Thursday, January 30, 2014

The List

By Michael Lambrix

I once read a story about a woman who was dying of cancer and how for so long she was able to deny the reality of the fate that she faced, at least, she was until that day her doctor sat her down after a number of tests, and in an emotionally flat monologue, he patiently put into words that truth she didn’t want to hear…the cancer was terminal, and has already spread to vital organs.  Her days were numbered and there was no hope.  Up until that surreal moment, she had at least mentally escaped her inevitable fate, but once it was documented upon that simple piece of paper, it became real.  She spoke of how at that very moment something within her changed, but not as one might expect.

To her own surprise, she felt a weight lift, as if she had struggled beneath a heavy blanket of uncertainty and denial, and only then could she embrace what was what was meant to be, and in her own way come to terms with her illness for the first time since she felt the presence of something within her. Even before her worst fears were confirmed, she existed within the dark abyss of uncertainty, struggling uncomfortably around her family and friends when they would ask about her health, and the always sincere wishes from others that it would be alright.  But it wouldn’t be alright – she was dying and her days were now numbered.  And somehow that certainty of her fate filled her with a sense of peace and that strength within her brought comfort.

It’s been said that death is the only absolute reality of life, as when it comes down to it, nobody gets out alive.  Sure, there are those who desperately deny the inherent inevitability of death, but in the end we all die.  And the only truth remaining is that from the very day we are each born, we are condemned to die.

Relatively few of us will ever confront death by written word laid down before us.  As far as I know, there are only two classes of people who do so – those suffering from terminal illness, and those who have been condemned to die by the courts.  The terminally ill who must confront their fate are surrounded with the comfort of family and friends; those condemned to death by the state are denied that measure of mercy and compassion that arguably is the very foundation of our humanity. And yet the parallels between the two remain.

I am condemned to death and have now spent almost 30 years in continuous solitary confinement on Florida’s infamous Death Row.  It’s been a long journey, one in which I prefer to accept as a unique growth experience that, in a paradoxical sort of way, has ever so very slowly molded me into the man I am today.  And I am not the man I was when I was at 22 years old.

But no matter how much I might evolve here in my own little corner of my own little world, I still struggle with moments that have been branded upon my very soul.  There was that moment on that unnaturally chilly day of March 22, 1983 when I stood silently before that wooden bench as a judge above me coldly read those words and without even a suggestion of mercy and compassion, he condemned me to death.  There were no family or friends there to lean on for comfort, and as I was led shackled and chained out of that small town courthouse (Glades County, Florida), the crowd that had gathered openly celebrated my condemnation, as if my death would somehow mark a moment in time in which they could be proud.

Within hours I was on my way northward towards Florida State Prison, where I would join the ranks of the condemned (please read Alcatraz of the South, Part I and Part II chronicling my journey).  I was 23, and by 28 I would find myself in a cell adjacent to the execution chamber, only hours away from my intended execution (please read: The Day God Died).  As I sat silently counting down what remained of my life, I came to understand the true depth of loneliness as through that darkest of moments, there was only the presence of the Death Watch guards who uncomfortably counted down each tick of that clock with me, remaining deliberately distant.

That was November 30, 1988 – a quarter of a century ago since I sat only feet away from death itself and awaited my fate, a fate that did not come, as the Federal Court intervened and ordered an indefinite stay of execution. And although many years ago, I still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking for that moment I am once again down there on Death Watch.  It takes a moment to realize that I’m not, although when the reality that I am in a cage condemned to die hits me, I roll over and struggle to get back to sleep, but after such an awakening, sleep won’t come that easy and I often find myself laying there on that bunk staring blankly at the ceiling of my cell as the remaining hours of the night slowly pass.

Through the many years between then and now, those nightmares never have never really left or faded away.  But at least in waking hours I could find an elusive escape by mentally manipulating myself into believing that I was “safe” from having my death warrant signed and the fate that so methodically stalked me through the years has almost become somewhat of a bad memory even as many of those that I live among are taken away to the death chamber.

I smile at myself when I do realize just how complacent I had become about the sentence of death imposed on me.  But I know I’m not alone. It had long been common knowledge that the governor would not sign your death warrant as long as you had legitimate appeals pending before the courts, and I knew that I did continuously have appeals before both the State and Florida courts based upon newly discovered evidence supporting my consistently plea claim of innocence.

