By Michael Lambrix - written for MinutesBeforeSix
What if someone approached you today and told you that you only had two days to live - and that you had to spend your remaining days in solitary, away from all those that mattered to you. Alone, you slowly count down each moment of every day, each tick of that clock, drawing you closer to a date with death.
You will be allowed to say a few (and only a few) “last words”. Whatever you decide to say is what you will be remembered for (or forgotten, if all you do is waste that last breathe of life).
That is where I am today. As I write this, it is Friday, September 15, 2017, and I am in Cell One, formally known as Q-2101, only feet away from Florida's execution chamber. And in the early evening of October 5, 2017, at precisely 6:00 p.m., the State of Florida intends to put me to death for a crime I did not commit.
After 34-years on Florida's Death Row, I've become familiar with how this process unfolds. I’ve seen many others where I am today (please check out “Execution Day- Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder”). I've survived three previous attempts by the state to take my life, but I know that this time is different. This time, the odds of surviving this date with death are significantly stacked against me. I don't expect to make it out alive. The Governor is running an election for a tightly contested U.S. Senate seat, and he needs to rally the votes by executing as many as he can. To him, all my life is really worth is the hope of winning a few more votes. He has already sent more people to their death then any other Governor in Florida’s history and, after he kills me, he will move on to his next victim.
Warden Reddish came down to Death Watch the other day and asked me why I'm doing a hunger strike. I explained that I am protesting the injustice of putting me to death without allowing all readily available evidence substantiating my innocence, including DNA evidence, to be heard. He responded by sharing with me that in all the years he has worked in prisons, he has never seen a hunger strike actually accomplish anything.
Continuing our casual conversation, as if the set of steel bars that separated us didn’t exist, the morning sun now shining through the windows behind the Warden, I offered my observation that, from the prisoner’s perspective, it's not about actually winning whatever issue compelled you to take that drastic act. I don't expect a tangible result.
Rather, in prison, a person has extremely limited options available with which to protest perceived injustice. Even the slightest hit of expressing anger on the part of a prisoner escalates the situation and punitive sanctions are a standard response.
By the time most get to where I am today, they are already broken. The long journey from being condemned to death, to confronting that date with death is, itself, a deliberate process intended to slowly erode your will to do anything but passively submit to state sanctioned execution.
When that time comes, I am expected to walk into the execution chamber and those waiting within that room will gently, without even the slightest hint of malice, assist me as I climb up on to the gurney where a moment later they will then firmly pull the straps down to render me motionless and unable to physically resist, so they can proceed to expeditiously insert needles connected to long I.V. tubes in each of my arms at the inside of the elbows.
Then the white curtain that separates me from a panel of witnesses safely seated behind a single pane of polished glass will be pulled open. I will quickly scan that small group of people, not more than ten-feet in front of me, desperately looking for a friendly face, or at least a familiar face, but likely to be met with blank stares by most gathered, who have waited many years to watch me die.
Then, in a predetermined and all but imperceptible gesture, the executioner hidden behind a nearby partition will push that first plunger down, forcing a presumably cold lethal liquid into my veins.
It's a ritual, and every aspect of that ritual has been planned to precise detail, and everybody performs their part. And I will too.
But I don't want to just lay down and die, exterminated like nothing more than a glorified cockroach.
And, so, I am doing a hunger strike. I don't expect to gain anything but to protest against this deliberate injustice, and that, itself, is my only objective. It is my way of saying that I accept that I am powerless to change the outcome, as this cold machinery of death grinds its gears.
For now, though, I sit in this solitary cell. Twenty-days to my date with death doesn't seem to be that long, and yet I find it to be way too much time. I find myself trying to pull up the memories of the life I once had so long ago, as a means of escaping the thoughts of my relatively imminent death.
But try as I might, like the invisible force of a blackhole slowly consuming the universe around it, I am pulled in again and again, dragged back to envisioning what that last moment of my life will be - and what my last words will be.
Part of me wants to put all I can into a concise statement that will be something to remember. But no matter what I try to say it, I imagine it will be forgotten. Nobody's coming to witness my execution to hear what I have to say. They’re coming to watch me die.
