Thursday, October 6, 2016

In the Shadow of Death

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By Michael Lambrix

I held my cheap plastic wristwatch in my hand and silently counted down each second as it methodically ticked toward 6:00 p.m. This was the morbid ritual that I’d found myself involuntarily participating in over the past six months.  I thought of slamming that watch against the concrete wall of my solitary cell, as if it would be that easy to stop time.  But I could not deprive myself of my own ritual.

Tonight held heightened significance, since six months ago at precisely 6:00 p.m. I was to be put to death.  My familiarity with the process allows me to graphically envision what those final moments would have been like.  In my lucid nightmares, I´ve imagined myself led into the execution chamber only too many times.  I´ve felt the firm grip of the guards as they assist me on to the gurney and instruct me to lay back.  I silently watched as the medical staff approach and with professional detachment proceed to insert the needles into both of my arms, at the elbows, taping each down before attaching the transparent I.V. tubes that would allow the lethal chemicals to freely flow into my veins.

The gurney faced a glass window. I could see myself raising my head up and looking into the panel of almost motionless witnesses, the window creating enough of a glare so I could see my own image reflected back, an apparition.  I scan the small crowd gathered to watch me die. I recognized a few familiar faces, but feelmy anxiety building, as I can’t find even one friendly face.  But there in the far corner, almost beyond sight, is the familiar face of my spiritual advisor, and as he notices me struggling to see him, he rewards me with a faint smile…and I try to smile back.  And then I lay my head back and close my eyes.  A muffled voice behind me instruct the unseen executioner to proceed.

Too many times I´ve imagined myself laying there, perfectly still and silent, aware of my own pounding heart beating louder and louder in my chest. A sense of panic as I wondered whether I might be having a heart attack, and just as the pounding in my chest seemed to transcend beyond my own still warm body and fill the room around me, I felt myself involuntarily shiver at the sensation of cold liquid reached my veins.  I did not expect it to be so cold, and the chill quickly traveled up my arm and into my chest.

Although I´ve vividly imagined this process again and again, each time I still feel overwhelming fear as the first round of chemicals take effect.  My body relaxes as I struggle to remain conscious, as knowing if I went to sleep, I would not awake.

My eyes closed and my head rested back, I willed myself to see the faces of my loved ones.  I pictured them smiling, and the pounding in my chest slowly subsided.  My anxiety eroded into a sense of calm as I stopped struggling against unconsciousness. I only felt someone´s fingertip at my eyelashes and attempted to respond, to let them know I was still there, but my body would not cooperate.

A moment later the cool liquid being pumped into my veins was replaced by what felt like molten lava, quickly spreading from my arms, into my chest and throughout my body as if I was being burned alive. I wanted to scream and beg them to stop, but the sedative prevented any physical reaction. Time stood still. I lay there helpless, consumed by incomprehensible pain. All I wanted was for it to stop, but it didn´t….

I opened my eyes, looked around, and realized that I was lying on my bunk in my solitary cell, still holding the watch.  At that moment, they would have declared me dead.  But I was still alive.  I cannot call these nightmares, as they don´t come only when I am asleep, but possess me when I´m awake and aware of the stroke of six o´clock.

Sometimes I attempt to resist the compulsion to pick up my watch and hold it in my hand, the hour of my intended death approaching, but resistance would be futile even if I were not holding that watch. I could not hope to escape the thought process that time and time again plays out my own execution.

They call this “Phase III,” which in Florida is the designated classification for those who are under an active “death warrant,” but not currently under a scheduled execution date.  Currently there are three of us at Florida State Prison in this “Phase III” death watch states.  There would have been four, but David Johnston died of a heart attack while awaiting word of whether his execution would be rescheduled.  And Robert Trease has already had two heart attacks while on Phase III.  The psychological weight of uncertain fate takes its toll. Some escape execution by dying of a heart attack brought about by the stress of “Phase III”, others succumb to mental degradation during this time, and I wonder whether I might, too.

A state of limbo very few survive -- it is our luck to have our previously scheduled execution “temporarily” postponed while the courts contemplate a legal issue. The gun remains cocked, loaded, and pressed against our head, but they wait to pull the trigger.  No thought is given to the trauma imposed upon the condemned. The courts might debate whether a botched execution might constitute cruel and unusual punishment (please read “The Other Side of the Coin”), but not once have I heard lawyers or the courts debate the psychological trauma inflicted upon the condemned by that threat of imminent death, much less the prolonged anxiety and psychological torture imposed when that scheduled execution is postponed, and the condemned held in a state of limbo, precariously dangling over an abyss of impending death. While desperately holding on to fragile life, the condemned anxiously await their fate.

