Our Dear Friend Mike Lambrix left us on October 5, 2017
He went from the Darkness to the Light..

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder


The PEN Prison Writing Contest just released the winners for the 2017-18 contest and Mike placed third in the essay category with this essay. 

Written for MinutesBeforeSix
 
As if a scene straight out of The Twilight Zone, circumstances trapped me within the cold and calculated process that resulted in the murder by state sanctioned execution of Oscar Ray Bolin on January 7, 2016. In all the years I´ve been on Florida´s death row, I´ve never been in such close proximity to an execution as it unfolded around me, forcing me to become part of the very process that they intended to then subject me to in precisely five weeks’ time.


On November 30, 2015, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my death warrant and I was immediately transferred from the main death row unit at Union Correctional (less than a mile away) to the “death watch” housing area on the bottom floor of Q-Wing at Florida State Prison. I joined Oscar down there—his own death warrant had been signed about 5 weeks earlier and they intended to murder him on January 7. There are only three cells in the death watch area, and Oscar was in cell one, and I was place in cell three, with an empty cell separating us.


Through those five weeks, each day brought him closer—his wife of almost twenty years solidly by his side, uncompromised in her commitment to stand by him and prove that he was innocent. And those familiar with the case knew that recently developed evidence did establish a persuasive issue of innocence, too.


His final rounds of appeals focused specifically on evidence supporting his innocence and the hope that the courts would do the right thing. As the New Year weekend passed, the Federal District Court summarily denied review of his innocence claim upon the finding that the lower Federal Court didn´t have jurisdiction to hear his claim of innocence. But there was hope, as the District Court granted a “Certificate of Appealability” (“C.O.A.”) authorizing appellate review before the Eleventh Circuit, and soon after the Eleventh Circuit issued an order establishing a “briefing schedule” in March…it seemed all but certain that Oscar would be granted a stay of execution and his claim of innocence would be fully briefed and heard by the appellate court.


Monday, January 4 passed as he anxiously awaited word that a stay of execution would be granted, but there was only silence from the court. Each day his wife spent every minute she could and it is impossible to imagine the pain she felt—she too was unquestionably a victim caught up in this cold process that unfolded around her.


I sat in my solitary cell not more than ten feet away and found myself impressed with the strength Oscar exhibited, and the concern he held for his wife and what this process inflicted on her. Society wanted to label this man a cold-blooded killer, yet if only those only too willing to throw stones could see the desperate concern he had for his wife, they could see how wrong they are.


Now I struggle to find the words—and with a reluctance to even write about what I involuntarily witnessed. But if I don´t, then who will? And is it really fair that the record of what transpired would otherwise be the state´s own version, leaving no perspective from those that they kill?
                                              


I must emphasize that even as much as these events impacted me due to my close proximity to this process, it is not comparable to what they were forced to endure, and the loss those who loved Oscar Bolin suffered. My attempt to share what transpired from my own unique perspective is done in the hope that perhaps by bearing witness, others would see just how incomprehensibly inhuman this process is, and how truly cold-blooded this act of murder is…and to know it is carried out in all of our names.


And I apologize for rambling on—it is not easy for me to find the necessary words. I can only hope that I can convey the true impact of what unfolded and compel those that read this to ask themselves whether this truly is what we aspire our society to be? It´s easy to justify the death penalty by claiming that it is in the interest of justice to kill those convicted of killing another—to become a killer ourselves. 


But how many give a thought at all to just how much contemplation is put into this process employed to take that life? I am again reminded of what I once read, written by the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.”


Think about that. It´s easy to dismiss what I say by blindly insisting that a jury convicted Oscar Bolin of murder and that justice demands that society take his life. But really—who is actually investing more conscious thought into the act of taking a human life?


It is for this reason I´m determined to share my own unique perspective of what this process is, and how by these very actions it reduces society itself to that very level of becoming “the monster.” Perhaps in my attempt to share this, others can see just how wrong this is.


On the early morning of Monday, January 4, the day began with the death watch staff advising both me and Oscar of our scheduled visits and phone calls for that day, I had already asked my family and friends not to visit that week as I didn´t want my visits to interfere in any way with Oscar´s visits. All I had was a phone call from my son early that morning and a legal phone call with my lawyer later that day.


Oscar had a visit with his wife and both anxiously awaited any word from the Eleventh Circuit courts hoping that a full stay of execution would come and the court would allow full and fair review of his innocence claim. But the day passed without any word from the court. By that evening Bolin was down to 72 hours—and I know from personal experience how difficult that was, as I had come within hours of execution myself when I was on death watch years earlier—only I was granted a stay.


By Tuesday morning, January 5, Oscar was down to sixty hours, and the clock continued to tick away and yet still nothing from the courts on whether they would allow his claim of innocence to be heard. Oscar spent from late morning until mid-afternoon with his wife in the non-contact visiting area. Upon his return, his demeanor was more subdued and the stress and anxiety he felt became all but tangible. And as I sat silently a few feet away in my own solitary cell, I wondered whether any of those willing to take his life gave even so much as a moment of thought into what they were inflicting upon other human beings—and again, Oscar was not the only one forced to count down those final hours anxiously hoping that phone would ring with the news that the court would allow his claim of innocence to be heard…every second of every moment, every hour that passed inflicted incomprehensible pain upon his wife and those that cared for him.


That evening passed in an uncomfortable silence as the courts would have closed their doors for the night and no news would come until at least that next morning. That psychological trauma of uncertainty weighed heavily upon them.


I doubt Oscar slept much that Tuesday night—I know I didn´t. His T.V. remained on into the early morning hours. By that next morning (Wednesday) he was down to about thirty six hours until his still scheduled execution and still no word from the court. It would be a long day. They brought the breakfast trays as they did each morning, but neither of us had any interest in eating. Down here on death watch, our meals are kept under direct supervision of security staff to ensure nobody (other prisoners or staff) has any chance of tampering with the food or smuggling anything to the condemned prisoner.


This methodical countdown to the intended execution actually starts a full week before, when they remove all personal property from the condemned prisoner´s cell, placing him (or her) on “Phase II.” From the moment they place the condemned prisoner on Phase II (that final week) a guard is posted directly in front of the cell twenty four hours a day, his only job to observe the condemned prisoner to ensure he (or she) doesn´t attempt suicide or harm themselves—and a few have tried. Any activity is written in a forest green “Death Watch Log.” Throughout this time, not even for one second are you allowed to forget that they are counting down your last days—and last hours.


Oscar again had a visit with his wife as she stood faithfully by him spending every moment she could—even if those visits were restricted to a few hours of non-contact (through glass) visits.


By early afternoon Oscar returned to his death watch cell—still no word from the court. The hours dragged by as Oscar talked to the guard stationed in front of his cell, simply talking about anything at all.


Warden Palmer came down, accompanied by Deputy Secretary Dixon (the second highest Department of Corrections employee). They talked to Oscar for a while mostly just to check on how he was holding up. But the preparations had begun and that final twenty four hours was quickly approaching. After they talked to Oscar, they stepped that few feet further down to the front of my cell and spoke to me.


