Here are some of Mike's selected writings. Please visit also his blogs Death Row Journals and Doing Life on Death Row
Executing a Stranger
The other day I ran into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. Back then he was my cell neighbor for several years here on death row. We are both about the same age and had come to death row about the same time – Class of ’84. After a few moments of bantering back and forth, he commented on how much I had changed since he last saw me … that got me to thinking about just how much I really had changed since I last saw him – how much we all change through the years.
I’ve been on death row 23 years. When I was originally charged in this case I was only 22 years old. Now at the ripe age of 45, I’m a grandfather. It’s been a long journey and like any journey each step – each stumble – has changed me in an infinite number of small ways that add up to completely transforming the person I once was into who I am today.
I’m not the only person who has spent an entire lifetime in solitary confinement condemned to death. Here in Florida I know some who have been living under a sentence of death for 32 years – or better. Most people out there haven’t even given any thought to how death rows across the country have become multi-million dollar geriatric units, indefinitely housing those who slowly grow old while awaiting theor fate. Here in Florida more men on death row die of natural caused than of executions as old age sets in. We the condemned are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease, or other ailments common to aging than we are to die from execution; yet the state still spends millions upon millions of dollars pursuing our deaths.
The question I want to confront today is this … when it takes at least ten years, and often even twenty or thirty years to carry out a court imposed sentence of death, is the person we’re executing really the same person we originally sentenced to death? Or are we executing a stranger?
How many of us can say we are the same person today that we were ten years ago? How about twenty years ago? What about thirty years ago? Many of those sentenced to death committed their alleged crime when they were relatively young and immature. Almost without exception they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol – or both. That single act of violence led to their condemnation. Assuming for the moment that our judicial system is perfect and everyone condemned to death is in fact guilty, can we really say that person we condemned then; is the same person we want to execute today?
The fundamental truth here is that we all change. Most of us become better people as we age – more mature and responsible. I’ve seen men come to death row twenty years ago consumed by hate and anger, only to find faith and hope in the most unexpected environment and become a new person.
Myself, I too was once consumed by anger at being wrongfully convicted and condemned to death for a crime I know I am innocent of. (See, Southern Injustice: Condemning An Innocent Man). In the early years that anger was my strength. I wasn’t just sentenced to die; I was condemned to slowly rot away in solitary confinement one eternal day at a time. (See, A Day in Life Under Death). Believing in my innocence actually mattered, I pushed to expedite review in a desperate attempt to end this nightmare, (see, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied); only to have my appeals up held out of spite by actions attributable to the state.
Although my impatience at ending the injustice remains, I know I’ve changed. Though I still must deal with frustration, I am no longer consumed by anger. When I came to death row, I had little education or even the will to be educated. Since I’ve been imprisoned I got my G.E.D. and with it a sense of accomplishment. I searched my soul for spiritual meaning and found myself. (See, "To See The Soul -- A Search Of Self"). I began taking correspondence courses and earned a degree in Christian Theology, which gave me even greater confidence in who I was – and who I could yet become.
I have a faded photo of me taken a few weeks before I was arrested on these charges. That photo reminds me of who I was. When I look in the mirror today I see the person I’ve since become. I am not the same person sentenced to death so many years ago.
So, now I ask you this – Are you the same person you were so many years ago? In your younger and more irresponsible days have you ever made a mistake you came to regret? If we all recognize that each of us does change as the years pass, then doesn’t it stand to reason that we also have to admit that the person we seek to execute today, over 20 years or more later, is not the same person we sentenced to death so long ago – that when it comes down to it, aren’t we really executing a stranger?
The Yellow Brick Road
Monday, 5 January 2009 The Yellow Brick Road Outside the window a cricket sings out in its private celebration of life, as the humid aroma of recent showers steaming off the hot concrete barely overcomes the stench of a hundred living souls compressed into an abyss of lost humanity. Darkness, in its possessive manner, steals its way forth as I stand at the front of my cell. Beyond the bars that separate me from the rest of the world, I can bask in the simple pleasure of watching day give way to night in my own selfish celebration that I have endured - and even survived -yet another day. This is my evening ritual; my way of paying homage to the ability and inner strength of perseverance.
