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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Administering Justice in the Spirit of Ted Bundy

By Michael Lambrix

Many years ago as I took the first steps of an unexpectedly long spanning decade after decade on Florida´s death row, by coincidence I came to know the infamous Ted Bundy, who many see as the very personification of “evil.”

In the countless hours I spent conversing with him over several years around the concrete walls of our solitary confinement cells or walking around the yard as casually as if we were strolling through a public park, not once did he exhibit even the slightest indication of seeing himself as “evil.” Nor did he bear any resemblance to the measure of evil so many others saw him as.

If not for the well-publicized accounts of his preying upon young women from coast to coast, the horrors he inflicted for no other reason than to satisfy his lusts and rage, I would have had no reason to think of him as “evil.” That is not the person he projected himself to be, at least not to me.  Rather, I saw him as each of his victims initially did –an intelligent and charismatic “boy next door” type with a quick wit and sense of humor that drew you in like a moth to a candle.

It has been over a quarter of a century since that January 1984 morning when the State of Florida led Bundy on his last walk, into the execution chamber here at the Florida State Prison. Strapped into the dark-stained, three-legged monstrosity known as “Old Sparky”, he spoke his last words.  A packed roomful of witnesses stared silently through the glass window separating them by a few feet.  Warden Tom Burton gave the signal and the first of three lethal surges of electricity violently ripped through his body. Each powerful surge made his body involuntarily strain against the well-worn leather straps holding him firmly in the chair.  Witnesses would later report a wisp of smoke that rose from his shaven head and the smell of his burnt flesh.  The monster was dead.  Society could sleep just a little better. “Justice” had prevailed, society purged that of evil.

Twenty-seven years later, almost to the day, the United States Supreme Court held by nearly unanimous decision that the State of Florida had illegally killed Ted Bundy. Under constitutional law, every person condemned to Death in the State of Florida since 1974 – including the 91 individuals (both men and women) already executed-- were illegally sentenced.  In a nation, without legal authority to condemn any person, execution constitutes state sanctioned murder.

As coincidence would have it, when the United States Supreme Court issued the relevant decision in Hurst v Florida, 136 S.ct.616 (2016) on January 12, 2016, I was in the same cell Ted Bundy spent his last night in. Counting down my last days before my own scheduled execution (please read: “Execution Day: Involuntary Witness to a State Sanctioned Murder”). I was measured and fitted for the suit they intended to kill me in, and I contemplated my last meal, mindful that my choice would be severely limited by state law prohibiting the prison from spending too much money on a condemned prisoner´s last meal. I wondered whether the Hurst ruling would stop my own scheduled execution – or would the corrupt courts find a way to weasel out of granting relief from my illegally imposed sentence of death? (please read: “Death by Default”)

My uncertain fate dragged by slowly, to the tick-tocking of the clock hung on the wall outside my death watch cell. Each day I took another step closer to my scheduled execution. I struggled not to show fear for the sake my family and friends as they rallied around me, traveling to the prison to spend a few hours visiting through a pane of glass.  In Florida, once a prisoner is under an active death warrant with a scheduled execution date, all contact with family is prohibited with the exception of a final one-hour “contact visit” on the morning of the scheduled execution.

The Florida attorney general argued that the Supreme Court´s decision could only apply to future capital cases.   Such a “new law,” they argued, could not be retroactively applied. My lawyers argued that ends do not justify the means -- if a person was illegally sentenced to death, then principles of fundamental fairness and constitutional prohibitions against infliction of cruel and unusual punishments demand that this new law be retroactively applied.

