Tuesday, December 9, 2008

President Obama's election and what it means to death row

Well the election is over and Barack Obama has won by a large margin. Equally important, the Democratic Party has gained control of Congress despite the conservative Republican Party attempting to label Obama and the democrats as “liberals” and “socialists”, like that’s a bad thing..

The question now is what will this mean to those of us on death row? Maybe it won’t mean anything as when it comes down to it the death penalty is about politics and especially in the southern states, where the death penalty is particularly popular, even those in the Democratic Party fanatically support capital punishment.

When asked about the death penalty months ago President Obama made it clear that he does support the death penalty, although he qualified that response with his belief that it should be ‘fairly” administered. As a state senator from Illinois, President Obama is familiar with the circumstances that compelled then Governor Ryan of Illinois to grant pardons and order the release of 5 condemned men he believed were innocent, while commuting the death sentences of all other prisoners then on death row in Illinois. So it stands to reason that Obama is personally familiar with how fundamentally flawed the death penalty is.

But what can he really do about it? Not even the president of the United States has the power to order the States to abolish the death penalty. President Obama cannot even compel the States to be “fair” in the administration of the death penalty as our Constitution gives the States the power to make their own laws.

However, if so inclined President Obama can directly make a significant difference. To start with, now that he will have a majority support of the United States Senate, he can (and presumably will) begin nominating judges to the Federal Courts that do not come in with their own pro-death conservative agenda.

President Obama is perhaps the most qualified president during our lifetime when it comes to picking qualified judicial candidates as Obama has himself been a Professor of Constitutional Law prior to running for political office. It can be safely assumed that Obama will choose judicial candidates who have similar experience in constitutional law.

Most importantly of course will be the probability that at least a few of the present US Supreme Court Justices will be replaced within the next four years. We can say what we want about President Bush, but he wasn’t stupid. The ultra conservative Justices he put on the Supreme Court (Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) will be around for a long time to come. With equally conservative, pro death penalty Justice Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas, we know that at least 4 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices would see hell freeze over before they even considered voting to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. But even with these 4 votes, they do not have a majority. This is why the election of President Obama is so important. In coming years he will put his own pick on the Supreme Court, giving us hope that maybe, just maybe, the future Court will be more receptive to abolishing the death penalty all together.

But what I would like to think is possible now is something no one else has mentioned …having the Democratic controlled Congress repeal the 1996 “Anti Terrorist and Effective Death penalty Act”. As those of us familiar with the death penalty know only too well, this “AEDPA” has brought about more executions than any other act of legislation.

This law was rushed through Congress shortly after the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing that killed over 300 men, women and children. The alleged mastermind was quickly labeled a “terrorist”, years before the infamous 9/11, was brought to trial and convicted, then executed under the Federal death penalty, largely thanks to the expedited review process brought about and made possible by the 1996 AEDRA law.

The problem is that this Timothy McVeigh inspired restriction on Federal “habeas” review has significantly limited review of those capital convictions and death sentences imposed in state courts, making it all but virtually impossible to pursue meaningful appellate review in the Federal courts.

It has become increasingly common for state prisoners to find that they will have virtually no Federal review of their convictions and death sentences because their state appointed lawyers failed to file the Federal appeal on time. Inevidently this use of politically inspired procedural bars will result in the execution of innocent people.
The AEDRA is for all practical purposes a restriction of the “inalienable” right to pursue habeas review a death by default law.

Thus this is my biggest hope, that as a former Professor of Constitutional Law and a man of moral conscience, newly elected President Obama will now take a personal interest in compelling the now Democratically controlled Congress to repeal the 1996 AEDPA and restore some semblance of fundamental fairness back into the Federal Courts, and equally restore a basic safeguard against executing the innocent.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Political Transformation of the Florida Supreme Court.

In coming months the Florida Supreme Court will be transformed by the appointment of four (of the seven) new Justices, giving Governor Charlie Crist an unprecedented opportunity to reform the Court in his own conservative ideological image. Governor Crist is a career politician who has spent many years earning the name “chain gang Charlie” as both the state representative, then a state senator before being elected as Florida’s Attorney General prior to then becoming Florida’s elected Governor.

Throughout Governor Crist’s long political career, he has aggressively supported the death penalty and has used his political influence to push for expanding the use of the death penalty as well as expressing his favor for limiting appellate review in capital cases. As the Attorney general, Governor Crist served on the Florida Cabinet for 8 years, not even once voting to grant clemency in a capital case.

With the unique opportunity to now hand-pick fellow pro-death conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court the manner in which capital cases are reviewed and decided could significantly change.

Under Florida’s constitution all capital cases in which the defendant is sentenced to death must be directly reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. Additionally, although state post conviction appeals are typically filed in the lower state circuit courts where the original trial was held, any decision rendered by these lower courts are then appealable by the Florida Supreme Court.

Under these constitutionally established rules, to be granted relief before the Florida Supreme Court, at least four of the seven justices must agree. For this reason Governor Crist’s appointment of four of the seven Justices could prove to completely preclude any possibility of being granted relief before the state courts.

As an indication of Governor Crist’s intent to stack the Florida Supreme Court with pro death penalty conservatives, much like President George Bush has done with the US Supreme Court, following the recent resignation of Justice Raoul Cantero, Governor Crist announced that his first appointment to the Court would be none other then Charles T Canady.