I must admit that I was impressed by their professionalism and their sincerity that bordered on genuine concern. Perhaps the most heard expression on death watch is an almost apologetic “we´re just doing our job” and the truth is that the current staff assigned to work the death watch area and interact with the condemned prisoners counting down their final hours do go to great lengths to treat us with a sense of dignity and respect seldom even seen in the prison system.


The significance of this cannot be understated. I´ve been down here on death watch before years ago and came within hours of being executed myself, and there´s always been a deliberate distance between the condemned and the staff—especially the higher ranking staff. But it´s different this time. In the five weeks that I´ve been down here almost daily high ranking staff have come down to the death watch housing area and made a point of talking to us in an informal manner, abandoning that implicit wall of separation between them and us.


And now none other than the Deputy Secretary himself personally came down to talk to us—I´ve never heard of this before. Shortly after they left, Oscar asked the sergeant for the barber clippers. He wanted to shave his own chest and legs, rather than have them do it the next day. It had to be done, as the lethal injection process requires the attachment of heart monitors and Oscar preferred to shave it himself—as most would.


Oscar received another legal phone call later that afternoon—now down to almost twenty four hours until his scheduled execution and still no decision by the Eleventh Circuit as to whether or not they´d allow review of his innocence claim. The lawyers would call if any news came, but it was assumed that the judges deciding his fate already called it a day and went home. No further phone call came that night. Again Oscar stayed up late, unable to sleep until sometime in the early morning hours and he was not alone, as sleep would be hard to come by.


We reached the day of execution. Typically, they change shifts at 6:00 a.m. working a full twelve hour shift. But on days of scheduled execution, they change shifts at 4:30 a.m., as with the execution scheduled at 6:00 p.m. they cannot do a shift change then, as the entire institution will go on lockdown during that time.


With that final twenty four hours now counting down, each minute was managed by strict “Execution Day” protocol, and the day started earlier than usual. As if an invisible cloud hung in the air, you could all but feel the weight of this day as it was that tangible, and undoubtedly more so on Oscar. But he was holding up remarkably well, maintaining his composure even though the strain was obvious in his voice. How does one go about the day that they know they are to die? Again, I´ve been there myself and I know how he felt and it cannot easily be put into words.


Oscar was diabetic and as with each morning, the nurse came to check his blood sugar level and administer insulin, if necessary. Now within that final twelve hours, nothing would be left to chance. Around 7:00 a.m., they let Oscar take a shower, and then after locking down the entire institution, they took him up front for a last visit with his wife. They would be allowed a two hour non-contact visit until 10:00 a.m., then an additional one hour contact visit—the last visit before the scheduled execution.


Shortly after 11:00 a.m. they escorted Oscar back to the Q-Wing death watch cell. A few minutes later “Brother Dale” Recinella was allowed to come down and spend a few hours with Oscar as his designated spiritual advisor. Contrary to the Hollywood movies depicting the execution process, the prison chaplain is rarely, if ever, involved as each of us are allowed to have our own religious representative—and many choose “Brother Dale” as he is well-known and respected amongst the death row population.


Many years ago Brother Dale was a very successful lawyer, making more money than most can dream of. But then he experienced a life-changing event and spiritual transformation, as chronicled in his book “And I Walk on Death Row”. Brother Dale and his equally-devoted wife Susan gave up their wealth and privilege and devoted their lives to their faith and ministering to death row.                                      

Even as these final hours continued to count down, I remained in that solitary cell only a few feet away and unable to escape the events as the continued to unfold around me. There are only three cells on death watch and I found it odd that they kept me down here as they proceeded with this final process—when I was on death watch in 1988, they moved me upstairs to another cell removed from the death watch area as they didn´t want any other prisoners in the death watch area as these final events unfolded.


Brother Dale left about 2:00 p.m. and the death watch lieutenant, a familiar presence on death watch, then made a point of talking to Oscar and they went over the protocol—shortly before 4:00 p.m. he would shower again and then be brought around to the west side of the wing where they had only one cell immediately adjacent to the door that led to the execution chamber. I listened as this process was explained, knowing only too well that in precisely five more weeks I would be given the same talk.


The warden and Asst. warden came down again and talked to Oscar. A few minutes later the Secretary (director) of the Florida Department of Corrections, Julie Jones, personally came to Oscar´s cell and sat in a chair and talked to him—I´ve never heard of that happening before. But her tone of voice and mannerisms reflected genuine empathy towards Oscar, and he thanked her for taking that time to talk to him.


As they now closed in on that final two hours before the scheduled execution, Oscar received another phone call from his lawyer—the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals still had not ruled on whether they would grant a stay of execution and allow a full review of his pled innocence claim. Oscar´s voice was obviously stressed. Per protocol, the nurse gave him 5 mg. valium to calm his nerves.


Just before 4:00 p.m., Oscar spoke to me, wanting to talk about a problem he and I had years ago—a problem that I alone was responsible for and of which I have often regretted. In the five weeks we had been on death watch together, it was not spoken of. But now, to my amazement, even dealing with all that he was dealing with, Oscar wanted me to know that he forgave me for what I did. And for a few minutes we talked. And then the warden and his staff removed Oscar from his cell and escorted him around to the west side of the wing, to the execution chamber holding cell, where he would remain until the court cleared the way for execution, or he received a stay of execution and was brought back to this side.


A single sergeant remained on this side, and for the first time since I was brought to death watch I was alone as the sergeant remained at the desk just outside the cell block area—and I didn´t want to be alone. As I do often, especially when stressed, I paced in my cell anxious to hear any word on what was going on and checking my watch almost every minute, and each minute dragged by so slowly it was almost as if time itself had stopped and I couldn´t begin to imagine what Oscar and his wife were going through.


At irregular intervals the sergeant would walk down to my cell to check on me and I asked whether there was any more news. The Eleventh Circuit had denied his appeal and the case quickly moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court. The designated time of scheduled execution—6:00 p.m.—came and went without any word from the Supreme Court.


Oscar would remain in that holding cell until the Supreme Court cleared the way for execution—but at least both he and his loved ones still had hope as the minutes continued to tick away.


Most don´t realize just how many people are involved in this execution process and everybody remained on hold not knowing whether the execution would proceed or not. Immediately adjacent to my cell was a solid steel door that led directly into a hallway stretching the entire width of the wing. Just inside this door was an area with a coffee pot and chairs, and I could hear a number of unknown people congregated only a few feet away from me on the other side of the door as they discussed the continued uncertainty.


A larger crowd of unknown participants congregated on the lower quarter-deck area between the west side of the wing where the death watch housing area was and the door that led into the east side where Oscar remained in the holding cell. I couldn´t make out what they were saying and wondered, especially when I periodically heard laughter. I suppose this long wait was stressful on them, too, and a moment of levity could be forgiven. And yet I found myself wondering what they could possibly find funny as they awaited that moment of time when they would each assume their assigned task and take the life of another human being.