I think a lot about the young woman's family. They lost their daughter and, through all these years, have believed that I was the one who took her life. Their need to seek justice can only be satisfied with my death. This has given them the strength to cope with their loss. But I didn't kill their daughter.
I've prayed for them, that they might find the strength to forgive - not because the person responsible for taking the life of their daughter is worthy of their forgiveness, but because carrying around that much hate towards any other person for so long is like a cancer that will eat at their own soul.
Maybe my death will bring them peace and, if it does, then I can go knowing that there was a purpose in all of this.
Years ago, I tried to reach out to them, to explain the circumstances that transpired that night, and how much I wished I could take their pain away. Their response was to contact the prison - they found it offensive that I wrote them and demanded the prison punish me.
But still, as the years have passed, I’ve kept them in my prayers, wishing that I could turn back the hands of time and change it all. I do that a lot, escaping the reality of this place by picking my memories apart and trying to identify that one point in time, so long ago, where it all went off the tracks.
Maybe I should use my last words to ask for their forgiveness, even though I didn't kill their daughter. Maybe they need that. Then again, maybe their need for vengeance has consumed so much of them that they cannot forgive under any circumstances, and anything I may attempt to say to them at that time would only make them suffer more. I don't want to bring any more pain into their lives. I wish I could take all their pain away. My death won't accomplish that. Only they can make that decision to let it go.
Then there's my family. They've committed no crime, but they've suffered just as much. They will stand by helplessly as their son, their father, their brother, and their best friend, is put to death for a crime that they know I am innocent of.
Those in my life who have been there for me through the years have been the “Wind Beneath My Wings”; nurturing my hope and sustaining my strength. I have been so incredibly blessed by these who sacrificed so much to be a part of my life. I know it has not been easy. They have suffered along with me, at every setback, and felt the pain of injustice with each appeal denied.
Most families quickly fade away, and all but forget you once you cross over to that death row life. And, as the years passed, there's been times that my family did too. But we always were drawn back together, and are now stronger than we've ever been. Having to go through this Death Watch process and endure our last visit will cause them so much pain.
Maybe my last words should be to tell them how much it has meant to me to have them in my life.
Not only my family, including my children, but also the small group of friends, spread out across the world, that have been there for me.
What would I say? What few words could possibly convey what I feel in my heart?? When they visit, at each visit I hug them like I never would let them go. Like I knew that this day might come.
I can no longer hug them. Once my execution date was set, my contact visits were immediately terminated and restricted to non-contact. They still come, now more frequently, driving many hours, even through the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, to spend a few hours of communion with me. We talk, and I try to make them laugh, but I can see in my mother’s and my sister’s eyes how hard this is for them.
There are the moments of silence, when I see the tears forming in their eyes, and I quickly work to find something to talk about, to get their minds off what lies ahead.
They are worried about my health, fearing that this hunger strike will only cause me to suffer more. Just as with the Warden, I patiently explain why I feel I must do this. But nothing I say is enough to comfort them. They beg me to eat. They are allowed to purchase sandwiches and snacks from the prison canteen, which the guard will then bring around to me. But I refuse, and then they refuse to eat too.
I explain that they do not have to worry. The nurses check on me each day, taking my weight and blood pressure. As of today, I've only lost 17-pounds - and, truth be told, I really needed to lose some weight anyways.
When I return to my Death Watch cell, I lay down and put my MP3 player on, and then relive every moment of the visit to prolong it, as if it never had to end. But my moment of meditation is broken, as someone on the floor above me is kicking at his solid steel door.
I get back up, and look at the pile of old cards and letters I've stacked against the wall of my cell. As the days pass, I slowly go through them, rip them up and throw them away. Some I've had for many years, some not as long. But each was saved in the very limited room I'm allowed for storage of personal property for a reason. And now, I find myself destroying the things that I treasured the most.
