Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vengeance is Mine, Saith the Law

Last week Florida's Governor Charlie Crist signed a "death warrant" on Paul Beasley Johnson, scheduling his execution for Wednesday November 4, 2009 at 6:00 PM. In Florida, all executions are carried out at Florida State Prison near Starke, Florida. Immediately upon signing this death warrant Paul was transferred from the main death row unit at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to the maximum security Florida State Prison in the adjacent county of Bradford. In actuality these two prisons are practically side by side in the rural area outside of Starke, along Highway 16, separated only by a creek they call "new River", which coincidentally is also the county line separating Union County from Bradford County. From the window of the death row unit at Union Correctional i can look in the distance and actually see the imposing structure of Florida State Prison. But it's a sight I don't particularly care to see and don't make a habit of looking out to.

In 1981 Paul had killed a cop in Polk County, Florida (between Tampa and Orlando) as well as two others while wasted on the drug "crystal meth". At the time I lived in the area and am familiar with how the relatively small and rural farming communities there in Polk County had responded with outrage. It wasn't long before that incident that this same rural area was virtually terrorized by what was known as the "ski-mask" gang - one of the ringleaders of that, Daniel Thomas, was already put to death in Florida's electric chair in April, 1986. But the community didn't forget and in these farming towns the support for the death penalty is extremely high.

Anyone who wants to see how "justice" was served in Polk County back during that time need only read Barden v.Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986) in which the Supreme Court addressed the facts of extreme prosecutional misconduct and judicial bias when Willie Barden was accused of a brutal crime in the same area. Barden, known to us as "Shargo", was executed in March, 1988 despite substantial evidence of actual innocence and what numerous Supreme Court Justices characterized as extremely prejudicial prosecural misconduct comparable to that fictionally depicted in "To kill a mocking bird".

In Paul's case, he never pled innocence. But the factual circumstances still warrant questioning the conviction and imposition of the ultimate punishment. There's no question that at the time of these murders Paul was wasted on a powerful drug commonly called "crystal meth", which if and when used to the extreme, such as in Paul's case, is known to cause psychotic and even violent paranoia and render the person's actions involuntary. So, the real question comes down to whether Paul actually intended to commit any act of violence resulting in these tragic deaths.

At trial, Paul's specific defense was insanity and the question came down to whether Paul could tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime, and possessed the mental capacity to form intent to commit the crime. The evidence, including numerous expert witnesses, testified that given the drugs that Paul was under and what many others witnessed in his behaviour, Paul was by definition "insane" and not responsible for his actions at the time.

Do we deliberately convict and condemn those who are insane? Under applicable law, we do not. Numerous Supreme Court cases consistently prohibit the execution of any person who is mentally incompetent or insane. In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986) the Supreme Court defined this as a person "whose mental illness prevents him from comprehending the reasons for the penalty of death"

But when a defendant attempts to argue "insanity" as a defense then the burden of proving that he was actually "insane" at the time of the crime is on the defendant, and ultimately it is up to the jury to decide whether or not to ind him "not guilty" by reason of insanity. See Leland v. Oregon, 343 U,S. 790 (1952). With 3 victims - including a police officer, the jury was hardly sympathetic to Paul's argument and evidence that he had 'voluntarily" ingested massive amounts of crystal meth to the point of having an involuntary psychotic episode rendering him legally insane and thus not responsible for his actions. The jury rejected this insanity defense and sent him to death row.

That same year that Paul suffered his own drug induced psychotic breakdown resulting in the deaths of three people, the entire country was already outraged at the concept of an insanity defense as just a few months earlier the now infamous John Hinkley deliberately stalked, then shot, President Ronald Reagan on a sidewalk in Washington DC. At the same time Hinkley shot also several others, including a police officer, a secret service agent providing security for the President, and press secretary James Brady, who has since remained paralyzed.

But unlike Paul Johnson, John Hinkley came from a wealthy family and they quickly spent millions of dollars to hire the best lawyers and expert witnesses. Hinkley stood trial despite the fact that his crime was actually caught on camera with quite literally millions of people watching him gunning down the president and at least three others.

Money makes all the difference despite the overwhelming evidence against John Winkley, the jury in his case found him "not guilty" by reason of insanity. But Hinkley's insanity was not caused by toxic levels of alcohol or drugs - rather, Hinkley claimed that he was "intoxicated" to the point of psychosis by an even stronger influence - love. Hinkley convinced the jury that because of his "unrequited love" for actress Jodie Foster after seeing her portrait as a child prostitute in the movie "Taxi driver". Hinkley argued that to prove his love for Jodie Foster, he had to shoot the President and anyone else who got in his way.