One hour passed, and then another, and another yet. Then at almost 10:00 p.m. it suddenly got quiet—very quiet. All the voices that continuously hummed both behind that steel door and the quarter-deck area just suddenly went silent and without anyone around to tell me; I knew that they all moved to their positions in the execution chamber.
                                          
                             Vigil Oscar Bolin


It remained utterly silent—so quiet that I could hear the coffee pot percolating at the sergeant´s desk on the other side of the gate and I held my watch as the minutes passed and I strained to hear any sound at all. But there was nothing and I knew they were now putting Oscar to death. I cannot explain it, but I just felt it—and I got on my knees and I prayed, and yet I couldn´t find any words and found myself kneeling at my bunk in silence for several minutes.


Then I heard what sounded like a door on the other side of that concrete wall that separated my cell from the execution chamber. Then I once again heard muffled voices on the other side of that steel door. It was over and it went quickly…Oscar was dead. A few minutes later I heard the sound of a number of people going up the stairs leading away from the execution chamber. Their job was done and in an orderly manner they were leaving.


For obvious reasons, I didn´t sleep that night. Only a few feet behind that wall of my cell, Oscar´s body now lay growing cold. There are no words that can describe how I felt, but that emptiness that consumed me and left me laying in my bunk in complete silence through the night.


Somewhere in the early morning hours I fell asleep, only to awaken just after 7:00 a.m. It was a new day. The death watch Lieutenant was already here and I was now the only one left on death watch. But just that quickly, I was instructed that I had to immediately pack my property as they had to move me to cell one—the cell that Oscar only recently vacated.


I didn´t want to move to that cell, but I didn´t have any choice. That was the same cell I previously occupied in late 1988 when I myself came within hours of my own execution (read, “The Day God Died”) and especially knowing that only a few hours again Oscar was in that cell still alive and holding on to hope, I just didn´t want to be moved to that cell. Every person who has been executed in the State of Florida in the past forty years was housed in that cell prior to their execution.


But it wasn´t a choice and I obediently packed my property and with the officer´s assistance, I was moved from cell three to cell one. And as I worked on putting all my property back where it belonged (storing it in the single steel footlocker bolted firmly to the floor), a long-awaited phone call from my close friend Jan Arriens came through.


While on death watch, we are allowed two personal phone calls each week, and since my warrant was signed five weeks earlier, I had anxiously awaited the opportunity to talk to Jan, but through the Christmas holiday he was visiting his family in Australia. Having only recently returned to his home in England, he arranged this phone call.


It was good to hear a friendly voice just at that time when I most especially needed a friend. But we only had a few minutes to talk and unlike those eternal moments of the night before, these minutes passed far too quickly. But just hearing the voice of a friend comforted me.


Shortly after that phone call, I then had a legal visit and was escorted to the front of the prison to meet with my lawyer´s investigator. We spent hours going over legal issues and then it was back to the death watch cell. Not long after I returned, I learned that the governor had already signed another death warrant. This machinery of death continued to roll along. By mid-afternoon a familiar face was brought down to join me…Mark Asay (who we call “Catfish”) had his death warrant signed that morning, with his execution scheduled for March 17, exactly 5 weeks after my own scheduled execution.
                                          


With the methodical precision of a mechanical machine, Florida has resumed executions with a vengeance, establishing a predictable pattern of signing a new death warrant even before the body of the last executed prisoner has grown cold.


Now I remain in the infamous “cell one,” next in line to be executed—and on February 11, 2016 at 6:00 p.m., the State of Florida plans to kill me. Until then, I will remain in a cell in which the last twenty three occupants, without exception, resided until their own execution. I do not like being in this solitary cell. 

Mike Lambrix

(Mike was executed by the state of Florida on October 5, 2017, Mark Asay was executed August 24, 2017)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Alcatraz of the South Part 9 “Fire in the Hole”


Written for MinutesBeforeSix website

"Today, March 29, is Mike's birthday and in his honor we are posting 
a previously unpublished essay he wrote in the summer of 2017."


To read Part 8 click here

As I stood at the back of the cell one late September morning in 1988, an unfamiliar voice yelled out from somewhere downstairs, “Fire in the hole!” It was quickly echoed by others to make sure everybody heard. A white shirt was on the wing. Back then the wing sergeants and officers generally left us alone to do our own time, just as long as we didn't make them look bad. And we'd get a heads up if the confinement lieutenant (”white shirt”) came on the wing so we could tighten up and at least make it look good. There's a lot of truth to what they say about how shit runs downhill... -- if we made the wing Sergeant look bad, it would come down hard and heavy on us and nobody wanted that.
 
                                              

Quickly, I tried to do what I had to do. I was already on disciplinary confinement (”the hole”) for fighting on the recreation yard a few weeks earlier over a stupid call during a basketball game. I only had about another week to do before my 30 days were up. But if I got caught with any contraband while in the hole, it would add another 15 days.  Football season had already started, and I really wanted my TV back.

When they first called out, I had just started to heat up a cup of water to make my morning coffee. That isn't as easy as it might sound when you're in the hole. Just getting someone to smuggle a bit of instant coffee to you was enough to make you think seriously about quitting, but I loved my coffee. It was one of the very few pleasures that I had no intention of giving up if I didn't absolutely have to. I was willing to risk another 15 days in the hole rather than do without.

Then there was the problem of heating the coffee, as there was no electricity to the cell and no coffee pot, either. Never underestimate how resourceful a prisoner can be. Each morning we got a half pint of milk at breakfast, in a small waxed carton. By taking my roll of toilet paper and wrapping it around my fingers and palm until it made a small but loosely wrapped roll, then tucking in both the top and bottom, I made what we called a “bomb.” I had purchased a small piece of wire with trading stamps. By touching the wire to the top and side of the battery while holding the end of a cotton Q-tip to the wire, first a bit of smoke, then a small flame would appear. In a single, fluid motion I would drop the battery and hold that now smoldering Q-tip to the bottom of the bomb and use it to set it on fire. The flames sprang to life in the hollow core of the bomb. I sat it down on the edge of the toilet, balanced precariously above the water only inches away. I would hold the small milk carton filled with water above the bomb, which was by now burning like a small campfire. Within minutes the water would come to a boil.
 
                                               

I stood there wearing nothing but my baggy state issue white boxer shorts, since even late September in a concrete and steel box gets hot, too hot to wear clothes if you don't need to. Like most on the third floor (heat rises to the top), I wore as little as possible. When the “Fire in the hole” call came, I at first thought little of it as the daily rounds typically never had the Lieutenant coming up to the third floor.  Nobody wanted to walk into the scorching oven if they didn't have to.

But then I heard the distinctive sound of heavy brass keys turning the lock on the steel security gate leading onto the tier where I was housed. I knew they were on my floor. As quickly as I could, I pushed the burning toilet paper bomb into the toilet, a generous puff of smoke rising as the water extinguished the flame. I pushed the chromed button, causing the toilet to come to life with a loud groan flushing the disintegrating bomb down the pipes. I went to the nearby bunk, stashing my coffee under the pillow and turning a half step around to sit on the steel footlocker against the wall as if I was doing nothing at all.

No sooner did I sit down then Lt. Walmsley and the Administrative Sergeant Timothy Giebreg were standing at my cell door. Lt Walmsley called out, “Inmate Lambrix.” I had to suppress a laugh, since he obviously knew who I was, and he ordered me to stand. I stood and stepped the short step to the cell front and said, “Yeah?” He instructed me to grab my address book and get dressed as I had to go up front.