My case was thrust into the forefront of this epic legal battle.  The state attorneys fought with all their might to convince the Florida Supreme Court that it really didn´t matter if I was illegally sentenced to death, since they´d already invested too many judicial resources to be derailed by a “last minute” change of the law. Retroactive application of this new law to my case would invalidate every death sentence in Florida – and on an election year, no less. See: Death Row Inmate Michael Lambrix Awaits Fate from Court: “Its my last hope” by Steve Bousquet, Tampa Bay Times, March 25, 2016 and  “His Plea for Life at Florida´s Highest Court” by Elizabeth Johnson, Herald-Tribune, January 30, 2016

My lawyers argued that the Florida Supreme Court must at least enter a stay of execution until the issue could be properly addressed. Weeks passed. I was within days of scheduled execution when on February 2, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court allowed “oral arguments” to be heard. Shortly after, they entered a temporary stay of execution – but the prison kept me on death watch despite the stay, as if the Court never ordered it.   My date with death drew closer, and I was allowed last visits with my long time close friend Jan Arriens (who founded the international death row advocacy group “Lifelines”  and author of the book Welcome to Hell), and members of my family.

I was having a visit with my family on February 9, 2016  – hours away from my scheduled execution day of February 11 – when the Death Watch Supervisor told me that in light of the Florida Supreme Court´s “temporary” stay, I would be removed from “death watch” and returned to the regular death row housing area.

Even though my execution had been postponed, the state of Florida pursued the execution of Mark Asay, keeping him “death watch,” his scheduled execution five weeks later.  A month later Mark would also have his execution postponed and be moved back to the regular death row housing area only a few cells away from me.

With executions in Florida now indefinitely on hold until the Florida Supreme Court could decide whether Hurst would be retroactively applied, we all anxiously waited – not only those condemned to death, but our families and friends, too.

I remained under what Florida refers to as “Phase III Death Watch”; an active death warrant without a scheduled execution date.  Uncertainty weighed heavily on me.  My frustration over the narrow lens viewing the death sentences increased.  Like many others here on death row, I couldn´t care less about having my death sentence reduced to life.  My primary objective was to have the Courts address my consistently-pled and substantiated claim of innocence, have available evidence be heard, and be exonerated and released (please check out my website, www.southerninjustice.net) (see also: www.save-innocents.org/Michaellambrix and www.murderpedia.org/michaellambrix). 

A waiting game that has broken stronger men than me, as the stress of an uncertain fate is a greater “punishment” than being put to death (please read “The Day God Died”), Stress fades as you confront your own mortality and make peace within yourself.  Not knowing extracts a greater toll of mental anguish –not only upon the condemned, but upon our family and friends too.

Days became weeks and passed into months.  Another long, hot and unbearably humid summer spent in this solitary cell.  Each week we waited anxiously to hear whether the Florida Supreme Court had ruled, knowing that when they did, if they ruled against us, my execution would be quickly rescheduled.  I remained in limbo. I could not make any long term plans, struggling to project strength so my friends and family could find comfort and ease their concerns.

The relentless Florida summer broke, a bit of autumn in the air. The second week of October the Florida Supreme Court finally released its ruling in Hurst v State, 202 So.3d,40 (Feb. 2016). The court threw out Timothy Hurst´s death sentence holding that any death sentence imposed by a less than unanimous jury vote violated both the Sixth Amendment and the Constitutional prohibition against infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.  In a companion case, Perry v State, the Florida Supreme Court further declared unconstitutional Florida´s new law requiring a “supermajority” (at least 10 of 12 jurors) to vote for death. That absent a unanimous jury finding, any death sentence would be illegal.

The real question is: why did it take so long? Florida was out of step with the majority of other death penalty states for many years.  Of the 27 states allowing the death penalty, only 3 allowed the convicted to be condemned by less than a unanimous jury vote – Florida, Delaware and Alabama.

In 2002 the United States Supreme Court made clear in Ring v Arizona that any system allowing a judge, rather than jury, to impose a death sentence was unconstitutional. Florida declared itself exempt from that ruling and carried out 47 more executions before the US Supreme Court finally intervened in Hurst v Florida.

In Hurst v State case, the Florida Supreme Court finally admitted the error of its ways. It appeared the court would, reluctantly, accept that all death sentences in Florida were illegally imposed, since no valid statue existed that conformed to constitutional law.