But everything we thought we knew has now recedntly changed.  As the State of Texas celebrated their 500th execution, a handful of Florida politicians decided that Florida should be able to carry out at least as many, and publically lobbied to push through new laws to substantially speed up executions. 

Like a tornado blowing through Tallahassee, the conservative pro-death penalty politicians approved new legislation they ironically labeled the “Timely Justice Act.” They promised that, if passed, it would ensure that Florida would soon lead the world in the number of executions and those condemned to die wouldn’t wait so many years anymore (see: “Fix Flaws in Florida Death Penalty System” by Raoul Cantero and Mark Schlakman, Tampa Bay Times, September 2, 2013.) 

At first, it appeared that Florida’s elected governor, Rick Scott, seemed reluctant to sign this new law into effect, mostly concerned with numerous constitutional concerns the newly written law clearly violated. The “separation of powers” creating legislatively mandated laws would require the governor to exercise his executive power as they wished. Those familiar with Florida history knew that in 2000 when Jeb Bush became Florida’s governor, he too had tried to push through new laws intended to speed up executions (“Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000”), only to have those laws declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers’ clause. (Allen v Butterworth, 756 So.2d 52 Fla 2000) (“Justices Leery of Appeal Changes” by Jo Becker, St. Petesburg Times, March 5, 2000) 

For weeks we all anxiously waited to see whether Governor Rick Scott would refuse to sign this diabolical “Timely Justice Act” (see: “Timely Justice Death Penalty Bill Still Awaits Governor’s Decision” by Rafael Olmeda, Sun-Sentinel, May 27, 2013) and on the last day before this bill would had self-expired, Governor Scott signed it in secret, just before stepping on to a plane to Paris, France to promote International Investment in Florida. (See: “Scott Signs ‘Timely Justice Act’" The Florida Bar News, July 1, 2013), releasing a statement to the media that said, “The bill does nothing to speed up the execution process. The bill makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to the legal proceedings.”  Beyond that, Governor Scott has refused to discuss this new-passed law in the media, or answer any further questions.

Previously, when the governor alone has exclusive discretion on the decision of signing death warrants, the long-established practice was that death warrants would not be signed on anyone who had legitimate appeals still pending. The newly created Timely Justice Act (Florida Statutes § 922.052) (2013) completely eliminates that discretion by statutorily requiring the governor to sign death warrants and schedule executions on every death-sentenced prisoner who has had their first round of State and Federal appeals and been provided clemency review.

At first an initial list of those who were presumed to be “warrant-eligible” under this new law contained 94 names, but even that wasn’t enough. With the new law now signed, the pro-death penalty politicians who pushed it through demanded that the Florida Supreme Court Clerk of Court Thomas Mall immediately comply with the provision that required the Clerk of the Court to certify all death-sentenced prisoners who had completed their first round of state and federal collateral appeals.

We all anxiously waited for the list.  Under this new law it should have been compiled by August, but it didn’t come.  Rumors started to circulate that the Florida Supreme Court would declare this new law unconstitutional, as they had done when Jeb Bush and his supporters tried to push a similar law in 2000.  Many of us who knew that our names would appear in this new list desperately clung to the hope that the list would not come.  As with the woman who had faced cancer, as long as it wasn’t reduced to written form, we could still deny it…it only became real if your name was on this list.

August slipped away into September, and September passed too and still no list.  Then came that first week of October and rumors reached us that Clerk of Court Thomas Mall had hand-delivered “The List” to Governor Rick Scott on Friday, October 4, 2013.  That weekend I had a visit from my girlfriend Karen, who told me that it was true – The List did come out that Friday afternoon with a total of 141 names on it, including my own. 

For the next few days on the tier I am housed on, and I’m sure on every other tier in the death row unit, we all talked about “The List,” with many wondering whether they would be on it, and if so, would the governor then comply with the new law and sign active death warrants on ALL of us within 30 days?  Would Florida now proceed to put at least 144 men (none of the 3 women currently under sentence of death in Florida are on The List) to death within 180 days, as this new law required?  Nobody really knew what to expect.