And even in this shadow of condemnation, I do find strength. I accept that the definitive measure and molding of character is not simply the ability to survive adversity - but to overcome and even manipulate the essence of adversity into a productive entity of which I might find the strength to master. I cannot see beyond this artificial hell in which I've been confined. The horizon I see is nothing more than a scattered number of lights flooding the compound grounds and dancing with glittering fire upon the honed edges of razor wire that lie between the statuesque "iron curtain" perimeters. The only sign of life in this world outside is a spotlight, as it lazily rakes its way across the grounds in an unpredictable, haphazard manner.
But even as they've confined and condemned my body, there remains a part of me that is rebelliously free; that no amount of steel and stone can confine and no man can condemn. Within the inner self of the man I am, just as within every condemned prisoner, there's a path that leads its way off into a different horizon. This path is landscaped and lined with the symbolic fruits of faith, hope, encouragement and perseverance; stolen moments of our humanity - and even sanity.
For each of us, we strive to maintain some recognizable, progressive forward motion, refusing to succumb to the environment, finding inner strength to keep pushing ahead one slow step at a time. And all too often, it is a constant struggle, as this imaginative path takes its twists and turns through the highest of emotional peaks, to the lowest of emotional valleys. For me, I call this imaginative escape from the reality of condemnation the "Yellow Brick Road", in personal reflection of the theologically symbolic nature and promise of the covenant of the rainbow; because even in the worst of storms, there's always the presence of a rainbow. And somewhere over the rainbow is the promise of hope. And this Yellow Brick Road is my odyssey through Oz - my exodus through hell. And somewhere at the end of the Yellow Brick Road is my redemption.
And it is a strange road. There's night and there's day. With the night comes; the uncertainty and even fear of darkness; the long moments and hours of hopelessness and despair, the feeling that all has already been lost, and that to continue would be futile, the mocking echo of silence, which serves to remind me that I am alone in this concrete crypt.
Long nights of lying awake - unable to sleep as thoughts of what was and what might have been haunt me. The demons of darkness creep stealthily in to rob me of my most prized possessions of hope, faith, and the strength of perseverance. But then comes the new day and with it mixed confusion. Darkness, and all it holds, has again been defeated - but there is no joyous victory as the new day does little to restore the gradual erosion of those values that compel me forth. The day brings with it the anticipation and anxiety of uncertainty; of hopelessness borne of living in an environment of forced conformity and dependence.
Life of the condemned is not life at all. Rather, it is an existence somewhere between hell and who knows where. A constant state of forced limbo, like a puppet on a string. Having been condemned by society, we now are not allowed to live - or die. Only exist ... if being stored in a virtual warehouse devoid of emotion can be said to constitute an existence.
If life is but the struggle for mere existence and its value judged by longevity - then perhaps by cheating those disciples of death that now demand the forfeiture of my life is itself worthy of that unknown cricket's celebration of life. I only wish I could find some justification and comfort in that argument. But, I do not; for me life is not merely a struggle for biological existence. Without the preservation of my humanity and individuality, such an existence would have no meaning, or worth. Here on death row, we do exist. Yet through the condemnation imposed upon us, society has deprived us of the recognition of our existence -- denying our humanity. It is not enough to condemn us. In society's demented state of moral consciousness, we must first be stripped of our humanity before being deprived of our life. To recognize our humanity is to create a reflection of their own inherent imperfection, as well as face the truth that they are taking a human life. But to make us less than human pacifies society's guilt. They don't kill any particular individual, but rather something less than an individual.
And so for years on end a death of the inner self is methodically inflicted upon us so very gradually that it's practically unperceivable. An erosion of all emotion, until having been subjected to the endless rigor of administrative conformity, the person within is lost in a penologically conditioned sacrificial surrender. The strength to resist no longer remains and without realizing it - we have been subdued. Conformance, and compliance - even the acceptance of death - become a form of adoptive security, protecting us from confronting atrocities we've suffered in the name of justice and "We The People."