According to the Florida Bar News (September 15, 2008) in 1979 Charles Canady graduated from Yale University Law School (as did President George W Bush) then went into private practice at several law firms in Florida before being elected to the Florida house of Representatives in 1984 and serving in that position until 1990.

A longtime personal friend and conservative Republican colleague of Governor Crist, Charles Canady the was elected to the US Congress, serving as the elected Representative for the district encompassing Lakeland and other area’s of central Florida from 1992 to 2000.

After proving his conservative political ideology in Congress, former Republican Governor Jed Bush appointed Charles Canaby as his “general counsel” during his first year as Florida’s Governor. While serving in this position Canady was instrumental in pushing through the “Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000”, which was passed by the state legislature, then signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush.

However, the Florida Supreme Court subsequently declared this “Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000” to be unconstitutional by concluding that the Florida legislative cannot promulgate rules governing court procedure.

Had the Canady-created “Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000” gone into effect, Florida would have adopted the general procedures used in the State of Texas to severely limit death row appeals, including prohibiting appeals based upon alleged new evidence, even if that evidence might conclusively prove the condemned man’s innocence.

With Charles Canady now appointed as a Justice on the Florida Supreme Court we can expect Canady to aggressively push for judicial adoption of rules that will severely limit death row appeals. Within the next six months Governor Crist will appoint three more new justices to the Court, ultimately reforming the Florida Supreme Court in his own ideological image.

Within the next few weeks, it is anticipated that Governor Crist will announce his appointment to replace retiring Justice Bell. Then in January, 2009 Justice Anstead will be forced into retirement under Florida’s law requiring retirement at age 70. Last, in March, 2009 Justice Wells will also be forced into retirement when he too turns 70. So within the next 6 months Governor Crist will have appointed the majority of the Justices that will sit on the Florida Supreme Court for many years to come. If the next three appointments reflect the conservative pro-death penalty agenda long embraced by Justice Canady, then within the foreseeable future Florida can become a mirror-image of Texas..

Monday, November 10, 2008

Death Row Conditions Challenged

According to an article published recently in the USA Today the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has filed a civil lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, claiming that the confinement on the Federal death row in Terra Haute, Indiana are “cruel and unusual”

In the lawsuit, the lawyers working for the ACLU argue that individually and collectively the deplorable conditions on death row inflict punishment upon those condemned to death by the Federal Government in excess of what is constitutionally allowed.



To understand the nature of this argument one must first understand the concept of the United States constitutional prohibition against the infliction of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Although simply being incarnated in itself is arguably a severe punishment, the concept of “cruel and unusual” is subjective in nature and basically is defined by what the Court believe reflect societies contemporary values as to how prisoners are treated and the conditions they must live under.

Basic conditions of confinement have long been recognized under this doctrine. When the individual state or the Federal Government imprisons a person after being convicted of a crime, they take on the responsibility to provide for the prisoner’s basic needs, such as food clothing and shelter. The courts have also established that prison officials must provide adequate medical care, including dental and mental care and that prisoners cannot be confined to cells that are unnecessarily unsanitary and might subject the prisoner to the risk of health problems.

Confinement on any death row in America is unlike any other form of imprisonment as only those condemned to death are automatically placed and kept in long term “solitary confinement” for non-punitive reasons. The courts have recognized that temporary conditions of confinement that may be substandard generally are not constitutionally intolerable even if objectively deplorable – but the longer the durations of these deplorable conditions, the greater the impact is on the prisoner. So the fact that death row prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for many years, even decades, makes deplorable conditions constitutionally intolerable.

But the bigger problem is that very few courts are willing to even entertain any legal claim that death row conditions are “cruel and unusual” punishment. I have been on Florida’s death row now for about 25 years so I have long term personal knowledge and experience (please see www.doinglifeondeathrow.com ) In my personal experience I can tell you that the conditions we must “live” under far exceed any objective definition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Although the prison is legally required to provide for our basic needs, they only do so at the absolute minimum and what is provided simply does not account to basic needs.

Here in Florida the state prison system has contracted a private company to provide our meals. These companies must compete with each other and whoever can feed us for the least amount of money wins the contract. As a result, the quality of food provided is at best barely edible – at worst, lethal. It had become common for death row inmates to develop food poisoning after eating spoiled food. Most of what is served is of such poor quality that very few can actually survive off the food we are provided. Most of us actually live by purchasing food from the prison “canteen”.

Of course this exposes the true motivation for the Florida prisons system to provide meals that are inedible. By law they must provide 3 meals a day, although the law also says these meals must be edible, whether they are or not is up to the court to determine, and the court in Florida simply will not even consider the issue. So the prison knows they can get away with feeding us anything they want – and by doing that they know we must buy food off the canteen.

Last year alone the Florida prison system sold prisoners over 100 million dollars worth of food and they made a substantial profit. If they are forced to feed us meals that are actually edible, then it will reduce the substantial profits being made. But what about those who cannot afford to buy food from the canteen? They simply must go without or ask food from other prisoners.

