That gun to my head to remain fully cocked and ready to fire, but at least for now the safety is still on as the Florida Supreme Court continues to debate whether all Florida death sentences must be thrown out, or just some. as I watched the oral arguements in the most recent case before the Florida Supreme Court on June 7, 2016 I noticed that the justices went to great lengths not to reveal their position on whether Hurst v. Florida will be applied retroactively to all cases, or limited to only the most recent cases.
As I continue to struggle with the uncertainty of whether I will live or die, I thought some about where I was 16 years ago today - at that time convinced that within weeks I would walk out a free man. But it didn't happen. Instead, once again I learned a lesson we all learn about what the death penalty is really about... politics. I smile when I think about the epidemic of blissful ignorance - those who truly believe that our system is committed to that noble cause of administering justice and protecting the innocent. I suppose that's what they need to believe, as if they were to be forced to confront the truth that those responsible for convicted and condemning people to death under the pretense of administering justice only too often couldn't care less about whether the accused actually committed the crimes...all that really counts is winning the conviction, and too many prosecutors will do whatever is necessary to win as they don't get promoted by losing cases.
Too often I hear people speak of the "moral certainty of guilt" as the benchmark for ensuring that innocent men and women are not put to death. But it's merely rhetoric - it makes a good sound bite on the evening news and provides an assumption that there truly is solid evidence supporting every capital case and no reasonable person would question the guilt of those put to death. This is the smoke and mirrors show prosecutors and politicians put on to distract away from the real truth - that only too often the alleged evidence used to convict and condemn us, at best, tainted and not at all what it seems.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm hardly objective when it comes to my own case. But then again, as I've always said to anyone who would listen, I'm not asking anyone to simply believe me - and they shouldn't believe the prosecutors either. Rather, all I have ever asked is that those who do feel that there must be a moral certainty of guilt, before the state takes a life under the pretense of administering justice, look at the evidence in my case themselves and then ask whether they can say that the collective evidence establishes my guilt - or does it show that the State of Florida is only too willing to execute the innocent?
The basic facts of my case are that in February 1983 while I was living with Frances Smith in a small rural farming community, she and I went to a local bar where by chance we met another couple, a 35 year old man who called himself Chip, who would later be identified as Clarence Moore, also known as Lawrence Lamberson, and a nineteen-year-old local waitress by the name of Alicia Bryant. The state's own investigation (unknown to the jury) revealed that Moore was a "career criminal" and known associate of south Florida drug smugglers, with the history of violently assaulting women when intoxicated.
It is not disputed that me and Frances Smith joined Moore and Bryant and the four of us then spent the evening of Sunday February 5th 1983, drinking at several local bars before the four of us then decided to go back to the trailer me and Smith shared, located on a ranch well outside of town. After arriving at the trailer, me, Moore and Bryant sat in the living room drinking whiskey while Smith was in the adjacent kitchen cooking a late night dinner. Smith would later testify that we were all "laughing teasing and playing around" just before me and Moore would go outside, leaving Smith and Bryant inside the trailer.
Fast forward to the following week. Frances Smith was arrested while in the exclusive possession of the car belonging to Moore. She was then intensely questioned by the police as to how she got the car, and gave the police one story after another, each proving false, before she was bonded out of jail. The following week Smith walked into the state attorney's office in Tampa, Florida and announced that she knew where the bodies are buried in rural Glades county and will lead the police to them - but she wanted full immunity from prosecution.
Smith then tells the prosecutor that after arriving at the trailer that night, I first went outside with Moore and then returned alone about 20 minutes later, at which time I "looked normal". I had no blood on me. Then I went outside with Alicia Bryant, but this time I was outside much longer and when I returned I was "covered in blood" and told her "they're death".
Smith has consistently said that although she repeatedly asked what happened, I wouldn't talk about it, and never said why. She claimed she was then "forced" to assist in superfacially concealing the bodies of Moore and Bryant, then left Glades county with me, and subsequently we parted ways with Smith keeping Moore's car until she was arrested on unrelated charges.
The following month I was arrested and charged with capital murder of both Moore and Bryant. Based solely on Smith's statements, I was indicted on premeditated murder and the state announced it would seek the death penalty. At arraignment, I pled not guilty.
The prosecutor knew that is wholly circumstantial case was weak, and that unless additional evidence could be developed there was a really good chance that the jury would reject Smith's testimony and acquit me. But then another witness came forward. The girlfriend of Smith's own cousin (Deborah Hanzel) conveniently corroborated Smith's otherwise unsupported testimony by claiming that she too had talked to me and that I admitted to killing the man, apparently motivated by an intent to steal his car.
