all men.  In Florida’s over-zealous push to lead the country in bringing back the death penalty, the legal system itself became corrupted by prosecutors who openly competed with each other to convict and condemn as many as they could, and by any means necessary.  It didn’t take long before Florida lead the country (at times) in both the number of men and women sentenced to death, and in number of executions.  And with this political corruption of the process came another distinction. To this day Florida continues to lead the country in the number of wrongfully convicted (innocent) men and women sentenced to death.

Not long after I came to Death Row, the Courts began to vacate a number of these wrongful convictions.  Although it would still take a few more years before they would walk free, on that tier I was housed on that first year, one out of every three men I housed among would be exonerated and released from prison. My neighbor, Louie Virango won a new trial and pled out to a lesser charge that resulted in him being set free.  Joseph Green Brown was exonerated by new evidence after coming within hours of execution, and Juan Ramos walked out of a courtroom in Miami after it was revealed that the bite mark evidence used to convict and condemn him for a crime he consistently pled innocence of was not what the state had led the jury to believe it was.

A few cells down the other way towards the back of that tier were Larry Troy and Bama Brown, convicted and condemned to death for allegedly killing another prisoner at The Rock (Union Correctional Institution).  Their convictions were based primarily upon the testimony of another inmate, and there was evidence to suggest that inmate actually committed the murder.  Years after sending them to The Row, this inmate tried to extort money from the girlfriend of one of the condemned men – if she would pay him thousands of dollars, he would tell the truth.

Instead of being manipulated, she went to the state police and told them of the attempt to extort her.  They worked with her to secretly take communications between her and the prisoner, then arrested him for perjury in a capital case and attempted extortion.  Soon after, both Larry Troy and Bama Brown were exonerated of the murder they were wrongfully convicted of and condemned to death for.

Many more would be put to death, and many more would walk free, and I struggled constantly to find that balance between the reality that was Death Row and that hope that sustained my strength.  It was more than just a tug-o’-war between opposing sides.  No matter which way I might be pulled at a particular moment, even when I clung desperately to that elusive wisp of hope brought about by relief another man won, I still awoke each morning in my own concrete cage and each night I struggled to sleep through the never-ending nightmare that was my own condemnation.


Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institute
7819 NW 228th Street (P3226)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

1 comment:

Mike Boylan said...

Mr Raulerson entered the business, armed with a handgun, for the purpose of robbing it at gunpoint. The fact that he may or may not have had the intent to kill a responding police officer is irrelevant. Ballistic tests of Mr Raulerson's gun indicate he fired the bullets that killed Officer Stewart. You also left out the fact that he raped one of the female hostages at gunpoint.
You are a talented writer, Mr Lambrix, but you greatly undermine and diminish your argument when you write obvious falsehoods and omit critical facts that any yahoo with a basic internet connection can check in a minute or two.