It’s the same story on all the ‘basic needs” the prison is legally required to provide. To meet their obligation to provide clothing we are each provided one pair of bright orange pants/shirts and a jacket. If we want to have a decent sweater, thermal clothes, pajamas and even extra socks, t-shirts, and a decent pair of shoes we must buy it from the prison canteen. Even here in Florida the winters get very cold (below freezing) so without the ability to purchase these “extra” clothes the best we can do is stay under a coarse wool blanket all winter and that’s assuming you can even get a blanket.

I can only hope that the lawsuit brought against the Federal prison will be successful and through its litigation maybe, just maybe, establish some judicially recognized minimal standards that that can subsequently be used to improve living conditions here on Florida’s death row. I realize that many out there advocate deplorable conditions as a means of maliciously making the condemned suffer. But the inhumanity we allow to be inflicted on even the lowest of the law is an inhumanity inflicted upon all of us.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Death Penalty opponents declared Terrorists

With the majority of American’s supporting capital punishment and the politically motivated “war on terror” making it only too easy to label anyone who engages in any form of anti-American activity as un-American, it was really just a matter of time before some of these conservative boneheads running government started to label anyone who didn’t agree with their pro-police state mentality a “terrorist”

This week the USA Today released a story about how the Maryland State police had spent 14 months in 2005 and 2006 illegally conducting secret investigations against anti-death penalty groups and had labeled 53 people involved in anti-death penalty and anti-war protests as “terrorists”

These investigations were conducted under the direction of then Maryland state police superintendent Tim Hutchins, and only came to light because the former Maryland Attorney General found that the state police had violated federal regulations and “illegally intruded upon law-abiding residents” rights to express themselves. Now Hutchins says they “made a mistake” and apologized, and that they would attempt to contact these individuals improperly labeled as” terrorists” and expunge their records. (See Washington Post October 8, 2008)



This didn’t happen in China or Russia – this happened in America. Incredibly, very few even comprehend the significance of this police state mentality. As a constitutional democracy founded upon the doctrine of “free speech” it boggles the mind to even imagine any police agency conducting secret investigations against law-abiding citizen then declaring these individuals as “terrorists” for no other reason but that they expressed an opposition to the death penalty.

Is this what America has become? We are only now beginning to understand just how destructive a generation of “conservative” right-wing politics has been. Under their “God and Country” mantra, these elitists such as the Bush dynasty have sold America out, and transferred what was once the model of human rights into what it is today.

As the rich got richer, the middle class became increasingly burdened with both private and public debts. When Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981 the total debt our Federal government owed was about 500 Billion dollars – now only a generation later the entire economic system is on the verge of total collapse and America now owes more than 10 Trillion dollars, with almost 6 Trillion dollars attributed to just the present Bush administration. And before he is run out of office it will undoubtedly go even higher.

And what do we have to show for all that debt? Our public schools and transportation infrastructure is in a shambles. Many states now spend just as much, if not more, money on maintaining the ever-growing prison systems as they do education. In recent years states such as California, Texas and Florida have actually cut funding for public education to pay for expanding their prison systems.

Even with everything that America stands for - the very foundation of our fundamental belief in a constitutional democracy built upon the beliefs that “we, the people” control government – now falling down around us like a house of cards, too many Americans still refuse to see it.

Our sons and our brothers are now fighting a war that we cannot win, giving their lives in vain because the arrogance of an elected President deliberately lied to the American people and invaded Iraq on the pretence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists. Now we know this was not true, but there is no easy way out.

Under the Bush administration we have used our military to invade two sovereign countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) with the specific intent to overthrow their governments and install a government we wanted in place – yet nobody seems to be bothered by the significance of that action. But when Russia sent its troops into neighboring Georgia, after being deliberately provoked, the Bush administration labeled Russia an evil empire and threatened to resurrect the “cold war”

Under the Imperial Dynasty of the Bush administration we declared the Geneva Convention inapplicable to us as we began to systematically torture and imprison those labeled as “enemy combatants”, denying them even the most basic rights – and then declaring that they will be provided a “military trial” before hand-picked officers who will then adjudicate them guilty and sentence these “terrorists” to death.

And now we learn that a state police agency within a stones throw of our capital in Washington has declared private citizen to be “terrorists” for no other reason but that they dared to express their moral opposition against the death penalty. This is the America we have become and nobody cares.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Execution of Richard Henyard

Last night they executed Richard Henyard. Although I didn’t personally know him, his death still bothered me. For almost a quarter of a century I have been on Florida’s death row myself and through these years there have been many men whom I personally knew led to their own death. But since we are all kept in “solitary confinement”, effectively segregated from the many others who are also condemned, it is not so unusual that although Henyard had been here for over ten years, I never got to know him.

That is only a small part of what bothers me. I know only too well just how completely isolated each of us here can feel when we are cut off from all our family and what friends we had before we came to prison. I know that for one reason or another, this place has a way of alienating the condemned. That outside world just slowly drifts further and further away as the years slowly pass by, each day bringing us closer to that last day.

But it bothers me that in the small world we call “death row” one of us can live among us and yet not be known by most of us. If those of us who are also condemned do not know those who are put to death from among our own ranks, then it stands to reason that it would be so much easier for someone among us to also be forgotten by society.