Instantly, I knew what it was. We have all seen this play out too many times before. When a white shirt shows up at your cell and tells you to grab your address book, that meant the Governor had signed your death warrant, scheduling your execution. You would be escorted up front to see the Warden. We all knew the routine.

They waited at my cell front, watching closely as I opened up my footlocker to retrieve a small notebook I had already prepared with the names and phone numbers of my family and friends. Although death row prisoners were not allowed to make phone calls, the exception was when the governor signed your death warrant they would allow you to make one phone call to either family or a friend (many of those on the row had long been alienated from their family), which is why they told us to grab our address books, I reached for my blue state issue canvas pants and apricot colored t- shirt, the color of the t-shirt indicating that I was death sentenced.

As I began to dress, a few of the guys in the hole with me called to me. They already knew what was going on, each calling out, “take it easy, Mike” and other cordial comments. A few cells away, Ted Bundy called down, jokingly telling me he'd hold my cell as long as he could. I laughed and responded that he'd better or he wouldn't get the fruit pie I still owed him. I didn't really owe him one but that was his weakness, he really loved his Little Hostess pies we could buy once a week off the prison canteen (store) and there never were but a few available each week so the inmate canteen clerk usually charged a premium, especially if you wanted more than one. When I could, I'd pick up a few for Ted so that he didn't get robbed too badly by the greedy bastards out to exploit us.
 
                                            

Once dressed, I already knew to back up to the cell door. A I did, I felt the handcuffs being secured on my wrists. Anytime we were removed from our cell, even if only going to the shower at the front of each tier, we were handcuffed behind our back. We would stay physically restrained until we were securely locked in a cage, whether it was our assigned cell, or the shower cell, with the exception of the recreation yard and the visiting park (for social visits with family and friends).

I had only been under a sentence of death a little over four years and had not had the opportunity to pursue collateral, post conviction review. This was the only opportunity to argue evidence the jury never heard, evidence that supported your innocence. Also other substantive claims that would show that your court appointed trial lawyer failed to provide competent legal representation, resulting in a wrongful conviction.

I didn't even have a lawyer assigned to my case. Florida's governor, Robert Martinez, one of a then new breed of Rabid Rednecks Republicans (”RRR,” the natural evolution of the politically unpopular 'KKK') who won political office on promises of exploiting executions by any means necessary had, for the first time, used the power of the governors office to sign so many death warrants that it overwhelmed the judicial system. Eventually, significant changes were made to prevent future governors from abusing the power of the office as Governor Martinez had.

As I was being escorted off the tier, past each cells and barely aware of the words of encouragement spoken by each prisoner, I felt emotionally numb. The reality that I was being led to “death watch” to face my own execution, began to weigh heavily upon me.

We exited the wing, into the main corridor that runs the length of the prison (please read, Alcatraz of the South, Part I and II) the Lieutenant radioed for a security lockdown, since protocol was that anytime a “death watch” inmate was brought out into the main corridor, the entire prison was put on lockdown. Before the Lieutenant had finished broadcasting over the hand held security radio, the solid steel doors at each of the twelve wings began to slam shut, loudly echoing as steel met steel with a thunderous force. When the last door was secure we began to move up the main corridor, southward towards the “Colonel's office,” where the Warden would be waiting.

With the Admin Sergeant to one side and the Lieutenant at the other, we moved at a leisurely pace, neither in too much of a hurry. Once past the “Corridor E” security gate, we slowly walked past the dayrooms used for general population prisoners, each dayroom separated from the main corridor by windows. At each window, prisoners looked out. Many were former death row prisoners and as I recognized a familiar face, I nodded and he would silently nod back. At almost a quarter mile long, it took a few minutes before we finally reached what is commonly known as “Times Square”, where just inside another set of security gates the main corridor intersected with the secondary hallways.

The main control room for the prison was at the southeast corner of Times Square. The officer inside electronically opened the security gate and we walked through and across the intersection another or so paces, before stopping at yet another electronically controlled security gate that led into a small complex of administrative offices as well as the small rooms where death row had their legal visits. Walking inside, we then crossed the open area at the center of these offices, going directly to the office in the far corner. I had never been in that office before, but knew it was the Colonels’. The highest-ranking security officer at each state prison, formally titled, “Chief Security Officer,” wears the quasi-military rank of Colonel.

Nudging me by the arm, the Lieutenant guided me a few steps into that wood paneled office until I stood in front of a heavy wood desk. Rumor had it that the desk was made out of the same hardwood oak used by inmate labor to build “Old Sparky,” Florida’s infamous three legged electric chair.

I immediately recognized Warden Tom Barton sitting behind the desk. He looked up at me and said, “Morning Michael...do you know why you are here?” Hearing him call me by my first name kind of threw me for a moment as I've known Warden Barton for a few years, and never heard him call anyone anything but inmate, usually with an unmistakable tone of contempt in his voice, comparable to the inflection a plantation owner would use towards his slaves.

As he spoke, he held up a single piece of paper that had a distinctive black border around the edge. The “death warrant” that Governor Martinez had signed, ordering my execution. Warden Barton then proceeded to read the warrant, word for word, and as he came to the end where it said that my execution was to be carried out the last week of November, at a specific day and time set by the Warden, Mr. Barton looked up over his steel framed glasses and without even a hint of emotion, informed me that I was scheduled for November 30, 1988 at 7:00 am.

Warden Barton asked if I had any questions, but I had none. As he rose to his feet, he informed me that the death watch Sergeant would explain how things work down there. I felt a hand take me by my elbow and lead me back out and down that long corridor again, only this time we did not stop at the death row housing wing that I had come off of, but instead proceeded to the very end of the corridor and the heavy steel door over which was the letter “Q”... the infamous “Q-Wing, and it wouldn't be my last time there. I already knew that the top row of the three floors were used to house prisoners in ultra maximum security cells unlike anything else in the Florida prison system, since I had previously spent time in those cells when I got into trouble. Each of the two upper floors had twelve cells, six to each side, each cell within it's own concrete crypt. When the steel door closed it became a world of its own, completely isolating the occupant from all else.

But this time I wasn't brought upstairs. Instead, as we walked on to Q-Wing, I was instructed to go down the staircase inside the door. Lt. Walmsley held me by the elbow, not so much to offer support so I wouldn't fall, but to exert his control over me. We descended downward one floor, and as we reached the bottom I was immediately surprised by how clean it was -- even the concrete floor common in prison was tiled and polished to a bright shine.

To the right was a heavy steel gate made of the same bars as our cells and just inside was a Sergeant. He quickly got up from his desk and using the heavy brass key, opened the security gate and we stepped inside. I already knew the Sergeant since he worked the death row wing from time to time and we exchanged greetings. Just as I started to walk through the open gate, Sgt. D. laughed and told me I wasn’t going in there yet, pointing to the other side of the wing. I would be on the West side for now.