But when Paul went to trial he was just another poor man defended by an overworked and underpaid court appointed lawyer. And thanks to Hinkley's widely ridiculed insanity defense, any jury at the time would be extremely skeptical of any "insanity" defense. So, it was no surprise that unlike John Hinkley, Paul Johnson was convicted and quickly condemned to death.

The irony of all this is that I've known Paul Johnson personally for over 20 years and I can tell you that Paul would be the first one to tell you that he should be held accountable for these deaths. In the 26 years that I've been on death row among the "cold blooded killers" and what society calls the worst of the worst psychopaths, there's probably not more than 5 guys who I would welcome into my house without reservation and sleep soundly through the night...Paul Johnson is without any question at the top of the list.

Since coming to Florida's death row Paul has now become a completely different man. No longer living his life with toxic levels of hard drugs, Paul has become a genuine Christian, who lives a life of moral values. In all the years that I have known Paul I never even once hears a single person say anything negative about him, nor have I ever seen or heard Paul engage in the games that are only too common around here. Quite simply, you just couldn't find a better man to live around and be blessed to call him your friend.

But now they want to kill him for an isolated act of violence brought about when he was under the influence of drugs almost 30 years ago. The state of Florida wants to put him to death for who he was a lifetime ago, deliberately taking the life of the man he is today.

I realize that there are many who would argue that Paul must be held accountable for the lives that he took. Anyone who actually knows Paul would know that he possesses genuine remorse for what he did and has often argued that he should be held accountable. But can anyone truly say that Paul falls into that category of the "worst of the worst" and that society would have anything to gain by now taking his life?

It is at times like this that I struggle with this concept of "justice" so commonly practiced by what we dare call a "civilized" society. What is "justice" anyway? When I look into my dictionary it says that justice is "the upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor" and "the principle of moral rightfullness and equity"

I do understand that as a civilized society we must hold those who commit a crime accountable, or our society would quickly descend into chaos. But I also understand that there is a substantial difference between administering justice and inflicting vengeance and that's what this is really all about - vengeance. This is about that dark and destructive need to exact vindictive revenge, not administering justice.

My dictionary defines "revenge" as "something done in vengeance, a retaliatory measure; a desire for revenge and vindictiveness" Then, when I turn a few pages over to the word "vindictiveness", I find that it is defined as "disposed to seek revenge, marked by or resulting from a desire to hurt, spiteful"

Under these objective definitions of the English language, Paul's now imminent execution is not about administering justice, but inflicting vengeance. And by doing so, our so-called "civilized" society becomes the very monster we say we seek to slay.

I can only ask you to pray for Paul and let him know that he is not alone. I can tell you this - even as Paul faces his own death at the hands of those consumed by hate and vengeance, I know without doubt that Paul will be on his own knees praying for them and accepting his own fate even if I cannot, like so many others. If Paul is executed by the state of Florida on Wednesday November 4 then his death will forever take a part of all of us and without the man he is today among us, as a society through his death we will all become something less.

Michael Lambrix

NOTE: on October 28, 2009 Paul Johnson received a stay of execution in order to
consider significant issues raised in Claim 1 of this appeal concerning
prosecutodal misconduct.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Death by Unnatural Causes

It seems that only too often I write about yet another person here on Florida's death row that has passed on. In my more recent blogs I talked about the recent executions of Wayne Tompkins and John Marek (please read "The perfect murder") But in the past years executions have become only a secondary cause of death for Florida's condemned as now we have many more succumbing to death by "natural causes" than by state sanctioned execution.

Today Bryan Bryant passed on after a prolonged and painful fight with cancer. A few weeks ago it was Alphonso Green, who endured many months of painful suffering before
pancreatic cancer took his life. Two more of Florida's condemned are now gone. To be honest, when I hear that they died of "natural causes" I'm conflicted on how I feel. On one hand I am disgusted by the characterization of "natural causes" when I know that they spent decades in a concrete cage condemned to death and I am convinced that this oppressive and solitary environment contributed to their fate. But on the other hand they've escaped the even crueler fate that the state intended them to suffer.

Having been on Florida's death row now for over a quarter of a century myself I know that death is only too common around here. When I fist came to Florida's death row in early 1984 those that died mostly were put to death by execution, although one that I know of back then (Mad Dog Nelson) did abruptly drop dead of a heart attack on the rec yard.