Suddenly this wholly circumstantial case had substance and with the threat of the death penalty hanging over my head the local prosecutor tried to coerce me into pleading guilty for a more lenient sentence, but I refused. In December 1983 the case went to trial, but that first jury refused to convict me of any charges - they could not reach an unanimous verdict ("hung jury")
The case was rescheduled for trial and the local prosecutor vowed to convict, but shortly before trial again attempted to coerce me into pleading guilty to lesser charges of (second-degree murder) in exchange for what would had been a sentence of 17 to 22 years - I would have been out within 10 to 15 years. But again, I refused, insisting that I would not plead guilty for something I didn't do.
On the very day that the re-trial began, for reasons never explained, the original presiding judge (Richard Adams) was abrubtly removed and replaced by another judge, (Richard Stanley) - a local career prosecutor who was later quoted by various newspapers as saying that he always carried a"sawed off machine gun" while on the bench and that if he had it his way, he would have shot capital defendants "between the eyes" in his courtroom rather than going through the expense of convicting and condemning them to death.
I knew I was in trouble just as soon as they started to pick the jury and the court stacked the deck with at least 4 jurors related to members of the small town local sheriff's department - and it only got worse from there. Judge Stanley then prohibited the jury from knowing that key witness Smith actually gave numerous conflicting stories prior to coming up with the one she testified to - and that even then, Smith failed a state administered polygraph test.
Then the court prohibited me from testifying, even though I was the only person who could have disputed Smith's claims and allowed the jury to know what really happened outside. I was not allowed to testify for no other reason but my appointed lawyer - who never previously represented a capital defendant - felt that my testimony was not necessary as he felt the state could not prove the case.
Not surprisingly it took less than an hour for the jury to convict me on both counts of capital premeditated murder, and I was subsequently sentenced to death, joining the ranks of the condemned in March 1984.
It would take another 20 years before I was finally given the opportunity to testify in court as to what really happened that night. Most people are blissfully ignorant of how our legal system really works - they think that the Courts review every case and address innocence on every appeal - and that's just not true.
As the US Supreme Court plainly stated, innocent is not an issue. Rather, the courts are limited to reviewing only specifically pled claims of substantial error, and such claims must be presented within the very narrow parameter of procedural rules - if not properly presented, even the strongest claims of error are "procedurally defaulted".
In 1997 my primary appeals before both the state and federal courts were concluded when in Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 US, 51B (1997) by a marginal 5 to 4 decision the United States Supreme Court ruled that although I was illegally sentenced to death, because my lawyers failed to timely present the claim, I was procedurally barred from relief.
Florida Governor Lawton Chiles appointed clemency counsel and I entered into the pre-death warrant stage - no Florida death row prisoner has been granted clemency since 1986,nor would any.
But then unexpectedly the only witness that corroborated Francis Smith's trial testimony came forward and admitted that her trial testimony was not true. Deborah Hanzel then testified under oath that key witness Smith and the prosecutor's lead investigator Miles "Bob" Daniels had coerced her to provide the false testimony, telling her if she didn't, then her children would be harmed.
Deborah Hanzel also testified in 2003 that Frances Smith told her that her own testimony was not true, and that - just as I had consistently claimed for the past thirty three years, Moore had physically assaulted Bryant and when I tried to stop the fatal assault, Moore turned on me, forcing me to act in self-defense (link to video). As Hanzel testified about how Smith and the prosecutor's lead investigator worked together to coerce her false testimony, Smith's own recently divorced husband contacted my lawyers and advised them that Smith had often "bragged" about how she was having an affair with the prosecutor's lead investigator "Bob", and that he had protected her from prosecution.
The court ordered Frances Smith to respond to these allegations under oath, and although at first she swore she didn't know the investigator "Bob" Daniels, she then reluctantly admitted that it was true - that he did have a sexual relationship with the prosecutor's lead investigator during the case. Both Smith and investigator Daniels were then compelled ro reluctantly admit that just before testifying they were seen talking in the hall. But Daniels insisted he never had sex with Smith - but then conceded that even if it was true, he wouldn't admit it as it would jeopardize his state pension and cause problems in his marriage.