But for each of us, there is a Yellow Brick Road; an escape from the reality of our condemnation; a place of solace and security. The adversity we suffer remains and continues to plague us; continues to rob us of the humanity and individuality we so desperately cling to. But as long as we each keep sight of our own Yellow Brick Road, we will deprive our captors and executioners of the theft of our humanity and stand strong in our inner strength. Not only to survive -- but to overcome.
A Day in the Life Under Death
What a pathetic sight I must be as I attempt to squint here at the very edge of my steel bunk seemingly transfixed by the way the slivers if sunlight slowly steal their way across my cold concrete floor on a journey that will soon enough lead up to my evening ritual. With a cup of coffee in my one hand I sip at the bitter taste as I patiently wait for that moment when the distant descending sun will stretch these slivers of light their fullest length allowing me to then see the sun itself as there, so far beyond the three sets of bars that separate me from that narrow dusty window I can look outside across the barren field where the infamous “Raiford Rock” once stood for more years than anyone I know can even remember, but now an empty field where not even weeds will grow as if even the hope of life itself has long been abandoned.
At a distance beyond that condemned piece of ground I can see a row of tall Grandfather Oak trees running along a road that leads to the front gate of Union Correctional Institution on the main prison compound. Just beyond those stately trees stands the simple brick structure of the prison chapel with its traditional towering white steeples reaching towards the heavens.Soon the sun will set beyond that distant horizon directly behind this chapel and that horizon will ever so very slowly explode into a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors of fiery reds, pastel oranges, and accents of yellow before slowly surrendering into darker groups as far as I can see in either direction and but for a brief second that fading light will perfectly silhouette that distant chapel cradled in the branches of those trees as a portrait of tranquility trapped between the two worlds of night and day.
It is at that moment of each day that each day itself is defined for me, that moment of comfort and private communion that renews my physical strengths if but only by the knowledge that I’ve survived yet another day. Soon that stealthy light will be consumed and swallowed by the distant horizon and I will rise from where I now squint and face yet another of what has already been far to many long and cold nights in my solitaire cage relentlessly haunted by the demons of what once was and what might have been – and even more by the thoughts of what may very will never be.Just as my hopes and dreams live with the light of each day, my fears and regrets come with the cold loneliness of each night as when the small world around me grows silent I am reminded of just how alone and abandoned I truly am.
As the many years have slowly passed too often sleep would never come, perhaps my way of holding on to today for fear of having to confront yet another tomorrow, until I finally surrendered to a dependency on antidepressant tranquilizers that each night induced an involuntary sleep as without that temporary refuge of unconsciousness one day would become the next and too quickly overwhelm me.It has been a long and difficult journey. A few photos hang on my wall to remind me of the generation that has now passed me by. There’s the photo of me taken just before my arrest in early 1983, a young man with a whole life still ahead. A photo of my now long divorced ex-wife holding our daughter on the day we brought her home from the hospital,
now faded and tattered at the edges; and then, the more recent photo of me holding my grandson in the death row visiting park. My children were so young when I was first imprisoned – and now I am a grandfather: a generation has passed.
Each day has a beginning and an end and yet it is the end of the day that I look to, to define my beginning. As each day begins I will awake from the sound of the chow cart coming through the steel door and moving down the wing towards my cell. Reluctantly I will stretch and then half stagger towards the combination sink and toilet a short step away. The cold water brings me to life as I blindly reach to the wall for my towel. As I dry off, I incoherently voice a vile thought towards this new day and then walk the few steps to the front of my cell to receive the tray of bland, cold food I’ve actually become accustomed to.My cell has no table or chair and to eat I must precariously balance the plastic food try on my lap while sitting on the steel footlocker that holds all of my worldly possessions.
