By Michael Lambrix
When first brought into this world, his parents gave him the Christian name of Willie, but in our world nobody dared to call him by his “slave” name. In here, we called him “Shango” and I never thought to ask him why. Back then I was still relatively new to “the Row” with just a few years under my belt, while Shango had already put in at least a dozen. Call me naïve, but from that perspective so long ago it seemed like he had been around forever, though now when I look back, I realize that he wasn´t much older then than I am now. Perhaps it was the way he carried all those years of experience that projected that sort of aura that was so naturally amplified in his mannerisms.
As I write this now, I can´t help but smile when I look back at that day so long ago when I first formally met him. Back then, it was hard for any of us to imagine anyone making it over a decade under sentence of death, especially since the rate of executions picked up considerably in recent years, and targeted those that had been here the longest. Many of those with that many years in had already slowly slipped beneath the surface that separates reality from psychosis and nobody could throw stones, as who would have thought anyone could mentally survive such a long period of time in continuous solitary confinement. Nobody knew whose head they´d put that gun to next, or whether, when they pulled the trigger, your time had come.
That threat of relentless isolation and the threat of inevitable insanity that hung over all of us was broken only by those few hours of recreation we would be allowed twice a week. That was when for a brief period of time we could feel somewhat human again. Then and only then we could have physical contact with others, whether it be playing a game of basketball or volleyball, or just sitting along the razor-wired fence and talking to someone without those four inches of concrete wall between you.
What made Shango stand out from others is that it didn´t seem to affect him like it did most. Even the strongest amongst us will find our own way to retreat back into our own imaginary corner like a wounded animal abused and abandoned by the world.
More out of necessity than interest, I was slowly starting to try to learn about the law, having been forced to confront the reality that the legal representation provided to those condemned was nothing more than a pretense and if we didn´t try to understand how the system worked it would roll right over us.
For that reason, in the summer of 1986, the Supreme Court´s decision in Shango´s case caught my attention. (See, Darden and Wainwright, 477 US 168 1986). Like most death penalty cases, it was a marginal 5 to 4 decision against him, and in that typical judicial hypocrisy that often defined our courts, even those that voted to put him to death recognized that the prosecutor crossed the line and improperly stacked the deck against him.
But just as much, what caught my attention was that Shango caught his case in Florida´s Polk County, an area I was familiar with and even briefly lived, and I’d previously done time in the old Polk County jail. It´s those threads of commonality that tie us together, and prisoners typically sought out those that were familiar to where they lived in the free world – our own way of remembering that life we once had.
By coincidence, the following year, somewhere around late 1987 when I was brought back from a road trip to outside court for a hearing down in Charlotte County I was placed in a cell near Shango and as is customary, although separated by a few cells between us and unable to actually see each other, we got to talking and would pick up again when we had yard, as back then each of us had our own small TV and radio, and too often it would be at best difficult if not impossible to talk to another even a few cells away with that many devices blasting.
A few days later we had our rec yard and for the first time I was able to talk to Shango face to face. There was a distinct coarseness to his voice, presumably because of stub of a cigar that seemed to always hang from the corner of his mouth as if it had somehow organically grown from within. There was firmness in the way his eyes would meet yours, as if sizing you up until you were compelled to turn away and when he began to speak, his voice lent an air of authority. Although undoubtedly deprived of a formal education beyond his early teens, he still spoke with an unmistakable eloquence of an educated man and held his audience transfixed as he would tell a seemingly casual story that naturally evolved into a profound lesson of life.
Without asking, you already knew that this was a man who had seen more than his share of suffering and yet still found that strength within to not merely survive, but to overcome, laughing at the gods of fate that relentlessly plotted against him even long before his tormented soul had been born.
Some might argue that Shango was doing time even before time began and when one looked upon the way his leathery skin was riddled with the many scars battle, each undoubtedly with their own story to tell (and as time would pass he might share a story or two – but most would be taken silently to the grave with him). And as is common with those who have suffered, the deepest scars were not visible but buried within.
There we sat in the far corner of the yard and casual conversation gave way, Shango captured the moment while the rest of us listened, and even the old cons grew silent as he spoke, recognizing that what he would share was worth listening.