Henyard was deliberately chosen to be executed. What does that say about the mental process at work that decides who should live and who should die? This was the second execution ordered by Governor “Chain Gang” Charlie Crist since he took office last year. Both Richard Henyard and Mark Schwab before him were deliberately selected from among many who had already exhausted their appeals. Not because a jury decided that Henyard and Schwab were somehow more worthy of being executed than the dozens others also considered “death warrant eligible”, but because the Governor himself has proclaimed that those convicted and condemned to death for commiting a crime against a child are his first priority.

Of course, this deliberate selection process has more to do with politics then it does “justice”, but am I the only one bothered by how politics can only too easily decide who will live and who will die? Like so many others, I don’t care much for anyone who would prey upon an innocent child. Even here on death row those convicted of killing a child are often looked down upon.

But when politicians deliberately select individuals for execution because of the specific nature of their crime, then at what point do we, as a society, cross the line from carrying out “justice”, to advocating lynch mob vengeance? Shouldn’t our highest elected officials, such as Governor Crist , be above shamelessly using his power to play vigilante?

As yesterday passed I had a hard time finding out if Henyard was still scheduled. I know that they had his execution scheduled for 6:00 pm last night, but none of the local news stations mentioned it. Only later did I finally hear a report that said Henyard’s execution had been delayed for two hours as the US Supreme Court considered his last appeal. But at 8:00 pm last night they carried out the state-sanctioned execution of Richard henyard.

This means that in the final hours of his life Richard Henyard was forced to anxiously await the uncertainty of his fate. Imagine if someone put a gun to your head and cocked the trigger, then at the last minute said ‘oh, let’s think about this just a bit more”. All the while the gun remains cocked and loaded, pointed at your head. And then finally, they decide to go ahead and kill you after all.

How could this not be the very epitome of any definition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment”. The prolonged anxiety of imminent death, the long minutes ticking away as your faith remains undetermined. Can any of us even begin to imagine the torment this man must have endured?

So here I am contemplating these thoughts. How can we call this “justice” when at so many levels the whole process to put even the most “worthy of death” (so they say) to death is carried out in an undeniable cruel and unusual manner.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Playing Politics with Death.

It’s an election year in America and that means that it’s time to prove you’re willing to kill if you want to win an election – or help others in your political party win an election. It doesn’t matter what office you’re running for as the only way to win is to prove you’re willing to kill those that society says should be killed. Nothing gets the political juices flowing more then whipping the public up into a blood-thirsty frenzy them promising that if they will vote for you, you will kill the monster they’ve conveniently created.

As someone who has now spent over 25 years on Florida’s death row (please check www.doinglifeondeathrow.com) I know only too well just how political the death penalty is. Through the years I’ve seen only too many politicians run for public office by promoting to kill more condemned prisoners. And those politicians who express their moral reservations in taking a life to win an election quickly find themselves voted out of public office. That’s politics in America, where our concept of “democracy” has come to be defined by our willingness to kill.

But it is not just about the death penalty. For the first time that I can recall, those running for political office this year are not even mentioning the death penalty. At least, not as major campaign issue as it has been in the past. The issue did come up a few months back when a majority of the Supreme Court decided that putting someone to death for raping a child (but not committing murder) would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Only too quickly all there running for public office rushed to condemn the members of the Supreme Court for being “soft” on those who prey upon innocent children. But just as quickly this uprising of outrage and rabid cry for killing others died down and
not even a whimper could be hears since.

That got me to wondering ….could America be evolving and moving away from the long history if overwhelming support for the death penalty? Could it be possible that today’s generation is finally willing to recognize that capital punishment is an abomination to the morality of any civilized society?

The fact is that studies have shown a substantial decline in the public support for capital punishment. In recent years as more and more men and women have been exonerated and released from prison (including death row) after being found to have been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death, many have been compelled to question whether capital punishment might result in innocent people being executed.

Most recently state legislatures have begun to question the cost of capital punishment. In a recent study by a state sanctioned commission in California, it was concluded that California alone would save approximately 110 million dollars per year if they simply did away with the death penalty.

Another legislative commission in Illinois reached a similar conclusion. Comprehensive studies of many states death penalty systems by the American Bar Association have concluded that the systems, including Florida’s are “fundamentally flawed” and rendered unfair and arbitrary. Even in a recent Supreme Court ruling (Baze v. Rees, 2008) Justice Stevens recognized that the death penalty was about vengeance, not justice, and consistently discriminates against the underprivileged and too often victimizes the innocent.

So, there was reason to hope that maybe – just maybe- America was finally beginning to see the light and recognize that the death penalty has no place in our presumably evolved society.

Or so I had hoped. But this week I got a reality check when I learned that Florida’s Governor “Chain gang Charlie” Crist has appointed his first Justice to the Florida Supreme Court. Although Florida has a large number of highly qualified jurists, Charlie Crist decide to play politics and chose a Republican party insider, a “conservative” pro-death penalty jurist (Judge Conady) whose prior experience was “general counsel” for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and was part of the political campaign that spearheaded the “Death Penalty Reforms Act of 2000” which was intended to transform Florida into another Texas by significantly restricting death row appeals and eliminating any exceptions for claims of innocence.