Locking the security gate behind him, Sgt. D. and Lt. Walmsley led me about 25 feet to the West side and then another almost identical heavy security gate was opened and we stepped inside. I had never been in this part of the prison. I walked past a small closet, a shower cell, then three cells in a row, each surprisingly large -- almost twice as big as the regular death row cells.

Sgt. D. asked me which of the three cells I wanted. I laughed at the thought that I had a choice, since I've never been given that kind of choice before. In the open area outside the cells near a large steel-barred window was a small table with a microwave and large coffee urn on it. I said that I'd take the middle cell, not only to be close to that table, but to be as far away as possible from both the front security gate we just walked in, and the nearby solid steel door at the back. I already knew without being told that it led into the execution chamber where the electric chair awaited it's next victim.

As soon as I was secured in the “death watch” cell, the Sergeant removing the handcuffs, Lt. Walmsley walked away without another word. Sgt. D. told me that he was going to wait a bit before he explained how things work on death watch, since I had a neighbor coming. He asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, and I said, “Oh, hell, yeah!” Sgt. D. disappeared around to the other side of the wing where his desk was, returning a few minutes later with a small Styrofoam cup of fresh, percolated coffee which I thanked him for as I took it from him. We heard voices coming down the stairs.

A moment later Lt. Long appeared in front of my cell, escorting Amos King. He asked Sgt. D. which cell he wanted King in, and Sgt. D. said that he could pick and Amos chose the third cell and stepped inside, and once he was secured in that cell, Lt. Long left.
 
                                               

I didn't really know Amos although I had met him a few times out on the recreation yard. Sgt. D. left because Amos wanted a cup of coffee, too. Because of the way the cells were situated I couldn't see into the adjacent cells, but Amos and I began to talk around the concrete wall that separated us. The first thing we both wanted to know was how long it would be before they brought our personal property to us so that we could write our family and friends to let them know we had our death warrants signed.

As Amos and I were talking, Sgt. D. brought him his cup of coffee and then Lt. Walmsley suddenly reappeared, this time escorting Robert “Bob” Teffeteller. I had already known Bob for a few years and was almost glad to see him, since I couldn't ask for a better guy to have to go through death watch with. Like myself, Bob had a healthy, if a bit twisted, sense of humor and didn't waste anytime throwing his first shot at me, even before they put him in the front cell. ”Awwhh, hell, Mike,” he said in his backwoods Tennessean accent, “What the hell did you get us into now?” We all laughed, and Amos quickly quipped, “Hey don't blame Mike, it was one of you Bob's that done this shit,” (referring to Governor “Bob” Martinez), and we all laughed again.

As we had our little bit of fun, Sgt. D. pulled up a chair in front of my cell so he could talk to all three of us at once. With a grin, he said, “Alright, children, settle down” and we found that funny, too. Then Sgt. D. proceeded to explain the death watch protocol, letting us know that as long as we had money in our account we could buy whatever we wanted from the prison canteen everyday (instead of only once a week on the regular death row) and that there was a small refrigerator for sandwiches and sodas, and a microwave for heating things up, as well as a coffee pot just for death watch.

He then explained that we would be allowed a legal phone call once a day as well as two social phone calls to family or friends each week. Amos quickly asked, “What's a phone?” since regular death row was not allowed phone calls, and that got a few chuckles. We would not be allowed to go to the rec yard while on death watch, and would only be allowed non-contact visits with those on our approved visiting list. We already knew all of that, since although this was our first time on death watch, we knew from others what the special rules were.

The rest of the day passed quickly and toward the late afternoon the property room Sergeant brought our personal property and small black and white TVs to us (at the time, death row was not allowed to have color TVs-it wasn't until 2004 that we were finally allowed to purchase small color TV’s).

As the days and weeks passed, Amos and Bob and I formed a close comradery, constantly passing the time talking and joking. Since it was our first death warrant, none of us were concerned as we knew that nobody was executed on their first death warrant-at least, they weren't back then. That later changed.

But it wasn't all fun and our gallows sense of humor only hid the stress we all felt as the reality of possible death hung over us. as well as those closest to us. Especially in the morning hours a heavy silence would hang over the cell block until one of us finally called out to another and asked how we're doing. If the silence became too prolonged we would check up on each other and use humor to take that edge off.

On the other side of the death watch floor they had Leo Jones and Jeff Daugherty, next in line for scheduled execution. The reality of the uncertainty of our fate was driven home that first week of November when in the early morning hours of November 7, 1988 the Lieutenant came down and woke us up and told us to grab what we need for the day as we were being moved upstairs right away.
They told us that Jeff didn't get a stay of execution as we all had expected. At that time Florida carried out executions around 7:00 a.m. Grabbing our bedrolls and some writing materials, one by one we were moved upstairs since they didn't want any prisoners on the death watch floor when they were carrying out an execution. That would also change in later years (please read: “Execution Day- Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder”).

Each of us was placed in a cell on the second floor and waited the hours out, knowing that downstairs they were putting Jeff to death. Around mid- morning the wing Sergeant told us to grab our property since we were going back downstairs. A short while later the death watch Sergeant came and escorted us, one by one, back downstairs.

Not long after that Bob got a Stay of Execution and was moved back to the regular death row housing area. About a week later Leo Jones came within a few hours of execution, even having his head and lower leg shaved and eating his last meal, before receiving a Stay of Execution and also being moved back to the death row housing wing.

After Leo was moved off death watch, they moved Amos King and me around to the east side. We were now the next in line for scheduled execution did Amos was put in cell three and I was placed in cell one. That same day they moved Abron Scott, John Marek and David Johnston to the west side cells we’d just vacated and we had a full house again.

As our scheduled execution date drew closer, Amos got a stay while I remained alone on death watch. (Please read “The Day God Died” which describes my last few days on death watch). On November 28, 1988 I finally received a 48 hour temporary Stay of Execution and then on December 2, 1988 I received a full Stay of Execution and was moved back to the regular death row wing.
 
                                                  

As the years passed, every person I was on death watch with died except me. Of the eight men I shared that experience with, I am the only one still alive. 

Leo Jones, Jeffrey Daughtery, John Morek and Amos King all were eventually executed, while my brother Bob died of cancer over a decade later, and David Johnston died of a heart attack when a second death warrant was signed against him in 2010. Myself I would survive another death watch experience. (check out the PBS documentary “Cell One” about my 2016 death watch experience at http://cellone.wlrn.digital/)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hello Darkness – My Old Friend

Attached is Mike's entry for the annual 2013-2014 PEN Prison Writing Contest.  *This story received an honorable mention in the memoir category. The essay appeared also in MinutesBeforeSix

It is there in the dimly lit shadows of the darkness that I find my comfort within this concrete crypt I am condemned to not merely live, but ever so very slow die, within.  I could simply reach up above my steel bunk and pull the long string that dangles down from the fixture above and so easily flood the confines with that artificial light, but I choose not to. The darkness is my sanctuary, where despite all the misery and chaos around me, I can retreat and sit silently and find my solitude in this solitary cell on Florida’s infamous Death Row. The brightness of that light would only be unnecessarily intrusive, an unwelcome invasion that would only serve to cruelly deprive me of those stolen moments in time, in which I am able to at least momentarily detach from the reality around me and retreat back into my own little corner, in my own little world.