We are allowed only a plastic spoon to eat with but then eating cold oatmeal or grits with a plastic spoon is not that difficult and few foods we are served would require more than that.After I eat my breakfast I will turn my small black and white T.V. on and listen to the morning news as I read through old newspapers or magazines that are passed down the line and shared. Although we are allowed to receive magazine subscriptions, few of us can afford to so what any of us receive are most often shared and passed down the cellblock.The magazines not only keep me informed on what’s happening in the real world but also provide pictures of the rapidly changing world beyond us in full color. It’s funny how you never really think about it, but in my world the system methodically attempts to deny us any color.
The walls around me are cold and gray – not really gray as they are actually a light tone of beige with brown trim and the bars flat black. But in my mind I still see only grey… cold, cold, colorless gray.The state provides a T.V. donated by various religious organizations – but prison rules prohibit color televisions and allow only a small black and white one, as well as a small “walkman” type radio. Reception on both is often, at best, bad but it brings in the sound of the real world even if the colors are prohibited. I smile when I think of that as at times a particular song will play on the radio and someone will holler out, and as others quickly tune into that station a number of men will simultaneously break out singing along; because all radios must be operated with headphones, the song itself is not heard – only the broken voices of the men; each singing along but not necessarily in tune. In stolen moments like that we each in our solitaire cell become one.The hours pass by mid-morning the cellblock begins to come alive. Down the hall I can hear a couple of guys calling out chess moves and I momentarily follow the game.
Closer to me tow others exchange trivial conversation around a concrete wall that separates them and at the far end I can hear one of the “bugs,” those of us so-called because we – or I should say he – has lost touch with reality and will spend the day talking and yelling to himself, or imaginary others.As the morning passes and noon approaches I again hear the metallic clang of the food cart and wash my hands to eat. Soon enough the cart is at my cell and I silently accept my tray, most often some form of mystery meat or breaded “fish” complimented with half cooked rice and watery beans. Whether or not the particular food served that day is different from the day before remains debatable. as the bland food all tastes the same, if one can tell the taste at all.Then the long afternoon passes and if it is not my floors day to go to the outdoor recreation yard -- an enclosed concrete pad with high fences topped by shiny razor wire – I will pass the day reading a book if I have a book worth reading, or writing a letter.
If we go out to “rec” we are allowed two hours each time, but no more than a maximum of four hours each week, to play basketball or volleyball, or just to talk to other guys on the floor without the concrete and bars separating us.By late afternoon the guards change shifts and as the new shift comes on we prepare to shave and shower. As simple as showering may be, it becomes a humiliating and even painful experience in this world as each time we leave our cells we must first be handcuffed behind the back and then escorted to a small shower cell at the very front of the wing. Once securely locked in that shower cell the handcuffs are removed and a quick shower is taken before the guards replace the cuffs and escort us back, one at a time. Cheap plastic disposable razors are passed out just before we shower and collected and counted immediately after.As evening approaches it is time to eat again, yet it’s just another meal very much the same as that fed at lunch.
There is little variety in the food we eat as the menu repeats itself weekly – for years at a time. If I happen to forget what day it is, I’m quickly reminded by what we are served at breakfast. I eat what I can but even after so many years I’m unable to eat most of what is served. That which I do not eat I feed to my cellmate Johnny Coe Mode, that being the toilet and believe me, he eats well and is apparently even grateful, as he’s never complained. My time with my ritualistic sunsets varies and is at times broken by the evening meal. For now I am fortunate that I am in a cell with this view as most of the cells look out over the concrete rec yard and to the adjacent wing beyond. But even then I would look out if for no other reason than to watch the birds on the yard.We all engage in our rituals this time of day as the cellblock becomes abnormally quiet while we anxiously await the days mail run, each of us hoping to get a letter from someone we love. And after the mail runs it remains silent – the few who got mail quietly read that cherished letter while those who did not retreat into a depressed silence that can last for hours –even days.
Even as uplifting as it is to receive even one letter, it’s the despair of not receiving any at all that overwhelms you.The evening turns to night and most of us withdraw to watch television, the electronic pacifier that helps us maintain our relative sanity as God forbid that we should lose touch with reality and become mentally incompetent as if deemed to be incompetent we cannot be executed. The televisions are not a luxury provided for our comfort but a necessity provided to maintain our sanity so that we can ultimately be executed.That tranquility of my evening ritual marks my day, both beginning and end.