As all this was pending, it came out that the prosecutor, Randall McGrunther, had deliberately concealed evidence prior to trial. From the very beginning of the case the prosecutors claimed that no physical and forensic evidence was recovered in the case. But in 2009 it was revealed for the first time that in 1983 the State Crime Lab actually did find numerous hairs on the alleged "murder weapon" that they found did not match either victim, or me - and that when the crime lab brought this unexpected discovery to the attention of Randall McGrunther, he ordered all the evidence to be returned to his office - then he concealed this evidence until it was accidentally recovered at the state records respository.
Confronted with the probability that based upon this collective "new evidence" that the jury never heard my convictions would be thrown out, suddenly I was offered yet another opportunity to negogiate a plea for a reduced sentence. This time I was willing to plea "no contest" to reduced sentence of 30 years on a plea of second-degree murder. At the time I already had 22 years in and was entitled to another seven years of time off for "good behavior". Agreeing to this "plea bargain" (as it is commonly called) meant that I would be released within months.
Judge R. Thomas Corbin postponed any other hearings to allow both parties to reach an agreement, but then all of a sudden the prosecutor decided that they would not allow a reduced conviction - but if I would formally abandon any further claim of innocence, that would reduce my death sentence to life. It seemed simple enough - all I had to do was waive any further review of my consistently claim of innocence and the State of Florida that would let me live - I didn't have to die.
But I couldn't do it. As was published in the Ft MyersNews Press in July 2006, I would not enter a plea to a crime I knew I didn't commit.
Judge Corbin then denied all relief, finding that every witness that testified for me was not credible while every witness to testify for the state was telling nothing but the truth.
Not long after Judge Corbin made the absurd and self-contradictory ruling, it was revealed that the local state attorney had established a powerful "political action committee" (AAC) with the assistance of a convicted money launderer associated with Colombian drug cartels and through this AAC all but controlled local elections and circuit courts judges and judge Corbin was up for reelection. Motions to disqualify Judge Corbin and reopen the case were summarily denied.
The case proceeded to appellate review before the Florida Supreme Court and it was argued at length that Judge Corbin's denial of relief was contrary to the evidence and "dubious at best". Further, legal counsel argued that judge Corbin improperly refused to allow of wealth of readily available evidence that would substantiate the pled allegations that the key witness Frances Smith and the prosecutor's office deliberately fabricated the case of alleged premeditated murder and that they knew that it was a case of legally justified self-defense.
But as luck would have it, by the time I finish made it back up to the Florida Supreme Court, none other then Peggy Quince was the politically appointed Chief Justice. Notably, prior to being appointed to the state's highest court, Peggy Quince was part of the prosecution team in my case during the post-conviction proceedings when the evidence at issue was deliberately concealed. To grand me relief, the Florida Supreme Court would now have to recognize that Chief Justice Peggy Quince engaged in prosecutional misconduct that resulted in sending an innocent man to death row.
Motions to disqualify the court and allowed the case to be heard by a panel of Judges not associated with Chief Justice Peggy Quince were denied. A formal civil rights action was then filed seeking to expose this denial of fair and impartial review, but that was dismissed for no other reason but a technical error, see http://lambrixvmcneil.blogspot.com
In unprecidented hastily presumablyattributable to the Florida Supreme Court's desire to protect their chief justice Peggy Quince from allegations of prosecutional misconduct, the court affirmed denial of relief - categorically refusing to even address the readily available evidence substantiating my consistently maintained claim of innocence.
Under the 1996 "Anti-terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act" (AEDPA) my federal court review was limited and effectively unavailable. My legal counsel filed a "petition for writ of habeas corpus" with the United States Supreme Court argueing that absent extraordinary intervention the State of Florida would proceed to put an innocent man to death, specifically arguing that neither the state or federal courts have allowed any opportunity for the readily available evidence substantiating my innocence to be heard and asking the Supreme Court to order a full hearing on the evidence.
On the morning of November 30, 2015 the Supreme Court denied review. Not more than 2 hours later Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a death warrant formally scheduling my execution for February 11, 2016. (check out: "Execution day: Involuntary witness to murder" )
Within days of that scheduled execution I received a stay of execution pending a review of application of Hurst vs. Florida. I continue to remain under an active death warrant and my execution could be rescheduled soon.
As I know quite literally stand in the shadow of death, do I regret not accepting the states offer to reduce my sentence to life if I will abandon my claim of innocence? No, I do not. I thought this fight to prove my innocence for 33 years now, and never once wavered. I'd rather die with my integrity intact than weasel out of it a coward. If the State of Florida is willing to execute an innocent man, then so be it. But as Socrates said to the tribunal that wrongly condemned him to death so long ago, "to which of us go the worst fate, you or I?"