I already know only too well what the light world would reveal as all day of every day now, for not merely months, or a few years, but for decade after seemingly endless decade, and yet another decade still, I have sat in this cold, concrete cage and I know it only as a condemned man can, so intimately well that even when I close my eyes, I can count the number of concrete blocks on each wall, I can still see that plain and deliberately featureless, faded soft pastel  beige walls, accented only by the dark, heavy wool horse blanket that I am required to cover my bunk with each morning, as God forbid I might be tempted to sleep a  few hours during the day and then there’s the black bars at the front of the cell, each bar spaced precisely four inches apart, which allow me to look outward a few short feet  upon yet another wall of heavy steel bars, separating the outer catwalk and not too far beyond that, the fortified narrow windows, long ago covered with dust and debris, and yet in defiance, still barely allowing just enough light through to know when it is day and when it becomes night.


                                             

During the warmer months, these narrow windows are opened just enough to allow a bit of air to flow through. From time to time small birds will venture in and awaken me from my early morning sleep with their chirping, which at first I found inviting, as if they brought life itself to this culture of cold death.  But at some point along the path of time, this incessant chirping became unbearable, as if their only intent was to tease and taunt me and have come to so cruelly mock the man in the gilded cage before they then simply fly away and I find myself being driven by an overwhelming anger within me to yell and scream at these demonic winged monsters and even throw small items at the window screen to chase them away.  The birds no longer come to visit as much and now I find myself missing my little friends.

Once upon a time this relentlessly monotonous micro-environment I am entombed within could be brought to life with a few photos, faded reflections of a life that once was, but the powers that be decreed that any sign of life hung from the walls was somehow a “security” threat and not even one photo would be allowed. To violate this draconian rule would result in the loss of the photo and an immediate transfer to “lock-up” and the loss of the very few “privileges” we might be afforded. Given that few privileges are even allowed, this “punishment” would almost be ironically meaningless, if not for the disruption to this methodical routine we come to almost religiously cling to.



                                                


I’m told that long term solitary confinement under such objectively oppressive physical conditions and the deliberate deprivation of any meaningful interaction with others will inevitably drive even the strongest of men insane and I’m sure there are many who believe this to be true. Some might even argue convincingly that this inevitable insanity is the objective as when the monsters of my fate cannot break the body, then they become that much more determined to break the spirit. But nobody yet has told me just where that ever so elusive line is that separates “sanity” from the slippery slide down the proverbial “rabbit hole” leading downward into that bottomless abyss of madness, in which seems that each of us is expected to descend is?

Each week the prison psychologist will make his rounds of the death row unit and always without even so much as stopping, do the required “welfare check” on each of us, as the state has a vested interest in proving we have not become “insane” and we all know that our psychological state is irrelevant as even those who have long ago slipped beneath the murky surface of insanity will be automatically assigned a “normal” rating each week, as any other conclusion that might dare to call our sanity into question might later serve to obstruct the state’s objective of putting us to death.  Becoming insane and being recognised as insane are two totally different things and prison staff who conduct these psychological drive-bys are part of the pretence.

But then I smile as I struggle to understand just who these people are who so pretentiously proclaim themselves to be “normal” and want to insist that insanity is such a bad thing.  If I have learned nothing else in the too many years that I have been entombed in my solitary crypt awaiting the uncertainty of my fate, it is that my selfish??? structured psychosis provides my mental escape from this thing they want to claim to be “reality” and that it is this reality that sucks, not insanity.

When I sit silently in that comforting darkness of my solitary crypt, I can often listen to the many others around me in this monolithic warehouse of tormented souls, or on the increasingly rare occasion when I might reluctantly venture out for a few hours of “outdoor” recreation on the razor-wired concrete pad they call our “recreation yard” and am able to see and even look into the windows of the lost souls of condemned men among me, I find that I truly do envy those who now have that empty look in their eyes, those who have already been blessed by the detachment from that burden of reality that still weighs down heavily upon those of us not so fortunate.



For them, they are the lucky ones, no longer imprisoned by this cruel world around them.  For them, the past, the present and even the future and with it the uncertainty of their judicially imposed fate have lost all meaning and although their physical body may remain condemned to that solitary cage, their “spirit” is free to fly away and soar high above the stormy clouds and into that picture perfect blue sky beyond and as I witness their existence in a world of their own making, do I come to appreciate that insanity is something any sane man in my predicament can only envy and I as agaon retreat back into the recesses of my voluntary darkness do I find myself praying upon a long deaf god that I too one day soon might be blessed by this gift of insanity, so that I too might find my own reprieve from the harsh truth of reality.

Then there’s that whimsical wisp of hope that keeps me pushing forward and I am reminded of a particular scene in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” in which the seasoned convict (played by Morgan freeman) is sitting at the table in the prison “chow hall”, looking up at the fresh meat fate cast down upon them and offers this profound truth, that every convict will inevitably learn in their own way, …..”hope will drive you insane”. Perhaps that is why in Dante’s “Inferno”, as the desperate soul slowly stepped through that passageway leading down to into the very depths of hell itself, he took a moment to absorb those words enscribed above that portal into hell – “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here”.  And yet, despite that paradox of clinging to hope as a means of sustaining the strength to survive, yet knowing that each time that hope is crushed, insanity steps another step toward you, so many still so desperately cling to their hope.

But can hope drive a man insane if what he truly hopes for is insanity? Only the helplessly na├»ve would think that life and death was black and white, as only by being condemned to living within the very shadows of death, while hopelessly bearing witness as one by one around you are put to death in such an arbitrary and utterly unpredictable manner, can you come to understand that death itself comes in an infinite array of shades of grey – and even long before they might come to drag the next man away do we know that physical death too often follows long after the man within that fleshy vessel has already dies a slow and tortuous death of the spirit within.

                                         


To understand the therapeutic value of my voluntary darkness, one must first appreciate that death too often is not a singular event, but a prolonged journey towards that finality that is marked by the degradation of the inner-will with each stumbling step. In my voluntary darkness, I have come to know that a man’s worst fate is not to be condemned to death, but as if peeling away the layers of a onion, each day is another step in which that will to live is maliciously stripped away until only the inner core itself remains, a mere fragment of the man that once was. With each layer, that light of life within the windows of the soul dims just a bit more and the world within takes on a darker shade of grey and only in our arrogance do we attempt to define the precise moment of a physical death.

Only by attempting to understand why a condemned man might be relentlessly haunted by such thoughts might another understand why the darkness has become my friend and why as I so willingly surrender to that darkness, do I place such value in the power to be able to choose whether to pull that string or not.  Each day I alone decide whether in that moment I will live or die as in that voluntary darkness I inflict death upon the reality that imprisons me and in the shadows of my refuge, I find a fleeting sense of peace, knowing only too well that in the coming days, or weeks, or months they will soon enough come to lead me away and as they place me in that solitary cell, just outside that solid steel door that leads into the execution chamber, I will no longer be blessed with the power to retreat into that comforting refuge of my voluntary darkness, but will instead be dragged into a brightly lit room, then strapped upon a gurney, as just a few feet away, on the other side of a glass wall, a small crowd of witnesses will have willingly gathered to silently witness my state sanctioned execution.