The only reason these draconian laws did not pass was because the Florida Supreme Court declared that the politicians could not pass rules governing the court – only the Florida Supreme Court can. So, now it appears that Governor Crist has decided to simply stack the Florida Supreme Court with conservative, pro death penalty zealots so that once he has control of the court, these “streamlined” rules governing death penalty appeals can be implemented. Again, in the end, it all comes down to politics.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Charlie's Web

Although I am in solitary confinement, I’m not quite alone as I have a companion. It is my friend and I must be especially careful not to let the guards know that I’m sharing my cell with Charlie, as surely they would take him – or her (I really don’t know which) away, I would rather that Charlie be allowed to stay.

Charlie is my pet spider, although I suppose that if you asked him he might say that I’m his pet. I’ve had him awhile now, and this may surprise you, spiders really do make great companions. I decided to call him Charlie because of the classic book of “Charlotte‘s web”. I’ve known a few Charlotte’s through the years - my grand mothers name was Charlotte., and some Charlotte’s simply go by “Charlie” so it’s a name that could be male or female, fitting my companion quite perfectly.

When I first discovered Charlie sneaking in along the wall beneath my bunk he was just a tiny little thing with long skinny legs. We call these spiders “Daddy Long Legs”, which is appropriate. He was a spunky little thing and I had to chase him around my cell before I could capture him – careful not to hurt him. For weeks I had to keep him in a small plastic container and I would take him out several times a day to play with him. Slowly he became accustomed to my handling and didn’t try to run. But I don’t mind if he does run now and then as its fun to play chase with him. I think Charlie enjoys it too as when he does get away he just finds a corner and hides until I find him, then allows me to gently pick him up again. Sometimes I think he is smiling when I do, as if maybe he got over on me.

After a few weeks, I then moved him to a plastic bag that I taped to the wall between my toilet and the wall. After over 25 years in solitary confinement I knew that by doing this Charlie would build a web within the plastic bag and attach it to the wall. After a day or two I gently pull the plastic bag away leaving some of the web attached to the wall – and then Charlie would build a web in the newfound freedom.

Once Charlie built the new home I would catch small insects and flick them into his web. He really is picky about what he eats and I envy that as I’m forced to eat whatever they give me. But Charlie likes his food fresh so I must catch the tiny insect alive and carefully flick them into the web. Then I watch as they desperately struggle and Charlie moves in for the kill.

I must admit that there is something fascinating about watching a spider capture his prey. Some might argue that I must be sick to be fascinated by this, but why? The truth is that nature programs are very popular. I would venture to say that at one time or another we have all watched in fascination as a lion stalked its prey, then pounced upon it. And I watch Charlie.

Like a raccoon playing with its food, Charlie doesn’t move in for an immediate kill. He rather quickly approaches his prey, then, using his two back legs, he will entwine the prey in a cocoon of webs, spinning it until it has been completely wrapped and is rendered helpless. Sometimes Charlie will then move in for his meal, sucking the blood out of the insect before discarding the body from his nest. Other times Charlie will move his wrapped meal to another part of the web and consume it later, like a squirrel stashing his winter nuts.

I talk to Charlie too. He is really easy to get along with. We have never had an argument. Over time I have learned ways to tell Charlie’s mood. When he becomes agitated he will move his body up and down as if flexing his muscles at me or whatever else annoys him. I know to leave Charlie alone when he is agitated as he won’t stay in my hand when in that mood. Other times Charlie seems to want my company and will almost voluntarily walk into my open palm and then I will move to my bunk and we will watch TV together.

I’m not alone by any means. I’ve had many pets through the years, as have others around me. Some of the guys prefer to catch a small mouse; others will try to feed the birds outside the window by getting the runners to place bread outside the window. Then spend hours watching the birds feast – but never able to touch them or have them as a companion.

Perhaps that is why I prefer a spider. It comes into my cage on its own account thus I’m not imprisoning the little fellow against its will. And Charlie asks very little of me, while giving so much in return. Solitary confinement is about being alone, but I’m not alone as Charlie shares my cell with me.

But I know that one day I will awake and Charlie will be gone. I can only hope that when he does move on he will remember me in his own way as I will remember him. And when that time comes, I will then find a new Charlie that I can find companionship with and call my friend.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Florida Death Row Advocacy Group

Florida is known for its long hot summers. While most who live in the state easily find refuge from the oppressive heat in air conditioned buildings or cars such luxuries are not so easy to come by here in my world. On death row we live in concrete cages that become virtual ovens during the summer. I have endured 25 consecutive summers in these cages and each one seems to be worse than the last one. But then I can also remember that for the first 20 years or so we had no way to find any relief from the heat and humidity with at best minimal ventilation in our cells we would quite literally drip sweat all day and all through the night, awakening the next morning laying almost naked on a sweat soaked mattress.

During these summers we would try to find any form of relief we could. Most of us would spend many hours each day sitting or even standing naked over the toilet/sink combo each cell is equipped with, slowly pouring water over our head and body and savoring in that temporary relief. Other times we would try to obtain even small pieces of cardboard to use as a makeshift handheld fan, but then they decided that any form of cardboard was a “fire hazard” and the officers would come into our cells and take these cardboard fans. Anyone who dared to even so much as verbally protest or refuse to give up that piece of cardboard would find themselves on their way to lock-up for a month or so, where you have no means of escape from the heat.