Another day has run its monotonous course and my cage has become my refuge as I even become accustomed to this small, solitary world. My world is deliberately structured to methodically institutionalize me and intellectually I know that. I accept that the deliberate degradation and humiliation are intended to ever so slowly erode away my identity and even humanity so that by the time I do reach that fate that awaits me I am reduced to something inhumane and unworthy of comparison. By breaking me completely when the time comes to face that fate I am programmed to surrender passively, even welcoming my fate as a means of finally escaping a fate even worse than death itself… the fate of slowly rotting away in solitaire confinement as that fate stalks you relentlessly.This was my day today and will be my day again for all of my tomorrows. In my own mind I chase the ghosts of the past to acquire the strength to survive the future, as the only life I know is the life I once had. In the world I’ve been condemned to I am neither allowed to live or die and it’s that existence without the ability to exist that is my worse fate of all.
Facing my own execution.
Even as difficult as it is to reflect upon the memories of the many I’ve come to know that have now been put to death , it is the memory of my own imminent execution that remains the hardest of all to talk about. For many years after coming within hours of my own execution, I built up a wall around me; deliberately pushing anyone who dared to get too close away as my own emotional emptiness all but overwhelmed me. As the years passed I began to receive psychiatric care and ever increasing doses of anti-depressant drugs to get through the days – but it was the long nights of lying awake in a cold sweat afraid to fall asleep for fear of the nightmares that tormented me the most.
How do I describe my personal experience of being taken from my solitary cell, physically hand-cuffed and shackled and chained like a rabid dog, then silently paraded down the long main corridor of Florida State Prison and unceremoniously delivered to the warden’s office, and ordered to then stand before him, and as I felt my own knees tremble and grow weak beneath me, with cold and callous indifference the warden read the black-bordered “death warrant” to me; calmly advising me that the day and the hour of my own execution had now been scheduled.
How do I recount the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and abandonment as I was then slowly paraded back down that long corridor, both my body and mind now numb, until we reached the very end at the solid steel door of “Q-wing” (also known as X-wing), and then down a flight of stairs to the very bottom floor that housed the “death watch” cells – and just beyond them, the death chamber itself. I was then placed in cell #2, between Robert Teffeteller and Amos King. The three if us would then spend the next 8 weeks alone together as our lawyers fought to win a stay of execution. We remained on “death watch” as only a few feet away they executed Jeff Daugherty, and then as Ronald Woods and Leo Jones came within hours, each of us wondering if we might be next. But first Bob Teffeteller got a stay of execution – only to die later of cancer. Then Amos King and I were moved around to phase II cells immediately adjacent to the room with the electric chair. Amos won a stay of execution next only to be executed years later. I alone remained on “death watch,” as the days drew down to hours.
As required by established “execution protocol,” once I was within 24 hours of scheduled execution, the designated execution team was required to perform a “mock execution” to make sure the electric chair was functioning properly. Although separated by a steel door, I could hear their voices as they “walked” through the mock execution, and as I sat on my bunk with my feet on the concrete floor — as they repeatedly tested “Old Sparky” I could physically feel each massive surge and yet I was unable to simply lift my feet from the floor.
A few hours later I was again shackled and chained and ordered to stand before the Assistant warden, as an unknown individual meticulously measured me for the state provided “suit” they intended to use only to kill, then bury me in. Then with indescribably surreal detachment, I struggled to recall my favorite foods as another prison official impatiently waited to write down what I wanted for my “last meal,” and only then did I again sit down in the solitude of my death watch cell and silently pray that, that last meal would never come.