What made this small gathering unusual was that it defied that unspoken presumption of racial barriers still often enforced in any prison environment. Florida was unquestionably part of that traditional “south” and those stubborn vestiges of racism handed down from generation to generation continued to remain. Although the demand for respect dictated that you would treat each other cordially, as any act of deliberate disrespect demanded violent consequences, that invisible wall of segregation relaxed in our own world to a limited degree. At the end of the day all of us, regardless of our race or religion, were condemned together.
In the following months, I made it a point to take time each rec yard to talk to Shango. Although much of our conversations centered on that common ground we shared – talking about the places we knew around the Lakeland and Plant City areas where we both spent time, mixed throughout these conversations, it become clear that his reputation for a casual intellectual depth and natural storytelling was well deserved. But that scholarly persona was tempered by a quick wit and a healthy sense of humor that often mischievously manifested itself at the most unexpected moments. Just as quickly, without breaking stride, that serious look would come over him and he would kind of lean forward, peering over the rim of his glasses, and would direct the conversation back to whatever point he was trying to make in the first place.
From that rec yard, off in the distance of about a mile away, if you knew what to look for, you could see the monolithic monstrosity that was commonly known simply as “The Rock,” the ancient housing unit at Raiford where the Florida State Prison system gave birth to its first real prison back in the early days of Humphrey Bogart and that breed of real card core “convicts.”
Florida´s own infamous “Rock” was a manifestation of evil that only man could make, a place where even the hardest of convicts would shudder in cold chills just at the thought of being sent there. Long since shattered after being deemed incapable of protecting either convicts or guards, in early 1988 it stood dark and silent, and from time to time Shango would look over, and in barely a whisper, share a story about his time there.
Perhaps he saw something in me he thought was worthy. A little at a time, Shango began sending me articles and books to read, each with its own purpose of contributing to that ability to eventually share with others my own experiences. He would admonish me to stand strong against the negativity that would drown my soul, and to always remember that hope is the common thread that ties us all together and with enough threads you have a rope strong enough to climb out of the abyss.
At first there didn´t seem to be any consistency to what he sent me to read. It ranged from religious commentary to philosophical editorials, but in a way difficult to describe, it all began to come together. Like a few others I came to know, Shango pursued that path of searching for truths through a wide variety of sources, each intended to instill strength by and through the wisdom of the ancients.
“We are gladiators,” he would convincingly proclaim. His message was that we stand before those who dared to anoint themselves with the power of God and by not allowing them to break our spirits within, we stand triumphantly with our heads still head high and whether we might be innocent or guilty we still stand here side by side as the sacrificial lamb before the altar of the politics of death.
But he would remind me and many others that our greatest battle was not the fight for our mortality, as in the end the flesh would die, and that those who gathered to throw stones down upon us would themselves be judged by the same measure they so quickly judged us.
In that time that followed, his words sank deeper within, echoing beyond my mind and inspiring me. His words pushed me to look beyond those cold concrete walls and served to contribute even further to the journey in search of my own personal truth.
What made Shango´s conversations that much more profound was that he had already had his “death warrant” previously signed – Florida´s way of scheduling an execution - and had been forced to confront his own death. The trauma of such an experience has broken many a strong man. It was his ability to hold fast to not only hope, but those principles that gave him strength and even continued being a mentor to others, knowing that at any given moment the governor could have signed his death warrant again and escort him to “Q-wing” where Florida´s execution chamber awaited. Each time we went to the rec yard, only a couple hundred feet away was that infamous “Q-wing,” each of us knew well which of those first floor windows were the death watch waiting cells and which were part of the execution chamber itself. For all practical purposes, it was as if they had built a gallows in our plain view so that we could never forget that they intended to kill us.