As I write, I’m dripping sweat on this August day in my solitary cell on Florida´s infamous “death row.” I try to ignore the relentless heat and humidity of the subtropical summer, just as I have for well over three decades, but this summer is different. Despite the unbearable heat a chill hangs heavy over me, and although it doesn´t mitigate the hot days, it still provokes a shiver down to my bones. Something dark and evil is methodically stalking me, patiently waiting in the shadows as I anxiously await my fate…and I know it is death.

Contemplate how I got to where I am today.  In some ways, it´s dejá vu. I´ve been here before (please read “The Day God Died”), facing the threat of imminent execution only to have the courts postpone my date with death.  But this time it is different. Florida has fine-tuned its process and in the past ten years only one person has survived a “death warrant.” More than 40 were put to death – many after receiving temporary postponements (“stay of execution”) as the courts contemplated legal issues, only to rule against them and order the state to proceed with the execution.

I am envious of those who accept their fate and become resolved to their imminent execution. Most have long ago given up – some even eagerly request that they be expeditiously executed so as to bring an end to their journey.  Often they are broken, their will to live eroded and replaced by an even stronger will to die.

But… I haven´t given up, and I won´t.  I will fight until I take my last breath, and, despite being long convinced that our legal system has abandoned any pretense of protecting the innocent from unjustified execution I will continue to zealously push to prove my innocence. (Please read “That Slippery Slope to State-Sanctioned Murder”).

Thursdays are the worst. Thursday, February 11, 2016 I was scheduled to be put to death. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a “temporary” stay of execution while they contemplated the application of the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Hurst v Florida which declared the way Florida imposes its sentences of death violates the Sixth Amendment.

The Florida Supreme Court releases its decisions only on Thursdays, so each Thursday I begin pacing in my solitary cell, back and forth a few feet in each direction as I anxiously wait to see whether they will come for me again.

If the Florida Supreme Court rules Hurst v Florida is retroactive, applying it applicable to older capital cases such as mine and finds that even though I was unconstitutionally sentenced to death under Hurst, I am not entitled to relief, then they will lift the temporary stay of execution. Under Florida law I must be rescheduled for execution within ten days, and I would quickly find myself back down on “death watch.”

They could come for me without warning. The Court would issue its ruling at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, and there wouldn´t be time for my lawyers to notify me before prison staff come to my cell and escort me back to the bottom floor of “Q-wing,” where I would be the next in line to be put to death.

I would be placed right back in “cell one,” which I previously occupied, (Please read “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to State-Sanctioned Murder”) prior to me the last 23 occupants of that cell were each put to death. I am the only one to survive that cell in recent memory.  A few feet away the blue suit the state bought to kill me in, patiently awaits my return.  I have already ordered my last meal and arranged for the disposal of my body. The only uncompleted task is to kill me.

I find myself discouraged by the absence of media attention toward my claim of innocence.  When my execution appeared to be imminent, numerous media sources published articles on my innocence (see e.g.: “Death Row Inmate Michael Lambrix Awaits Fate from Court: ´It´s my last hope´” by Steve Bousquet, Tampa Bay Times, March 25, 2016.  “Sentenced then Stalled: Lambrix´s Legal 'Purgatory' on Death Row” by Daniel Ducassi, Politico, March 25, 2016 ; “His Plea for Life at Florida´s Highest Court” by Elizabeth Johnson, Sarasota Herald – Tribune, January 30, 2016.

But interest has evaporated and the world has moved on.  When I was previously scheduled for execution, numerous groups around the world campaigned to stop it (Please check out organizing evidence and collecting signatures for Amnesty International campaign). But for the past six months this campaign has died down, losing its momentum.

I wonder whether I might wake up tomorrow in cell one, feet away from the execution chamber. Once again counting down the days and hours until my next execution date, I find myself in close proximity to several men who cannot understand why I am fighting. They are among the many who want their own executions to be carried out without delay.

The paradox of the death row community is that some fight to live, others fight to die. Somewhere between, the majority of others don´t seem to care either way.

Think about how much easier it would be to simply surrender to my seemingly inevitable fate. For over three decades I´ve fought with all I have only to be repeatedly beaten down by both the courts and my own lawyers.  Once we are condemned to death, both the state and the courts make sure we are not provided competent legal representation.  They´ve stacked the deck to make it almost impossible for justice to prevail for the condemned.

I remain under a “temporary” stay of execution, and my greatest source of frustration is the never-ending battle with my state-appointed legal counsel, trying to get them to do something before I am rescheduled for execution.  But no matter how much I try, my pleas fall on deaf ears.

Sometimes I even wonder whether my state-employed legal counsel is deliberately throwing the game. The absence of a will to fight – and too often a refusal to even try – convinces me they want me to be executed.  I cannot understand them – I cannot accept their failure to do anything when I know numerous avenues are available to pursue.

I am prohibited from even protecting my own interests.  Florida passed laws that categorically prohibit death sentence prisoners from filing any appeals. If the state-employed lawyers assigned to your case are not willing to file whatever legal action might be available, then you´re just out of luck -- unless you can afford to retain a private lawyer willing to represent you.  But that´s not going to happen. Like everyone else sentenced to death, I don´t have money to hire a lawyer.