With growing anxiety I struggled to not count down the final hours as the hour of my own execution grew nearer. As if to meticulously taunt me, the clock on the wall above the death watch sergeant’s deck tolled increasingly louder with each eternal second, echoing again and again in the numbness of my consciousness. Desperately trying to distract myself from my own impending death, I would all but involuntarily leap to the cell bars each time the nearby phone would ring, hoping that, that would be the call to stay my execution – and with each disappointment silently begging, then cursing, the God that had seemingly abandoned me in the hour of my need, and would allow the unjustified execution of yet another innocent. In my mind, with my execution set for early the next morning, I knew that the courts would close and the judges all go home by late afternoon. I told myself they had to grant a stay by 5:00 p.m. that day, but then 5:00 p.m. passed. With each passing movement a part of me died as I confronted the growing certainty of my own inevitable fate. Although physically and mentally exhausted, I could not sleep and I methodically paced back and forth like a restless animal in a cage, deliberately counting out each step out loud in a failed effort to drown out the incessant thundering of each click of the clock on the wall.
Then, at long last, that call I had so anxiously awaited came, but then in what can only be described as the most cruelest of in humane acts imaginable, as if maliciously wanting to taunt and break me, I was told that by a 4 to 3 vote, the Florida Supreme Court had rejected my appeal, and granted only a 48 hour “temporary” stay of execution to allow my lawyers to appeal to the Federal CourtIn a brief moment of illusory reprieve, the state pulled the gun from my head and told me they’d be back to kill me later. Then just as quickly, callously cocked the gun again and told me I would now die.
This is the insidious insanity of the game of state sanctioned Russian roulette, as they uncompassionately turned back the hands of the clock that counted down my final hours – and told me to start counting it down again. Tick, tick, tick… each eternal second ticked away until another long night of restless exhaustion and anxiety of my uncertain fate slowly passed, then the hours of yet another long day with no word. On the early evening of my second scheduled execution the prison arranged for a “final visit” with my family – but no one came. Just as much as I was condemned to live alone, so too would I die alone.
As an act of unexpected compassion, I was allowed a phone call to my family, and my father answered the phone. Allowed only a moment to speak, I struggled to tell him that the state court denied my appeal, and it didn’t look like I would make it. Then I heard silence, then the phone crashed to the floor, and a moment later my teenage sister came on the line, and hysterically told me that Dad had just collapsed and she had to hang the phone up to call an ambulance. I never even got to say goodbye. As if an even greater weight had come crashing down upon me, I laid on my bunk in a fetal position facing the wall, never before, and never again feeling so completely alone and overwhelmed.
Sometime a few hours later a Federal Judge granted an “indefinite” stay of execution, and I was told that I would immediately be moved from “death watch.” Then, in the late evening of Thursday December 1, 1988 – only hours from my second scheduled execution in as many days – I climbed each step that led up from death watch and the execution chamber, and with each step I felt a great weight being lifted from me. I had confronted my own death and at least temporarily defeated it, and now felt almost glad that I was being returned to my regular solitary death row cell, among the many others that are also condemned. I was still alive – but equally so I remained condemned to a prolonged and indefinite living death.
Death Row Daddy’s Little Girl
Although now condemned to death for over a quarter of a century there are windows that allow me to look beyond my world of steel and stone and look back to the life that I once had. These windows are the photographs that I still have from a time long ago, from the life that I once called my own.
One of these pictures is perhaps my greatest treasure. When I look upon it, I can still vividly recall that very moment when I took that picture. It was in April, 1979 just afternoon on a seemingly perfect spring day. It is a picture of my now ex-wife (divorced in 1981) holding our firstborn, our daughter Jennifer Nicole – whom we lovingly called “Nikki” This photo was taken on the lawn at my father’s house, our first stop as we brought Jennifer home from the hospital. Looking back, I realize now that we were both still kids ourselves, both me and my ex-wife were still in our teens.
We had met in high school while both of us were participating in the ROTE program. (for those unfamiliar with “ROTE”, it stands for “reserved officer training corps” a quasi-military type elective course provided at most American high schools and colleges) We were both only 15 at the time. A serious relationship would only come later. At 17 we became inseparable and by 18 we were married. Both of us coming from impoverished families, the ceremony was at the Polk county courthouse in Barlow, Florida. The very next day I enlisted in the army, following a path both my older brothers took before me, believing that a military career would provide the means to take care of my family.