Shango and I came to know a college professor considered to be a leading authority on the death penalty. Professor Michael Radelet invited us to contribute a book that he was compiling and we both submitted essays. Although the book “Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment” wouldn´t be published until the following year, Shango´s essay provided what most likely was his final published work, and provides a glimpse into his insight. (Chapter 16: “An Inhumane Way to Die”), which I now quote from that book:
“I have been on death row for 14 years and I can honestly say that the only description of this place is hell. We send people to prison to suffer, and prisons have been highly successful at achieving that goal. We live in a society that follows the belief that inhumanity, revenge and retribution are legitimate goals of the state. Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I fight my own anger…. Most, if not all, of the humans on death row have souls that can be made clean through love, compassion and spirituality…I believe it is the duty and obligation of all of God´s children to save, heal, and repair the spirit, soul, mind and body of others. When Jesus said: “Love your neighbor”, I don´t think he was talking about those whom it was easy to love. Like others preparing for death, I need community…
The one thing all humans want and need is to love and be loved. I often sit and watch men here. I watch them change. I watch, and feel great pity for them. I feel shame, too. Shame because many of my Christian brothers and sisters allow this to continue in their name.”
Not long after Shango sent that contribution to Professor Radelet, the Florida governor (Robert Martínez) signed another death warrant, scheduling Shango´s execution. Those words would most likely be the last subsequently published by the man Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. that I know as Shango.
|Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. aka "Shango"|
A few weeks later, one of the guards wrote a “disciplinary report” on me and I was moved to another wing that housed those who allegedly violated some real, or just as common, imaginary rule. Call it “the hole” or whatever, but it meant at least 30 days in a cell with nothing but the absolute basics. But as coincidence would have it, that particular solitary cell on the north side of P-wing looked out across a grassy area to the rear of Q-wing where they brought the white vans loaded with witnesses to each execution.
Through inmate runners and even guards, I anxiously sought any information I could get regarding Shango´s scheduled execution, only to learn that in those few final weeks and then days counting down his date with death, a significant amount of evidence supporting his innocence – including an eyewitness that placed Shango far away from the crime scene at the time of the murders – had been categorially rejected by the courts. But that came as no surprise as the politics of death seemed to always prevail over the concepts of truth and justice and, at least among the ranks of the condemned, we all know only too well that the system would only too willingly put an innocent man to death.
Word reached me late in the evening of March 14 that they would carry out Shango´s execution early that next morning, around sunrise. At that time, Florida routinely scheduled its executions for 7:00 a.m., a moment in time as arbitrarily selected as those who would die.
On that morning of March 15, 1988 they ran the breakfast trays early and then locked down the prison. It was still dark outside and a chill hung heavy in the air that seemed to magnify that smell of human deprivation around me. This time of year the minimally effective ventilation system was shut down completely and the odors of every man on the wing, from the rank smell of human waste and other bodily excrements to burning paper used to heat up a cup of coffee, saturated the cell block. On that particular morning each smell became its own blanket that seemed determined to suffocate me and I felt that involuntary compulsion to vomit and yet couldn´t. But the taste of my own bile remained trapped in my throat.
I stood silently at the front of my cell looking outward, past the several sets of steel bars that separated me from that dusty and broken window out on the far catwalk. As those long moments passed, dawn began to barely break first in ominous shades of gray and then slivers of light that danced along the razor wire of the prison´s perimeter fence, as if that light itself was unwilling to enter into the prison compound. Soon the dark shapes of distant structures became visible and one by one distant lights flickered off.
I waited patiently in an unnatural silence like a lone sentry assigned to a solitary post, periodically annoyed by the sound of a flushing toilet, my glaze fixed on that still shadowy patch of circular pavement at the rear of the Q-wing. I watched as two white vans came into view, stopping at that back door, then in a rushed procession, one by one, the designed witnesses to the scheduled execution obediently filed inside to their assigned area and I wondered whether they would even take a moment to consider the character of the man they had come to watch die.
Most of these witnesses would be professional journalists who faithfully flocked to the prison to fulfill their professional duty, although, in Florida, members of the victim´s family often came as did lawyers and prosecutors. From time to time, some would inter report being haunted by what they witnessed, themselves traumatized by this ritual of death they so deliberately tried to carry out in this sterilized environment not at all comparable to the sensationalized stories of murder, mayhem and madness that geographically played out on the news each night.
Perhaps for most of those that came to watch, witnessing a man helplessly led into the room, strapped down to a heavy wooden chair, and electrodes fastened firmly to both his head and feet and a black leather mask then pulled down over his face and those long last moments until the warden gave the signal and the sudden surge of electricity violently ripping through both flesh and bone no more than a few feet in front of them, then the now dead body slumping in that chair as the man is pronounced dead, may have seemed anticlimactic, as if they each somehow expected something more…it was just too easy.