I must do this before I'm placed on “Phase II”, and all my property is removed from my cell to ensure that I cannot cheat the state out of its intended act of murder by committing suicide. I still cannot destroy so many. And the stack of what means too much to throw away soon grows high. I've accomplished nothing.
The pictures are much harder. In my world, it's the photos of the smiling faces of those you love that keep you going. And photos of the past, of family and of my children, and of my grandchildren.
I go through them one-by-one, remembering each as if I just received it yesterday and, in the end, I throw very few away. A few years back, I lost all my pictures, so what few I have left are part of me and I cannot bear to toss away the memories reflected. Many are of visits I've had, and each photo allows me to think of that special day.
Try as I might to think of other things, that one thought keeps pulling me back - my last words. I find myself becoming consumed. What will I say?
I think of my spiritual advisor of many years, a man who gave up a successful career in law to become a Catholic lay minister devoted to Death Row prison ministry. Dale Recinella has visited me more times than I can begin to count, and is family too.
Before me, he has been there for many others, patiently listening to their words and offering an inspiration of spiritual comfort. When my day comes, he will be here. Contrary to movies, they will not allow him to walk with me into the execution chamber. But he will share time with me in the hours before my execution is carried out, and they will allow him to join the panel of witnesses to watch my execution.
He has witnessed many executions of those he has come to know and provided spiritual comfort to; not only us in our final hours, but to our families too. (Dale Recinella has written numerous books relating to his death row ministry that can be found at www.iwasinprison.org)
Although long disillusioned by what contemporary Christianity has become and those who claim to be Christian, I have never doubted my spiritual faith. I find strength in it.
So, when that final moment is upon me, and the opportunity to express what will be my last words I will ever utter in this life arrives, maybe I will say the Lord's Prayer. Nothing I could come up with could possibly be more profound than that.
I sit silently at the edge of my bunk and look outside the window on the other side of the cell bars. Not more than ten-feet from where I sit, the green grass of a lawn that stretches from that window to the distant perimeter fence begins. A few days ago, a lawn mower outside that window came so close that I could smell its distinct exhaust.
I can smell the grass. Only a few feet away in another direction, the execution chamber patiently awaits me. I can close my eyes and imagine laying out on that grass - preferably at night, so that I can see the heavens above and count the stars, and, if by chance a shooting star passes, even make my wish.
Maybe I won't die. That's the thing about being down here and facing that date with death. As each day draws to a close, you find yourself thinking about how these are your final days, your final hours, and your final minutes. It becomes real. No matter how much you try to think of anything else, you cannot escape those persistent thoughts that this won't end well.
I've been down on Death Watch now for two weeks, and I have less than three weeks to go. So far, my lawyers haven't been able to do anything to stop my execution. Hurricane Irma (what they are now saying is the worst hurricane in Florida's history) shut everything down across the state, including my lawyers’ offices and the courts.
I talked with them yesterday, finally, but they can't get up to visit me until next week. By then, we will have two weeks left. That clock continues to tick. This time is lost forever.
I've already had numerous appeals pending. The two still before the United States Supreme Court could even result in my exoneration and release, if only the court would grant a review. But that's a long shot. I know, only too well, that the Supreme Court only looks at a handful of cases of the many thousands filed each year.
My lawyers continue to believe that the most favorable issue is the challenge to my illegally imposed sentences of death. The jury did not unanimously vote to sentence me to death. But, by marginal vote, the Florida Supreme Court decided that only those illegally sentenced after June 2002 would be allowed relief, and that those, such as myself (and almost 200 others), sentenced to death prior to June 2002, are still to be executed.
If the Supreme Court agrees with my lawyers, that this is unconstitutionally “arbitrary” and that my death sentences must be vacated, then I would have my sentences reduced to “life” and become, almost immediately, eligible for parole.
I struggle to keep that hope alive.
I don't have faith in the court doing the right thing.
I don't have faith in the court doing the right thing.
Maybe that's just what I should tell them, as they so deliberately put me to death for a crime that I did not commit. I should tell them that they are committing an act of murder, and quote Socrates by saying “To which of us go the worst fate, you or I?” And then breathe my last breath.