Many years ago another inmate came up with an improvised turbine we would make out of cardboard then attach to the single small ventilation duct at the back of each cell. As the air was sucked through this vent it would turn the improvised turbine which in turn would be attached to a “pulley” made of old shoelaces or yarn or whatever we could find and that would turn a small paper fan mounted on an empty plastic sewing thread spool. It wasn’t much, but made all the difference to us and soon everyone had one. Then they came around and declared them contraband and confiscated them.

Part of being sentenced to death is being condemned to misery. Many who hold power over us sadistically invent ways to make us even more miserable, as if condemning us to death and confining us to years and even decades of solitary confinement isn’t itself enough to make us suffer. (please see: http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.com/) But a few years ago our pathetic existence became just a little bit better thanks to the commitment and perseverance of a small group of people who formed a group called “Florida Death Row Advocacy Group” (FDRAG for short) Most of the members had a family member or friend who was on death row and their objective was simple enough – to simply attempt to advocate for the human treatment of the condemned.

Through their selfless commitment and generosity about 4 years ago they made it possible that over 300 small electrical fans were purchased and suddenly the long hot summers didn’t seem quite as bad. As I sit at my steel table, that plastic fan is about two feet from me, directly blowing a breeze on me and when I think of all those long hot summers we endured a prayer of thanks goes out to those who made it possible for this little bit of relief that makes a world of difference.

In my world it’s only too easy to feel like the whole world is out to make us suffer. But even as difficult as it might be to endure the circumstances of my seemingly eternal solitary confinement, it’s that isolated act of compassion and kindness that makes the difference.

So in today’s entry I would like to salute those who have proven their commitment to reaching out in genuine compassion to those of us who are condemned and on behalf of all of us here I would like to thank them for what difference they’ve made.

It is only too easy to become one of the lynch mobs and throw stones at the condemned while wanting us to suffer as much misery as their cold hearts can invent. But for all the hate and malice that is piled upon us, it still remains that small act of compassion that truly touches our souls. So I salute those who reach out to us in compassion as they are the true hope for all of humanity. And I would encourage others to join them in their efforts by becoming a member of this wonderful group. http://fdrag.kk5.org/#

Monday, June 23, 2008

Memorial Weekend Visit

Few things mean more to any prisoner, especially those of us who have been locked away in solitary confinement under a sentence of death, then getting a visit from a special friend. Even as much as the letters mean, being able to see the person and hear their voices, and even touch them so that we know they are for real, means more than any words can begin to describe.

I know how truly blessed I am as I have a very special friend I’ve known for years and about once a year I get to meet her in person. At great expense she travels half way around the world, then puts up with the hassles of coming through the security checkpoints and into the depths of the prison all the way to the death row visiting park

How can you even begin to describe a friend who is willing to do that? But what makes it so truly special is that here in my world we very seldom see any semblance of compassion. Each day, every day we live in a world filled with hate and malice, treated as something even less than an animal. Sometimes the hostility in this environment becomes overwhelming – but inescapable. At every level our existence here is described not by the humanity, but the inhumanity of this hell that we must exist within.

Like a dog that has been beaten down his whole life, kindness from a stranger can often be met with fear of reluctance. So many that live around here have long given up on the hope of finding kindness in the smile of a stranger willing to reach into our world and become a friend. With over 300 condemned men here on death row, only a very small percentage gets regular visits. Long ago isolated from and abandoned by that world “out there” they are like that dog, their faith in the humanity of others now non-existent.

The past weekend I had my visit with my friend. For months, then weeks, then days I anxiously awaited her arrival. Because she was traveling from Europe, she was entitled to have an extra day, and then with Monday being a regular visiting day due to Memorial Day holiday, that meant we had 3 consecutive days of visits.

In the weeks leading up to this visit we heard rumors that the death row visiting area would be filled beyond its capacity, and many visitors might not be able to get in. To make it even worse, we heard that once the visiting area did fill to capacity, they would start terminating visits early so others could get in too. Like my friend, many of these visitors were traveling from Europe and other faraway places, just to visit a condemned man that they too have come to know. So we all were very anxious.

Finally Saturday (May 24) came and they called my name for the visiting park. I had already spent hours getting perfectly groomed, as anxious as if I was preparing for a prom date. The guards escorted me to the visiting park and I was “dressed” out in the clothes we are required to wear during visits, then I checked my hair (or what’s left of it anyways :)) one last time and pushed the door leading into the visiting park open, quickly scanning the room for my friend-and then there she was and we both smiled from across the room.

Not a moment later I was at our assigned table and she stepped to me and without reservation embraced me in a hug that silently spoke of how genuine her affection for me was. Not only had she journeyed halfway around the world just to bring a glimpse of humanity and compassion into my life, but her open arms welcomed me with an equally open heart.

The hours passed much too quickly. The visiting park quickly filled. And to our surprise the warden himself had decided to work the entire holiday, personally supervising the visiting areas to ensure that the visits went smoothly. Nobody was denied a visit and no visits were terminated early and we all owe one big thanks to the warden for that.