And I had neither right nor reason to throw stones, as like them, I couldn´t turn away and continued to stand there silently, looking down towards where those white vans remained and, after what seemed like forever, suddenly a single guard dressed in the two-tone brown uniform appeared and walked to the front of the van, waving a white towel over his head.
It was over and I knew that Shango was dead. Finally, I stepped back from the cell door and moved the few feet to my bunk and sat down, feeling an overwhelming emptiness as I struggled to sort out the emotions and thoughts that confusingly raced through my head. This wasn´t the first time that I helplessly sat as a silent witness to the deliberate murder of someone I had come to know, but it was the first time that I could watch the events unfold from my location as if perched above that back door of the death house knowing only too well that it was someone I knew that was being put to death and that finality in the senselessness of it all hung over me as I felt hopelessly helpless alone in my solitary cell.
But it wasn´t over. As I struggled through my thoughts, another sound outside that window caught my attention and I stood again to approach my cell door. Again, looking down a bit to my left, not more than a couple hundred feet away, I could now see a plain white hearse parked at the back door, its own rear door open, but no one seemed to be about. This particular hearse was no stranger to any of us, as with each execution it was always the same white hearse. Rumor had it that one of the prison sergeants had the contract to collect the body and deliver it to the local medical examiner, where state law mandated an autopsy to officially determine that the cause of death was, in fact, by lethal execution.
Again I stood silently and watched and waited, blankly staring down as long minutes passed. A guard walked by but ignored me just as I ignored him. The cell and catwalk lights again momentarily went dark as the prison switched back to regular power. Somewhere on the tier below a couple inmates began talking, although the deliberately muted tone of their voice prevented me from hearing, not that I wanted to hear.
Then suddenly, two men in civilian clothes (not guards) could be seen pulling a wheeled gurney with the black body bag plainly laying on top and without unnecessary delay, they unceremoniously folded its wheels and pushed the gurney into the hearse, closed that rear door, walked around to each side of the vehicle, got in and pulled away out of my line of sight towards what I knew was the back gate of the compound. A few moments later it passed by on the outside perimeter road, heading towards the highway that ran in front of Florida State Prison.
Something about Shango´s death was different and yet to this day I cannot define the difference, but I knew that it changed me. In those early years, when I first joined the ranks of the condemned, cast down into that continuous solitary confinement and the isolation of not merely my body, but all that encompassed my very spirit itself, I eagerly searched out those few stolen moments of human interaction we were afforded, such as on the rec yard, and emotionally “connect” with those around me as if they were my only family.
But there was a price to be paid for getting too close. It wasn´t enough to isolate us in our solitary cells – there had to be consequences for any human contact we dared to seek. With each execution, a part of who we were was to die.
From the moment we awoke each morning, until that indeterminate time when we each struggled to fall asleep, we would not be allowed to forget that we were here for one reason, and only one reason – to die. And if we dared to reach out to each other for that morsel of human contact we each so desperately hungered for, if we dared to find value in each other if only to seek redemption for our own tortured soul, then as they dragged that friend away to his own death, it would be our own fate to die a little with him. Each of us became part of every execution.
When I felt alone and abandoned by all, I knew I only needed to call out to another around me who felt that same sense of isolation and abandonment and although separated by that concrete and steel in our own sort of way, we supported each other.
But Shango´s death made all that different. Maybe it was the way he spoke of hope and generously shared his own strength with others around him, or that unshakable belief that good would ultimately prevail over evil and the evidence of his innocence become that truth that would set him free – but it didn´t and his protestations of innocence fell upon deaf ears.
And those of us that know him struggled to make sense of it all. With 20,000 homicides in America each year why was it that this one person who spoke with such eloquence about hope and spiritual faith suffer this fate when so much more might have been accomplished by sparing his life and allow him to continue to teach others.
For this reason I call him the “Sacrificial Sage” – his unnatural death by those that deliberately condemned him served no other purpose but to satisfy their own blood lust, yet another sacrifice at that ungodly altar of the politics of death, and in that silence that remained, a “sage” of wisdom and compassion for others around him ceased to exist. And the true tragedy of it all was that those so determined to take his life never knew him as that man he had become.
|Michael Lambrix was executed|
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017