In late 1978 my days as a soldier abruptly ended with a duty related accident at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. By the end of December 1978 I was honorably discharged and thrown back into civilian life. In less than 10 weeks I was to be a father.
The birth of any child is a memory all parents cherish. Nothing I can say can define the anxiety both of us felt as we counted down the days, wondering when the moment would come. Of course, there were always the relatives on both side of the family around only too willing to offer their advice and insight. Some would swear it would be a boy, others just as convinced it had to be a girl. But for us, it just didn’t matter. I can remember the first time she took my hand and gently placed it on her swollen stomach, and the sparkle in her eyes as she whispered “feel this” and how amazed I felt as the child within her womb kicked – and I felt it!
Then the moment came when we knew it was time. We were so certain as we rushed in a frenzied panic that hour drive from the rural area of the county where we lived to Tampa General Hospital. But it was a false alarm. The water had not broken. Only a day later the real thing came around. I’m sure I had a puzzled look on my face as she told me her water had broken. But we again quickly sprang into action.
Then came the too many hours of anxiously waiting in the soon-to-be-daddy room. For reasons unknown to me, I wasn’t allowed to stay with her. They would call me when it was time. Many hours passed, but nobody called me. Then a nurse came in and I knew something was wrong. She quietly whispered to follow her, and I silently did. We went into a small room and a doctor joined us. There had been unexpected problems, an intern had misread the monitors and after almost 8 hours of labor out little girl was determined to be brought into the world, but the birthing canal didn’t open as it was supposed to. Their voices echoed in my ears as I struggled to listen. They explained in an emotionless monotone that they had to perform an emergency “c-section” The doctor touched my arm and assured me that my wife would be alright. But then told me that my daughter might not make it. I don’t remember what else was said. In that moment everything around me ceased to exist. Something within my very soul died. I can only now vaguely recall the many more hours that passed before again a nurse approached me and I was allowed to see my wife. As I entered the room our eyes met and our pain became one as I then held her in my arms, both of us crying. She asked me if I had seen Jennifer yet – the first time I heard our daughter’s name spoken. I said no.
Another nurse stood nearby and told us that we could see Jennifer soon. At the moment of birth she was stillborn. Because of the complications during delivery she had come to life while still in the womb. Her first breath filled both her little lungs with the fluid in the womb and she quite literally drowned. It took some time to perform the c-section and pull her from the womb, and in that time she was deprived of oxygen. There would be brain damage, but they wouldn’t know how severe.
As that evening passed into the morning, we periodically got updates. Faceless doctors and nurses doing what they could to keep us informed, yet never willing to answer the infinite number of questions we had. Only much later would we come to know that the unexpected complications were the result of inexcusable incompetence. But none of that mattered as we only wanted to see our newborn daughter and know she was alright.
Many hours passed before we were finally told that we could see Jennifer, but to do so we would have to go to the neo-natal intensive care unit. Neither of us knew what to expect, but nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see. First we were led into a small room where we had to thoroughly wash our hands, then a nurse gave us gowns and latex gloves to put on. Only then were we led into the neo-natal unit, and to an incubator. Our Jennifer lay inside. She had all forms of wires and tubes attached to her, with various machines on each side. Someone stood nearby and in a explained that our Jennifer had her lungs filled with fluid, causing double pneumonia and was in critical condition, dependent upon the machines to keep her alive. She also suffered serious brain damage and was having seizures. We were told that if she made it the first few days her chances were good that she would survive. But for now they would keep her in an induced coma until she was strong enough to breath on her own. We could only look down upon our little girl and pray that she would know that we were there.
The following day my wife was discharged from the hospital, but we didn’t want to go home. We were only allowed to visit Jennifer about an hour each day. After a few days we finally did go home but no sooner did we arrive that the hospital called and said that Jennifer had gone into cardiac arrest and we should return immediately. We drove the two hours back to Tampa General Hospital and spent the rest of the day and that night in the waiting room. Jennifer had been revived but was still in a coma. For at least a week after that we refused to leave her. Mostly we stayed in the waiting room until they would allow us to go into the neo-natal unit and be with our baby girl. Sometimes they would allow us a few minutes even when they were not supposed to. We were told that we couldn’t sleep in the waiting room, so we would take turns sleeping in the car so that one of us would always be there.