But the three days quickly passed and all too soon it was time to say goodbye. That saddened both of us. The moment came when the visiting park sergeant announced that the visiting hours were over and instructed all visitors to come to the front so they could be escorted out. We slowly walked towards the front door – knowing only too well that I could only so far – and then we embraced one last time and said our goodbyes. For a few more minutes she stood just inside the door as other visitors gathered, then the guard opened the door and let them out and they were gone. One last smile and a quick wave and she disappeared out of sight and once again I returned to my cell and back into my world so deliberately devoid of compassion, still marveling at the miracle that that compassion can be nurtured in a complete stranger on the other side of the world and no matter how bad of a day I may be having or how overwhelming my circumstances may become, I can so easily see that smile and that itself makes me smile too.

Until next year we will once again be limited only to communicate by letters, unable to hear her voice or see her in person. But already I am counting the months, weeks and days until she comes to visit again, just as many others here do too. But I also say a silent prayer for the many more who never receive any visits or even a simple letter from someone – anyone who might reach out in compassion and show but a moment of kindness to a condemned man, to whom it would mean so much.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bill is dead

After 25 years of continuous solitary confinement on Florida’s death row the rigorously structured monotony of my Monday mornings is only too predictable. As long as I can remember Mondays have always meant awakening to a meager breakfast of two palm-sized pancakes with a side serving of bland oatmeal. Considering that on the other days breakfast mostly consists of cold “grits” or powdered eggs, the pancakes with the small packet of artificially flavored corn syrup has become my favorite meal, or at least at breakfast anyways.

Every meal is served in our cells on plastic trays and we are each given only a plastic spoon to eat with as even a plastic fork is too “sharp” an instrument to entrust a condemned man with. There is no kitchen and no dining hall on death row as we are in an isolated confinement unit deliberately set apart from the other areas of the large prison complex. All our meals are cooked somewhere out there, then placed on large carts and transported to this unit. The carts are then brought to each floor of the unit, where the individual food trays are off-loaded on to a smaller cart, and inmate runners will push that cart down each tier to feed us, a ritual repeated at each meal. A guard will open the lock on each cell’s “bean flap” as the non-death row inmate “runner’ will hand each tray to the individual prisoner within the cage. Monday mornings are predictable – but this Monday morning was not…

As I reached to accept my food tray from the runner; he quickly whispered “your buddy Bill just died’. Bill was William Coday, and it was no secret he was a close friend. But it was too early for my mental facilities to absorb this unexpected information and I responded only with a puzzled and almost incoherent “what!?” Again the runner spoke, nervously watching the guard, “Bill cut himself up last night and died” No way man, Bill’s right above me, physically not more then a few feet away and separated only by a few inches of concrete. I would have known. But then, that’s the nature of our interminable solitary confinement – although virtually warehoused in close physical proximity to each other, even though physically only a few inches away, each of our solitary cells remain isolated and a world of its own.

I laid my breakfast tray down. My appetite now gone and sat at the edge of my bunk silently digesting this shocking news I just received. After the guard left the floor, I stepped to the rear vent (ventilation duct) and hollered upstairs to another guy I knew and got confirmation, it was true – Bill was dead... As the morning hours ever so slowly passed I could hear the cell door above me clanging open and shut, and I realized that they were now cleaning up the blood and packing up what meagre personal property Bill had. In no time another condemned man would be placed in that cage, like stock awaiting their slaughter.

Bill was dead – that reality repeatedly reverberated in the numbness of my mind. Slowly it sank in and emptiness filled me. Each time a runner or a guard passed my cell I desperately picked them for more information – trying to understand the how and why of it all and somehow make sense of it. Bill was dead and now I knew how.



Sometimes in the early morning hours as the whole wing slept, Bill had silently taken some form of sharpened instrument and slashed both his wrists and his own throat. He never cried out and nobody heard anything as he then lay back on his bunk and went to sleep for the last time…

Bill was dead. Understanding the “how” was the easy part – it’s the “why” of it that ate at my gut. In my world, death is no stranger; death is the condemned man’s unrelenting protagonist and like Ahab and his great white whale, only too often it is difficult to tell the hunter from the hunted, even when death ultimately prevails. Death is a palpable presence always amongst us as we are condemned to perpetually waste away in solitary confinement, isolated and abandoned by the world beyond as we grow old and die. In recent weeks, 3 others have died too (Charles Globe, Burley Gillium and William Elledge)

I caught my case when I was only 22 years old. At the time the father of 3 young children who have now grown up without me. I’m now 48 years old and a grandpa. Many around me have been here much longer, some almost 35 years now. All of us condemned and continuously caged and warehoused until we die. More often then not death comes from old age or suicide, not the state sanctioned execution we were sentenced to.

That’s the dirty, dark secret of America’s death rows that society and the mainstream media do not want to confront and will not talk about. With thousands of men and women now virtually warehoused on death rows across America, even the most fanatical proponent of capital punishment knows that the vast majority of us will never actually face execution. Rather we are condemned to a fate even worse than death as in reality we are condemned to slowly waste away in solitary confinement, in a man made virtual hell meticulously designed to break our will to live and reduce each of us to something even less than human. While each of us inevitably drifting further and further away from the world we once knew, drowning in the infernal sea of inhumanity where no man is intended to come out alive.

As time sluggishly passes, each of us struggles that much harder to find the strength to sustain our ever-eroding will to live. Too often, something slowly dies and life itself becomes a formidable prison we desperately seek to escape from. Now Bill is dead, and I am left to struggle to understand the incomprehensive “why” of it, even though a part of me knows only too well what had compelled Bill to take the easy way out.