As I then lay physically restrained and powerless upon that gurney, as those who have so methodically stalked my death for so many years nod to the masked executioner standing but a few feet away, as he pushes down on the plunger that will send that lethal cocktail of chemicals into my veins, and as I draw that final breath, I will once again find comfort and peace as the light fades away and as that darkness of death descends down upon me, the temptation of pulling that string will be no more.  Just as in my solitary cell I have been condemned to live alone, I too will now die alone and in the end, darkness will be my only remaining friend.


                                             

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mike's Story


(written by Mike in 2009) reflecting on his life; youth, upbringing and the time before he was sent to death row)

Many moons ago in a life now far, far away I was born at San Francisco General Hospital in California on March 29th, 1960. I was the fourth of seven children brought into the world by my mother; by the time she was only 24. By right and reason I should not have been born as after the first three (my oldest sister Debra and my two older brothers Donald, Jr. and Jeff) my mother contracted polio and was bedridden and not to have any more children.

In those early years my father and grandfather owned a steel fabrication plant in San Rafael and we lived a comfortable middle class life in Marin County. I was too young to remember the first home I lived in, in Mill Valley and as the family grew and evolved we would move often. My first memories were of a house on Oak Spring Drive in San Anselmo and those memories were and still are unpleasant. Although faded and broken by years that have passed at times I can still remember the violent arguments that led to my parents’ divorce. Or rather remember hiding from them.

                                            
Mike and younger siblings

Then mom was gone and I remained alone with the father I feared, especially when he was drunk – and it seemed he was always drunk. About the time I began school I met my stepmother. She barely spoke English and was hired originally as a housekeeper. I was to young to recognize the seemingly sincere Mary Poppins persona she first projected that all too quickly evolved into the incarnation of evil within her that manifested itself immediately after she and my father married. By that time we were living in a large house high on a hill in Woodacre, over looking the Lagunitas Valley below. Not long after they wed we moved to a subdivision in San Rafael, on Court Street close to where the canal opened into San Francisco bay.

Soon the family began to grow even larger as my stepmother Consuelo became pregnant with her first. We moved again to a house outside of Novato but still within walking distance to Olive Elementary School. I met my first best friend there as his family has a small ranch nearby. Over the hill behind us, a short walk away, was the valley George Lucas where parts of “Star Wars” was filmed. There were good times, but there were bad times. My best friend Russell was killed in a freak accident and my oldest sister – often my only protector – ran away. By the time I was ten she was barely a teen but I understand now why she had to leave, why living on the streets off the generosity of so-called “hippies” and hanging with bikers was better than staying at “home.”

With a half brother and two half sisters the family grew to a total of ten children. From outside looking in I suppose we appeared to be an average family – at least it was the only family I knew so I thought it was average. On weekends, especially during the summers we would all pack up and drive out to my uncle’s coastal ranch (“Diamond T”) on nearby Ft Reyes, now part of the Ft. Reyes national Seashore. On long weekends and holidays we would go camping at Clear Lake, or Lake Mendocino and as evening set we’d all gather around a campfire singing songs as dad played the guitar.

But then came the early seventies and the family business was abruptly forced into bankruptcy. We moved from Novato to the sleepy hollow community of San Anselmo. My two older brothers and I joined the Boy Scouts and served as alter boys at the Catholic Church. My oldest sister, then barely 16 was committed to the Napa State Hospital, pregnant with her first child. By the time I began middle school we moved again to a small farm with an old Victorian house outside of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. By then I discovered the means to escape reality first with alcohol, then drugs.

My grandparents suffered a car accident and both died a few weeks later and my dad all but gave up even trying as he found his own escape in heavy drinking. There were no more holidays with the grandparents, outings to the ranch, or camping trips. As my stepmother took control life at “home” went from bad to worse. It wasn’t long before we again moved – this time in a caravan of travel trailers like a band of gypsies. But it was the best time of my life, as for the entire summer of 1974 we camped out at Yosemite National Park. Now barely 14, I couldn’t imagine how it could get any better. Any pretense of parental supervision was now gone and I was free to explore the park all day, every day as if it was my private playground. As a bonus, I quickly discovered a seemingly infinite supply of free beer; as campers upstream would place their beer in the icy Merced River only to be washed downstream by the rushing current… entire six packs were there for the taking and in surprising abundance. What I couldn’t drink was easily sold or traded for pot (marijuana) and the best summer of life became a long party. It was the best of times.As the summer drew to an end we packed the trailers up and began a two week exodus across America, finally reaching Florida.

For several months we lived in the two trailers and a large tent at a campground outside of Tampa. At that time I began going to a local Baptist Church for the very best of reasons – a girl I met in school belonged to the youth group and I really wanted her to belong to me. As I got more involved “Brother Jeff,” the charismatic youth director “saved” my soul and I found a new high in Jesus. After years of attending the Catholic Church this seemed so alive and fulfilling.

A few months later Dad bought a small house in the farming area southwest of Plant City known as Turkey Creek. My stepmother claimed her domain and made it clear that only her children would be allowed to live in the house. But we didn’t complain. My oldest brother Donald, Jr. joined the Army and became “career military” until that career abruptly ended when he was hit with an aerial grenade during the first Gulf War. That left my older brother and I, and arch nemesis Jeff to share the one small travel trailer while my even younger sisters Mary and Janet shared the other.

With the family reduced to living on welfare, we were all forced to skip school and work on local farms or orange groves and the income was used to feed us. If any of us dared to protest, of God forbid not work at all, the physical repercussions were immediate. But once that day’s job was complete, that pretense of parental supervision again quickly disappeared and we did as we pleased.

Not long after moving to Turkey Creek my older brother, Jeff and I and even my younger sister Mary began hanging with a “neighborhood” crowd. We never aspired to be a “gang” and never roamed the area preying upon anyone. Our thing was simply to meet almost nightly in a group, pool our money, and party. Looking back, I now realize that all of us were from similar backgrounds and in our own way became family. On the days I was allowed to go to school I would often join a crowd of others who regularly “skipped” school. On good days we would hang out and party in the woods behind Plant City High School or go swimming at nearby Mudd Lake. On bad days we would walk to the mall in Plant City and hang out. Although caught more than a few times, it didn’t really matter, as I knew nobody at home would care. When the school would impose suspensions it only meant that I didn’t have to pretend to go to school in the first place, which was even better. I never failed a grade. Somehow I attended just enough classes to absorb what was necessary to pass the tests and I made a point of always taking the important tests. Never – not even once – did a single teacher attempt to talk to me about my chronic truancy or anything. I was a lost child and they accepted that.

As the months passed my stepmother demanded more of us and we became, for all practical purposes, virtual slave labor. My protests increased and the physical beatings became more severe. A few months before my 16th birthday the fair came to Plant City for the annual Strawberry Festival and I found a job working at a game concession… and I found a new life.