When that decision was released on October 14, 2016, the weight lifted.  It seemed that all death sentences would be thrown out.  Incredibly, there was an absence of resistance from politicians and mainstream media. Prison officials contemplated the expected transfer of 385 death-sentenced prisoners to life, meaning that they would be removed from solitary confinement and placed in general inmate population (“gen-pop”) at prisons throughout the state.

Some were not happy about the prospect of having their death sentences reduced to life – they didn´t want to be placed in “gen-pop”.  A life sentence in Florida would mean no chance of release, ever – they would be forced to work for the state until they slowly rotted away and died. They preferred to stay in their solitary cell on death row! The Florida Supreme Court summarily denied these pro-se motions as being “unauthorized” under Florida´s “Logan Rule,” which prohibits prisoners from submitting any action to the court if they are represented by legal counsel.

My own confidence that my death sentence would be thrown out compelled me to tell my family and friends that I would soon be off death row and they need not worry about me being rescheduled for execution.  For the first time in a long time I didn´t have to pretend to be strong.

Christmas approached, and I looked forward to having a visit with my family, giving them each a big hug and wishing them a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The prior Christmas (2015) they had sat with me separated by a glass wall in the non-contact death watch visiting area.  We believed the past Christmas would be my last… but this Christmas brought with it the hope that I would soon have my death sentence lifted. I should have known better.

Two days before Christmas, the Florida Supreme Court released two decisions establishing the parameters within which the previous decisions would be applied. They did not rule in my own case (and, in fact, as of this writing the court still has not ruled in my case).  These two rulings created even greater controversy by exposing the truth many of us have known all along – that when it comes to the death penalty, basic concepts of fundamental fairness are abandoned. Those determined to take life will find a way to take life.

In the first case of John Mosley v State of Florida the Court recognized in a split decision that under the “new law” established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v Florida, the Florida Supreme Court was clearly wrong in 2002 (King v State and Bottoson v State) where they held that Ring v Arizona (ussc, 2002) didn´t apply to Florida.  The FSC then held that Mosley and all others who were illegally sentenced to death since 2002 were entitled to have those sentences thrown out and new sentencing proceedings conducted.

Because of the Mosley ruling most death sentenced prisoners in Florida will be removed from death row.  These resentencing proceedings will have to conform to the Hurst requirements of unanimous jury findings in support of death, so it is unlikely that many will return to death row.  The Florida State Court recognized that it was wrong not to vacate these sentences in 2002, but the court failed to comment on the fact that because of its “error”, between 2002 and 2016 Florida executed 47 prisoners illegally.  

In Mark Asay v State of Florida, the Florida Supreme Court first recognized that Asay was illegally sentenced to death – but because he was illegally sentenced prior to their error in 2002, they drew a line at June 2002. Those sentenced to death after 2002 would have their sentences thrown out, but those sentenced prior to 2002 would not be allowed relief for their illegal death sentences.

Several justices dissented, saying that cutting off the application of retroactive relief under Hurst would be “arbitrary” and ”fundamentally unfair.” the narrow majority of the court reasoned that although all Florida death row prisoners were illegally sentenced to die, it would be too inconvenient and burdensome to grant everybody relief.  For that reason, the Court concluded that it would be easier if they just went ahead and killed the human beings with pre-2002 cases.

The significance of these rulings cannot be overstated. Respect for, and obedience to laws define who we are as a society. The Florida Supreme Court made no mention of the fact that its arbitrarily imposed line in the sand is unprecedented.  Both state and federal law define when a new and substantive rule of law must be retroactively applied. No state or federal court has ever applied a “new law” to some of the effected defendants – but deny relief to others similarly affected.