Then The List arrived.  Some received it through legal mail from their lawyers while others received a copy through regular mail from family or friends.  But by October 10, 2013 The List was in our hands and passed around for all to read.

On my tier alone, out of 14 men, 6 of us were on The List.  All together, almost a third of those under sentence of death in Florida were on The List, including many who did not expect to be.  Unlike the initial list, which was not an “official” list, and only contained 94 names, including two who have since already died “of natural causes” (Gary Alvord and Peter Ventura), this was an official list.

Under the new law, death warrants must be signed within 30 days – but it left a loophole, requiring that a warrant scheduling an execution could only be signed after the Governor concluded that clemency review had been completed.  But none of us take “clemency” seriously as no Florida governor has granted “clemency” (sentence reduction) to a death-sentenced prisoner in well over 20 years, and there was no reason to believe that the current pro-death penalty Republican governor would do so now.

But as long as he was still considering whether clemency was appropriate, he did not have to sign a death warrant.  Many of us now grasped at that loophole as a string of hope, and it would appear that Governor Scott has elected to interpret that particular provision of the new law to mean that he was not required to sign all 141 names on The List no later than November 3, 2013.

But just in the past month since The List was released, already two of the men on The List have been executed (William Hopp, October 15, 2013, and Darius Mark Kimbrough, November 12), and another two remain on death watch under active death warrants (Thomas Knight is scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2013 while Paul A Howell received a court-ordered stay of execution with no new date scheduled). Admin note:  Thomas Knight was executed on December 3, 2013, after this essay was written.

Another man on The List, Roy Swafford, had his conviction thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court on November 7, 2013.  I have personally known Roy for almost 30 years and know that, like myself and many others, he has consistently maintained his innocence, claiming that he was wrongly convicted and condemned to death due to deliberate prosecutorial misconduct.  Through too many years the courts denied one appeal after another, but finally the evidence became too much and after previously signing a death warrant and scheduling Roy’s execution, he finally prevailed – and now his name is off The List.

But Ray Swafford’s case illustrates why Florida’s new politically motivated push to expedite more executions will inevitably result in the execution of innocent men.  Under this new Timely Justice Act the Governor would have had no choice but to sign Swafford’s death warrant, scheduling his execution a week before the Courts exonerated Swafford.  Fortunately, Governor Scott did not agree with the legislature’s intent that all 142 death warrants be signed within 30 days of the certified list being compiled. 

However, because of this renewed political push to show Texas that Florida can kill just as many, recently Governor Scott has been signing an average of two death warrants each month – and carrying out two executions each month.  It took Florida almost 40 years to kill 75 men and women, yet even as the rest of the civilized world is calling for an end to the death penalty, (see: “The Death Penalty’s Slow But Seemingly Sure Decline” by Alan Greenblatt, National Public Radio, June 21, 2013) Florida is heading in the opposite direction, pushing to significantly expand its use of capital punishment.

Make no mistake about it, this recent push to put more to death will unquestionably result in innocent men and women being murdered legally by the state.  See: “Risky Rush on Executions” by Randy Shultz, The Palm Beach Post,k April 19, 2013 (arguing that by unnecessarily speeding up executions Florida will put innocent men and women to death).

Ray Swafford is only one of many whose names are now on The List, certified as “death warrant eligible” and under Florida’s new Timely Justice Act would be put to death in spite of his innocence.

I myself have consistently maintained my innocence for 30 years now, and I would challenge ANYONE to produce a shred of credible evidence proving that I am guilty of the crime I was wrongly convicted of and condemned to death for.  In fact, I have personally made all my trial transcripts and appellate briefs readily available online for anyone to read.

See, one of the inconvenient truths about the death penalty is that contrary to what politicians and pro-death penalty judges want the public to believe, it absolutely is not reserved exclusively for “the worst of the worst.”  Although it might be fairly predictable that high profile cases will face the death penalty, the vast majority of those condemned to death are unknown, and they are sentenced to death because they refused to plead guilty.  Prosecutors across America routinely use the death penalty as a means of coercing criminal defendants into pleading guilty – promising that if they don’t, the State will seek the death penalty.