By my 16th birthday I was out on the road on my own, working carnivals around Chicago. Say what you want about “carnies’” but this band of misfits were family and they made a point of looking out for each other. Most nights I would sleep in the carnival tents and spend my money on food and partying. Although it would seem to have been the last place a teenage kid should be on his own, even though I didn’t appreciate it, those on the lot knew I was a kid and seldom did I go anywhere without a watchful eye keeping me out of trouble. We worked long, hard hours and when the lights on the Midway went off we’d gather in groups – often pooling our money to rent a motel room – and party to excess.

                                         
Mike and friends

In all the years I worked on the road, not even once did I get in any kind of legal trouble. Contrary to popular myth, habitual criminals were not welcome as the show would not tolerate anyone bringing heat down on the show. From early spring into the summer we would work local carnivals in Chicago area, then with summer came the county and state fairs, which meant even longer hours, even days straight during “Midnight Madness.” From Michigan and Illinois State Fairs, we would work our way south through Arkansas and Oklahoma, then into Texas, and across to Louisiana and finally back to Florida for “winter quarters”.

Returning to Florida in late 1977 I met a girl I knew in high school when I briefly joined the high school ROTC program. Almost immediately Kathy Marie and I became inseparable. A few months later when it was time to head back up to Chicago for the new season she tagged along. By late summer she was pregnant and we made plans to return home and settle down. On October 27th, 1978 – both of us barely 18 – we were married at the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow, Florida. The next day I was on a bus and on my way to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma to report for active duty in the Army. Without a high school education and any job skills other than working carnivals, the military meant I had the opportunity to take care of my new family. But what may very well have become a “career” as it was for my brother, abruptly ended with an accident while on duty and a discharge for failure to perform my required duties. After my discharge we lost our health coverage and when our daughter was born in March 1979 at Tampa General Hospital we almost lost her when the doctor failed to do a c-section in time and our little “Niki” (Jennifer Nicole) came to life still in the womb and drowned in her own fluids. For a month she remained in a coma at the neo-natal unit of Tampa General kept alive by respirators, and tubes, and wires, but then she finally came home.




The prolonged deprivation of oxygen and physical trauma of her birth caused permanent brain damage and epilepsy. But she was our little girl and she was home and that’s all that mattered. Both of us still too young and irresponsible to be parents ourselves, and still “partying” beyond excess, bad judgment was a way of life. Within months we returned to the road, living in our car and countless motel rooms. Working carnivals and fairs was he only life we knew. As the season drew to an end Kathy Marie announced she was pregnant again and we made plans to “settle down.”Returning to Florida just after Christmas in early 1980.





I quickly blew the money we had saved to get our own place on a motorcycle – then wrecked it racing another bike on the highway. That was the last straw… Kathy Marie’s family descended upon her, insisting she leave the loser. Her mother gladly hired a divorce lawyer and formal divorce proceedings were initiated; however, before any hearing could be held, we reconciled, rented a mobile home, and I actually got a real job. Accomplishing all that I didn’t see any need to stop partying too. Soon I was supplementing my income by any means necessary as my use of alcohol and drugs substantially increased. No longer surrounded by the protective “family” of carnies, I began hanging out with a more destructive crowd.

In July 1980 our son Daniel Brian was born at Tampa General Hospital. With my irresponsibility reaching new heights, Kathy Marie began paying expenses by forging her mother’s signature on her family’s trust account. On our second anniversary, she was arrested on 24 counts of forgery, and I was arrested on outstanding traffic tickets. Her family took temporary custody of our kids. After a month I was released but she remained in jail until February, three months later. Her family refused to let me have custody until Kathy Marie was out.

Again my “partying” escalated and I began getting into trouble. With nothing to hold me back, I lived in bars and lounges selling drugs and consuming the profits. Having proven my inability to be a mature and responsible husband and father, nobody was surprised when I started cohabitating with another woman. When Kathy Marie was released from jail in February 1981 she quickly renewed the divorce proceedings and by April the divorce was final. Now accompanied by “Kitty” I returned to Chicago to work the new carnival season. Kitty was not a carnie, nor would she ever be. In June we returned to Florida, as she was pregnant. Shortly after we returned I ran across Kathy Marie. With our divorce (which I never challenged) final less than two months, she had already remarried a family friend. But by that night she left Walter – and I left Kitty – and we reconciled.

In August of 1981, while extremely impaired, an argument evolved into an act of inexcusable road rage resulting in an accident when the other vehicle hit a telephone pole. Intoxicated and in possession of illegal drugs I fled the scene only to be arrested a few days later for aggravated battery. For months I remained incarcerated until the charges were finally dropped. During that time Kathy Marie’s probation on her forgery charges was violated and she was ordered into a state “halfway” house in the Ybor City area of Tampa. In late November 1981, Kathy Marie was walking to a nearby store from that halfway house when she was abducted, then taken to a nearby lot where she was raped repeatedly by two men, then beaten and left for dead.

Again this created a wall around her that I could not penetrate. The next month, I left Florida for Utah where I intended to meet my mother for the first time since I was a child. I knew I had to get out of Florida and away from the destructive lifestyle I was living. Once in Salt Lake City I stayed with my mother and found work. But I didn’t escape my need to party and it wasn’t long before I was hanging with a new crowd but doing the same thing.




A few months later came an arrest for drunk driving – even though I wasn’t driving at the time! (It was Utah – everybody knows those Mormons are nuts!). In early March 1982 I received a telephone call from my former girlfriend Kitty telling me our son Cary Michael, Jr. (born prematurely in Michigan in late December) was in the hospital with pneumonia in Plant City, Florida and might not make it. That next day I left Utah driving nonstop to Florida in less than 48 hours. Not long after arriving back in Florida I was arrested in Plant City on an outstanding warrant for violation of probation. After a few months in the Hillsborough County Jail my probation was formally revoked and I was sentenced to state prison for two years on the original felony conviction – a single “bad check” charge, my only prior felony conviction. (It should be noted that when many members of the Congress committed the same crime – deliberately writing a check on their accounts without sufficient funds -- no action was taken against them.)

With almost nine months of time already served in the county jail, that two year prison sentence was actually less than a year. After about six months in state prison I was transferred to a state work release center, where I would work a regular “free-world” job then report back and stay at the work release center.

Once again my drinking got the best of me. Within a few days of arriving at the work release I was caught smoking a joint and “busted.” A disciplinary action was filed and I was placed on administrative probation. A few weeks later I skipped work and went out drinking with my younger brother Chuck – and again got caught. This time it was another disciplinary action and assigned extra duty in the kitchen, and instructed I had to find a new job working days, not nights.

A few days before Christmas 1982 the company I found work with held a Christmas party, which included a smorgasbord of hard liquor. By the time I was due back at the work release center I was wasted. I knew if I went back in would be my third violation and I would be returned to state prison as well as lose all my accrued “gain time” which would mean almost a year in prison. That seemed like a lot and I didn’t want to face it, so I simply did not return, which in Florida is technically considered an “escape” from state prison. A fact I conveniently failed to appreciate when I made my intoxicated decision not to return. That decision led me to relocate to LaBelle, Florida and set the stage for the case that led me to death row. And here I remain.

Michael Lambrix