The hypocrisy of this arbitrarily drawn line is best illustrated by the Florida Supreme Court´s own prior decision in Falcon v State, (2015).  The FSC was compelled to decide whether juveniles unconstitutionally sentenced to mandatory life sentences were entitled to retroactive application of Graham v Florida, consistent with Montgomery v Louisiana.  The very same court ruled that it would be “fundamentally unfair” not to apply Graham to all prisoners sentenced to life regardless of how long they had been in prison – many of whom were convicted and sentenced as long as 40 or more years ago!

There were more prisoners illegally sentenced to life as juveniles than there are death sentenced prisoners at issue, and yet the Florida Supreme Court said nothing about how granting relief to so many would undermine the functioning of the legal system.

It´s often been said that “death is different.” Once “death” is on the table, moral constraints of  the judicial process are abandoned and fundamental fairness is sacrificed at the altar of the politics of death.

Again and again under the pretense of administering “justice” the courts manipulate basic concepts of decency, tenets that form the foundation of a civilized society. Their outcome - determinative ideology, fueled by an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, compels our Courts to devise ways to kill regardless of right or wrong.

Which brings me back to the time I spent with Ted Bundy. What bothered me the most about those interactions, the conversations I had with him, was that not once did he indicate regret or remorse. I could not understand how anyone could take another person´s life and not be affected.

I draw from my own personal experience.  Many years ago I was put into a situation in which I was compelled to take a man´s life.  (You can read about my case at www.southernjustice.net) Although it has been many decades, I am haunted by the memories of that night.  Sometimes days or even weeks will pass without being reminded but then I will see something on T.V. or read something in the newspaper – or for no apparent reason -- I will see his face again and have a sleepless night.  I cannot imagine how anyone who has taken even one life – let alone many – can overcome the greatest persecution of all – our own conscience.

Taking a life, any life, should never be easy – and it should never be forgotten. What bothers me most when the courts decide matters of life and death with indifference that contradicts any concepts of moral conscience is that their actions instead reflect the mind and manner of a sociopath.  In the many years I have journeyed this labyrinth of judicial hypocrisy, like many others, I have no doubt that the members of the courts know they are sending innocent people to their death under the pretense of administering “justice.” And yet I have never once heard a judge express regret or remorse.

Many would say Ted Bundy was the personification of “evil” in our contemporary society.  I never knew that side of him.  The word “evil” is defined in the dictionary as engaging in conduct that is “morally objectionable” – something that “causes harm or injury”, or is otherwise “characterized by intense ill will or spite.” In my Thesaurus, I find that the synonyms include “wicked”, “detrimental” and “spiteful”.

The funny thing about evil is that it´s easy to see in others, but difficult to see within ourselves.  Like the United States Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, we will know it when we see it.  Like beauty, evil is within the eye of the beholder.

Every day we choose to evolve into something better - or we regress into the primordial slime we crawled from.  As a matter of conscience we no longer practice forms of punishment once widely accepted – and we would like to think that those entrusted to administer “justice”  possess the capacity to rise above that temptation to pursue vengeance. 

For over 40 years the State of Florida has been illegally condemning prisoners to death, and because our judiciary is governed by the Politics of Death, Florida put at least 90 men and women to death without legal authority.  To put one person to death in contradiction of the law is an act of murder, plain and simple.

Some might argue that the law changes over time and those Florida executed were put to death in accord with the law at that time. What became clear in Hurst v Florida, 136 S.ct.616 (2016) is that this is no longer true… every prisoner on Florida´s death row has been unconstitutionally sentenced to death.

If a person violates the law, then as a moral and civilized society we demand that justice be administered in a fair and equitable manner. If a State has illegally condemned hundreds of people to death, then fairness dictates that all of those illegally imposed sentences must be vacated.  The politics of a vengeance-driven punishment (the death penalty) cannot be allowed to compromise the administration of justice.  To arbitrarily draw a line in the sand and say that Florida will be allowed to kill at least 185 people illegally sentenced to death because it´s too inconvenient to do the right thing amounts to “justice” in the spirit of Ted Bundy – state-sanctioned serial killing.



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



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