I do understand the “why” and perhaps that is the hardest part: Some would say that Bill killed himself, but I know that he did not. Rather, Bill freed himself from a fate that he knew he could not defeat – not the negligible threat of facing a state-sanctioned execution, but the inescapable reality of the inhumane prolonged solitary confinement under unrelenting oppressive physical and mental conditions insidiously intended to feed off our flesh while systematically stripping us of our will to live. (Please check out http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.blogspot.com)

In America, we claim to be a Christian nation, but compassion and mercy elude us. As Supreme Court Justice Stevens recently recognized in Baze v Rees (us.s.ct, April 16, 2008), the contemporary practice of capital punishment is not about justice, but about retribution and revenge. Today’s death penalty is a modern-day manifestation of a state-sanctioned lynch mob, and the inhumanity of our solitary confinement an intended part of the often unjustified vengeance society seeks.

In the desperate act of yet another suicide, Bill freed himself from a fate few of the condemned can escape. At that thought, the heaviness in my heart at the loss of a friend begins to lift just a little as I got to believe that Bill is in a better place now. Here’s to you Bill….I will miss you.

(Note: Please read more of Mike’s writings at http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.blogspot.com and to read about how Mike was wrongly convicted and condemned to death for a crime he did not commit, please check out http://www.southerninjustice.net/

Friday, May 9, 2008

The recent US Supreme Court ruling..

Impatiently the vultures are again circling above as the smell of death is upon us. In recent weeks that ever present reminder that we are here to die; to be virtually warehoused in the very bowels of a hell few would dare to imagine, continuously kept in solitary confinement under physically oppressive and mentally degrading conditions for not just months or years, but decade after decade until finally one at the time death claims its intended prey.

In the past few weeks the reality of my close proximity with death has especially been felt. As I’ve increasingly pointed out in many of my previously published articles (http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.com/ ) this cold shadow of death that can be only too often felt here in my world is no longer so much the fear of execution at the hands of the state, but a fate far worse than that meticulously sterilized termination of life they call an execution - the horrific fate of slowly growing old and wasting away for decade after decade in solitary confinement until you inevitably contract any of the many ailments that that become terminal and then wait the weeks or months, or even years until death claims you.

Last month it was Charles Globe who finally passed on after a long battle with AIDS and hepatitis C that evolved into the cancer that killed him. Last week it was Burley Gilliam, who had spent about 25 years on death row somehow staying strong enough to keep his hope alive – only to be taken down by “natural causes”. And as I write this last night it was William (“Billy Loco”) Elledge who had been on death row almost 33 years. His fight was with chronic asthma and in recent years he was repeatedly sent to the prison hospital for treatment, then returns a few days or weeks later. But not this time as his fight is now over. I can only hope they are all now in a better place.

This past week the United States Supreme Court also issued its long anticipated ruling on whether the use of lethal injection constituted “cruel and unusual punishment’ Not at all surprisingly the majority of the “conservative” justices had no problem concluding that it really doesn’t matter that states routinely screw up executions resulting in the inmate being tortured to death. In their opinion the United States Constitution simply doesn’t prohibit pain being part of an execution. In the past there were many other means of executing someone and all things considered lethal injection, despite its inherent problems is “humane” Its no secret that the cartel of five conservative Justices on the present Supreme Court (Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito) are rabidly pro death penalty. Each was specifically selected and placed on the Court to perpetuate a “conservative” agenda. So what if these demonic judicial activists are hypocrites? See these Justices will foam at the mouth when debating their agenda to promote the conservative “pro-life” platform. Abortions are evil as they allow the murder of innocent children and the must protect the sanctity of life – except when it comes to the death penalty.

Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy of this? How can someone claim to be “pro-life” and campaign on a “sanctity of Life” platform, but then say that the death penalty is necessary. Yes I know some may argue that unborn fetuses are “innocent” but what about the US Supreme Court’s decision that said that it is unconstitutional permissible to even execute the innocent? (Herrera v Collins, 506 US 390 1993)

The fact is that as long as the death penalty continues to be practices we as a society will have innocent blood on our hands: Supreme Court justices would argue that there is no proof any innocent men and women have been executed “in recent history” but these same Justices are creating judicially manufactured law that actually prohibits legitimate evidence of innocence to even be heard under the pretense of promoting a finality to appellate review.

With well over 125 men and women already exonerated and released from death rows across America after proving their innocence, can anyone really say that there are no more innocent men and women on death row? And if the courts continue to refuse to allow the wrongfully convicted and condemned to even have lawyers and investigators necessary to develop the evidence that will prove their innocence and then, even if developed, the court will refuse to allow the evidence to be heard. Doesn’t that bring us to the conclusion that innocent men and women most likely already have been and most certainly will continue to be executed.

The Supreme Court Justices recently said that vengeance (retribution) is a legitimate objective accomplished by America’s death penalty. But the problem with advocating a lynch-mob mentality is that the same passions that feed this need for vengeance too often blinds us to truth. As the one fundamental truth that ultimately remains is that when we as a society put to death even one innocent person then that is an act of murder - and we all become murderers.

That is for this week, but I once again ask each of you to please check out the website about my case http://www.southerninjustice.com/