My own case is an example of this widespread corruption.  In early 1983 I was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in one of the smallest rural farming communities of the Deep South.  The State’s entire case rested solely upon information the State Attorney received from a single key witness who came forward only after she was arrested on unrelated felony charges while in the exclusive possession of the victim’s vehicle.  In exchange for complete immunity to all charges, she testified that I told her that I deliberately killed both the victims – at least, that is all the jury heard.

Years after my trial, the only witness who corroborated Smith’s testimony came forward and told the Court that Smith and Investigator Daniel’s had coerced her to provide that false testimony.  Further investigations revealed that the prosecutor concealed numerous file folders containing state crime lab records showing that the only forensic evidence found on the alleged “murder weapon” was hairs belonging to the key witness herself.

Despite the virtual wealth of readily available evidence that if allowed to be presented to the Courts, would conclusively prove the State worked with this key witness to coerce false testimony, falsify the specious circumstantial evidence used to support the key witness’ story, and prevent the jury from knowing the truth, I am now on The List and may very well have my own death warrant signed soon.

But let me be very clear – I will not be executed for any crime I have been wrongly convicted of.  Rather, the State of Florida will deliberately kill me because I refused to plea guilty to a crime I did not commit.  As is reflected in numerous published newspaper articles, the only reason I am on Death Row (for almost 30 years now) is because I refused to plea guilty to a lower charge. Had I accepted the State’s offer, I would have been out of prison many years ago.  Subsequently, when the State Court held hearings on the evidence deliberately concealed, I was again told that if I would plea guilty and waive all further appeals, my sentence would be reduced to make one almost immediately eligible for parole, but again, I refused – and again I suffered the consequences when that appeal was denied, the court expressing its anger at me for refusing to plea guilty to a crime I know I did not commit.

I could easily point to at least 20 other names currently on The List, and how their cases are similar, but there won’t be enough space in this article.  But another man whose name is on The List is currently housed in the cell adjacent to mine.  Milo Rose, who goes by his native American name, “One Eagle” has been on Florida’s death row since July 1983 – over 30 years!  Anyone who has taken a few minutes to look at One Eagle’s case will quickly see that substantial questions exist, which the Courts have inexplicably ignored by simply refusing to address the issues.

I now point to One Eagle’s case, as when The List came out and his own name appeared on it too, One Eagle expressed a profound insight that made me pause for a moment.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not easily silenced, and the words One Eagle spoke left me speechless.  As we discussed The List around that concrete wall that separates our cells, we openly wondered what it would mean – would we soon find ourselves transferred to Florida State Prison, where the death chamber awaits, and maybe even find ourselves side-by-side on death watch?

I knew One Eagle already had a death warrant signed, scheduling his execution back in 1987, and that since his lawyers abandoned him a few years ago, he has been expecting another death warrant.  Living next to him for some time now, I’ve seen the roller coaster of despair as he struggles to get anyone to listen and yet nobody does, only too often he will send out handfuls of letters to the media, but none receive responses.  Hope truly is a fragile thing when the whole world has turned its back on you, and I know this is how he has felt for so long now.

So, perhaps it should not have surprised me when in one of our conversations One Eagle commented that when they do come to kill him, more people will gather to witness his death (Florida allows up to 24 witnesses to each execution) than have ever reached out to him in life.  I already knew One Eagle rarely gets mail, and in many years now I have never seen him get a social visit like many of us do.  If you would like to take a look at Milo Rose’s blog and read about his case, they are available online here.

Perhaps One Eagle’s words sums up The List the best. As Florida deliberately pushes to put hundreds to death, and for each of us, as well as for our families and friends, The List represents another level of despair and hopelessness deliberately inflicted upon we who are already abandoned and ostracized by society. As Florida pushes to kill those now marked for death, there can be no doubt that innocent men will die under the pretense of administering “justice.” And I can’t help but wonder whether anyone will find this diabolical list morally offensive.  Although there are many who commit themselves to fighting against this barbaric practice and do what they can, at the end of the day each of us whose names now appear on The List struggle with an overwhelming sense of abandonment and despair.  And for too many, their only “visitors” will be those who gather to watch them die.

November 2013

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

Milo Rose 090411
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street (P3225)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

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