That cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over my head as we await word on what the courts will do about the question of whether the Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida (January, 2016) should be retroactively applied to all Florida cases...a decision that may very well decide whether I and many others will live or die.
As of this week I have now been in continuous solitary confinement on Florida's death row for 32 years (I was charged and arrested this case in March 1983 but was not convicted and sentenced to death until March, 1984) In that I am now at Florida State Prison, where those first coming to death row are initially housed, I'm surrounded by many relatively recent "new gains" that was significantly younger than the average death row prisoners - those such as me. They inevitably ask me how long I've been here and when I say "32 years", I smile when they immediately respond "damned bro - that's longer than I've been alive!". Yeah that's just what it comes down to... I have been in solitary confinement under sentence of death now for what amounts to an entire lifetime.
But let's keep this in context..This week I "celebrated" my 56th birthday. I was only 22 years old when I was arrested on this case. Once upon a time I was married and I've got three children, obviously now all grown. As I look into my little plastic mirror and can't help but notice that what hair is not slowly turning gray has already fallen out, I smile as I think that I now have seven grandchildren. That person I was when I was 22 could never have imagined one day waking up and realizing that I'm now a grandpa.
If the State of Florida had its way, I would never have seen my 56th birthday as they never intended to allow me to live beyond February 11, 2016. That was the day they planned to put me to death by lethal injection. And even now I'm in limbo - if the courts rule against me in coming weeks, or months, then the governor will quickly set a new execution date and I will go back down to the bottom floor of "Q-wing" and count down those final days as I've already done 3 times before.
So, how do you celebrate a birthday that wasn't meant to be? There are many who I wish I could spend my birthday with, such as all my friends who sent me birthday cards and best wishes - I wish I could give each and everyone a big hug as it's hard to put into words just how much it means to get a simple card and know that even when you are marked for death by society, there's still that measure of mercy and compassion that gives even a condemned man hope. Too often, when I feel overwhelmed by circumstances around us, it's easy to forget that the whole world isn't trying to kill us.
For those who sent me cards, some that came from complete strangers that didn't even give their name, I truly do thank you. I wish I could throw a big birthday party, not to celebrate my so-called life, as in truth I don't have much of a life to celebrate here in this six-foor concrete and steel cage. Rather, I'd want to celebrate that measure of humanity within those that do reach out in spite of society's demand that we be cast aside and marked for death.
I am reminded of that scene in the Mel Gibson movie "Passion of Christ" where there on the hillside stood those three crosses of Calvary - in the center, Jesus was crucified but to each side of him were common criminals. And all around the crowd gathered, filled with hate and demanding nothing less than death. But then there were the few who suffered the loss of someone they so dearly loved and that moment of compassion became more powerful than all the hate the crowds could muster.
On my birthday I don't celebrate my life, but rather I celebrate those who despite circumstances selflessly reach out in compassion and mercy to offer a few words of good will. They sustain our hope and give us the strength to continue this journey to whatever end will be.
As I write this, today is Easter Sunday - two days before my birthday and the gift I received was truly special...I got to spend the day with my daughter. For only the second time in 32 years it was just me and her. You see, my daughter Jennifer suffered of trauma during childbirth that left her mentally disabled. Despite her handicap, she struggles to live independently and almost 10 years ago married someone and they now have two children.
Life has been anything but easy on them and every day is a struggle - like so many here in America they are poor and little hope of overcoming their circumstances. But I remain inspired as despite the odds against her, my daughter Jennifer doesn't give up.. and she never becomes bitter of how unfair life has been. And she isn't capable of hate or all the destructive traits we see in the world around us.
Everyday she is judged by others around her for what they see, rather than what they know. And yet she responds with a childlike love. As I walked into the death row visiting park today and she came through the door the visitors come through, her face lit up with a smile that comes from the heart and although it's been years since I was last able to hug her, she immediately gave me the biggest hug I've had in a long time and she said: "I love you Daddy" and that almost made me cry. I've been here on Florida's death row since she was 4 years old. And although too many years pass between those hugs, each seems like it was just yesterday.
In a couple of days I will have my birthday and as I do, I want to think about all those who kept me going through their support. And as we all wait for the decision from the courts, I will be grateful for the small things that give even my so-called life meaning..while many may gather outside the prison to celebrate my death, if that day comes, there will still be those who have only compassion in their hearts, and there will be that hug that a father gets from his child. And it's in those moments that even my own struggle not to succumb to anger and drown myself in the negativity of my circumstances that I'm able to rise above it all and bask in that fellowship that comes from those who so selflessly reach out to me.
And so that's all I want for my birthday - the chance to give each of you a big hug and to thank each of you for being a true friend.