Ironically, as more men and women come to death row, executions actually slowed down and the population of the condemned grew to almost 400. Increasingly, as many of us aged, death death by natural causes has now become the leading cause of death among the condemned. Many of us have been locked away in these cages for twenty or more years and are simply growing old. 


On my floor we have 14 men and just out of curiosity I added up the number of years that 14 of us have now been on death row - collectively, that's over 300 years, with an average of over 20 years each.. This is about the same on all the floors - a total of 24 floors just here on the death row unit of Union Correctional Institution, with another bunch held at Florida State Prison.

What really gets me is that the pro-death penalty politicians and parasite judges who fanatically push for the death penalty, they got to know that they will never actually execute all these men and women. Florida has pretty much never executed even 10 men and women a year, and in recent years that rate has significantly dropped. But even if they did start executing 10 a year beginning tomorrow, it would still take 30 years just to clear out the current death row population and by the time you did that you'd still have hundreds more that have come to death row since.

But that's just never going to happen - and I certainly would not want to see it happen either. My point is this - we all know that in truth, when we sentence people to death we (as a society) don't really mean that they will actually be executed. Instead, what the courts really mean is that they will be sent up to the state prison and virtually warehoused until they slowly rot away and die of "natural causes"

It really bothers me that the lawyers and anti-death penalty groups will quickly rally together in unified opposition when the state screws up an execution and the condemned prisoner suffers for a few minutes, and yet there's virtually no organized advocacy speaking out against the fact that the average death sentenced prisoner now spends at least 20 years or more in solitary confinement with minimal contact or interaction with others. I don't understand how these people can get so motivated to fight against the relatively momentary infliction of unnecessary suffering resulting from a botched execution, yet these same people say nothing about the suffering the condemned endure as they slowly rot away in solitary cages until they finally die of "natural causes"

Incredibly, every time this issue is actually raised, these rabid pro-death penalty parasites that feed off the misery of others will quickly jump up on their soapbox and scream about how the solution is to simply kill them all quicker. When I see this, it only confirms what the facts show - the dumber a person is, the more likely it is that they will support the death penalty.

For over 30 years now these rabid lynch mobs have done all they could to speed up executions, only to corrupt our entire judicial process and substantially increase the inevitable execution of the innocent by playing politics with the appeal process. And yet they are so blinded by their blood-lust that they can't - or want - see that the more they push for quicker executions and corrupt the judicial process, the less execution are actually carried out.

In recent years more and more judges and politicians are finally speaking out against the corruption of the judicial process and admitting that based upon their personal experience within the judicial system they are convinced that innocent men and women have been executed. But those who advocate limiting appeals and expediting executions simply will not even talk about the inevitable risk of executing the innocent. They are so pathetically intoxicated by their thirst for vengeance that they cannot see the dark side; the consequences of their corruption of the process. But when it comes down to it, the execution of even one innocent person is nothing less than an act of deliberate murder.

Which brings me back to the issue I want to address. We call ourselves a "humane" society that respects the concept of basic human rights and the preservation of human dignity. But we tolerate this type of inhumane treatment of thousands of condemned prisoners - many of whom are subsequently proven innocent.

I personally both knew Alphonso Green and Byron Bryant - as I have most of those who have died here in the past 25 years. I understand that both had been convicted of brutal murders and neither had a convinced argument of innocence. I also know that many will say that they "deserved" to suffer, and that we should think about the victims, not the cold-blooded killers.

But it amazes me that we just refuse to see that when we, as a presumably civilized society, throw those we condemn into a concrete tomb and then let them just slowly rot away until many decades later they finally succumb from "natural causes": we ourselves, as a society become the very monsters that we claim to be fighting. When our grand-kids look back at us, how will they judge us?

I know that my words will not change anyone's mind. As the Bible says "their hearts are hardened' and those that advocate this treatment of the condemned will only applaud the death of Green and Bryant. And there will also be those who, like me, are troubled by the tragedy of their deaths and even angry that it is our so-called "civilized" society that allows this to be.

I've heard it said that the true measure of a man's character is defined by possessing the moral courage to stand up against the crowd and admit when one is wrong. Throwing men and women into solitary cages, knowing that their true fate is to slowly rot away until they inevitably succumb to death by "natural causes" is immoral and inhumane by any definition, it is wrong. If this is what we have become as a society, then we have forfeited any right to claims of being a civilized society - and we have become the very 'monsters" that we claim to be fighting against.

Mike Lambrix
Florida Death Row