So when others around me express their own desire to waive their appeals and expedite their own execution, understand why they want to end their journey by what amounts to a “voluntary” execution. If we know nothing else, we know our legal system is corrupt to its core, and that politics will always prevail over justice…that´s the American way.

Despite the evidence substantiating my claim of innocence -- despite the state´s admission that there were no eyewitnesses, no physical or forensic evidence and no confessions to support the state´s circumstantial theory of premeditated murder despite the promise of “a moral certainty of guilt” before putting a person to death, I know they could come for me again and put me to death.

I look at my watch in my early evening ritual, and struggle with the same question so many others around me ask – why do I delay the inevitable?

Each day I struggle with the conflicting forces of hope and despair, struggling to find the strength to continue treading water when it would be simpler to surrender and allow myself to sink into the abyss awaiting each of us.

I read my Bible each morning and am inspired by the promise that good will ultimately prevail. I read philosophical texts later in the day, forcing me to confront the inherent nature of human experience is suffering. Injustice defines the human experience. I read and imposed upon my memory long ago: “when Midas asked Silenus what fate is best for a man, Silenus answered: ´pitiful race of a day, children of accidents and sorrow, why do you force me to say what were better left unheard?  The best of all is unobtainable – not to be born, to be nothing.  The second best is to die early.” (The Birth of Tragedy – Friedrich Nietzche).

Why do I prolong my misery when it would be simpler to give up and allow the state to carry out my execution?  Why do I continue to insist on living when I know in the end nobody gets out alive?  I am reminded also of Plato´s account of the execution of Socrates, condemned to death not for any actual crime, but to appease the politics of his day.

Like myself, Socrates was blessed with his own small group of family and friends who faithfully stood by his side as he faced wrongful execution.  His closest friend Crito pleaded with him to allow them to use their political influence to delay the execution, and perhaps even win his freedom, reminding Socrates that it was common for others to delay their scheduled execution, and Socrates replied:
“Yes, Crito, and they whom you speak of are right in doing thus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right in not doing thus, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life that is already gone.  I could only laugh at myself for this.”

The very hopelessness that Socrates felt would only make him a fool to delay his own imminent execution surprisingly inspires me as my own life is not already gone.  Even when the chill here in the shadow of death descends upon me, I still find the strength within  me to reach above despair and remind myself what I am fighting for…and it bears repeating – my life is not already gone.

Perhaps in the end some will say that my fight has been for nothing.  Ultimately, despite my refusal to lie down and die, I will still be put to death.  When I first came to Florida´s death row, I was still a young man with my life ahead of me.  Now I´m a grandfather many times over.  I have spent my entire adult life condemned to death for a crime I did not commit.  (Please check out: I no longer harbor delusions that justice will prevail.  When it comes to justice in America, you only get what you pay for. I have no hope of being able to afford the legal representation it would take to prove my innocence and be exonerated.

But whether I am executed – or they reduce my death sentence and condemn me to slowly rot away until I finally die of old age doing “life” in prison, what inspires the strength within me to keep fighting is more about who I am as a person – who I have become as a person and those values that now define me.

My fight has transcended beyond the simple question of whether I might live or die. As I said, I accept that nobody gets out alive.  Rather, it´s not about the final destination, but the journey we take getting there.  And as long as I know my life is not already gone – and by that I mean what defines who I am, and the connection I have with those who love me and stand by me unconditionally, I know each time I find myself being overcome anxiety and despair, I remain stronger than that which tries to drag me under.

I will continue to hold my watch as I count down to 6:00 o´clock hour each evening. I anxiously await my fate as it remains to be determined whether I will live or die in the foreseeable future in Florida´s execution chamber.

And I will involuntarily shiver as the chill descends upon me here in the shadow of death.  But then I will bask in the warmth of the love and strength of those who give so much of themselves to stand faithfully by my side. The communion of our souls that binding us together in body and spirit, that the chill only serves to remind me my life is not already gone and there remains reason to continue my life until I breathe my very last breath.

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

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grasshopper said...

Do I understand correctly, that if the Court at Thursday decides to execute you, there will be no time for the second campaign, it will be performed immediately?

Rocky C said...

Keep strong mate. I have been locked up. I know the feeling. The best way I can describe it is 'existential claustrophobia". I was only locked up for two weeks. Guilty or innocent,I don't know what the point is of killing criminals. Especially if they can be of some productive while incarcerated. I read all your articles. I wish you luck.

Sharon Mcmurtrie said...

Dear michael I feel for you there are so many innocent people on DR capital punishment has to end it's murder all life is worth saving I myself have been in prison and short sentence 18month I cannot imagine being there for the time you have your will to live is strong I wish you well in your fight for justice I read a lot of your writing keep doing it people need to know what is going on. Take care