Then the day came when we were told that they would allow Jennifer to wake up. We both stood at the side of the incubator for several hours before her little body, still attached to all kinds of tubes and wires, started to move - the first movement we has seen of her My wife squeezed my hand. Then Jennifer cried, a soft cry, but the most beautiful sound we could ever hope to hear.
As the days passed we were allowed to touch Jennifer through the holes in the incubator. As I touched my little girl’s hand, her tiny fingers wrapped around my own finger and she refused to let me go. Somehow she knew who I was and that we loved her and she didn’t want to let us go.
As coincidence would have it, at the incubator beside Jennifer was a little boy born prematurely to a friend of ours (Terri Simpson) from Plant City. At the time following my discharge from the army we were renting property from her father. But only a few days after he was born he passed away. I never even knew if he was given a name as the sticker on the incubator only said “baby Simpson” But I’ll never forget the look on Terri’s face as we watched from across the room as they told her that her little boy had passed away, as the color drained from her face and the anguish physically overwhelmed her…a bleach blonde teenager mother already experiencing a pain that no mother should ever have to know.
As the weeks passed Jennifer grew stronger and one by one they began to remove the tubes and wires that had sustained her. Soon we would be allowed to hold her for the first time. When that day came, my wife silently cried as she sat in a chair placed next to Jennifer’ crib and the nurse gently placed our daughter in her open arms. All else ceased to exist that moment. Then came my turn. I can still remember the anxiety and fear as if it were yesterday. It was one day after my 19th birthday when I nervously took that precious gift into my arms and marveled as she wiggled, then opened her eyes to look up at me – for the first time I realized that she has my eyes, that she was truly daddy’s little girl. Then, like a little angel she snuggled up and went to sleep in my arms.
About a week later we were finally able to take Jennifer home. She was strong and she grew healthier each day. But the botched birth had its consequences and we knew that she had suffered brain damage. To control the frequent seizures we had to give her liquid Phenobarbital several times a day. Because of the medication Jennifer slept a lot and rarely cried, others noticed but were too polite to comment.
With the pride of new parents we left the hospital with our baby girl and went straight to my parents to show her off. That is where that picture, that I now so dearly treasure, was taken – Kathy Marie proudly holding Jennifer on the front lawn of my father’s house.
Many moons have passed since then and yet each time I look at that picture I’m transported back into time, to that moment. A little over a year later we had our son Daniel Brian, who was born perfectly healthy. A week after the divorce was final, my ex-wife remarried. Because I refused to take part in the divorce proceedings or even go to court, my ex-wife was given sole custody. A few months later I learned that she then allowed her sister to legally adopt our son.
From that year on I have been almost continuously incarnated, with the exception of just a few months in early 1982, the again in early 1983. in February 1983 the deaths of Aleisha Bryant and Lawrence Lamberson resulted in these capital charges being brought against me. By early 1984 I was on death row, where I have remained ever since.
Through the years I often tried to find ways to get in touch with my children. But I wasn’t able to hear even so much as a rumor. Either my family, the few who stayed in touch, did not want to tell me, or my children had fallen of the face of the earth.
Years and years passed but I never gave up. Often I would write letters to radio shows, asking them to play songs and make dedications. One nationally syndicated radio show “ Delilah after Dark” would sometimes read my letters on the air, then play a song for “Nikki” Each time I hoped that she would hear it, but she never did.
The in the summer of 2003 a friend suggested I get someone to look at state records on the then new “internet” For months I saved every cent I could with the hopes of hiring an investigator, only to have it come back with no “Lambrix’s” in state records under either Jennifer’s of Daniel’s name. But then I found out that they could also search state records for just their first names and dates of births. Again I anxiously
Waited for news from the investigator.
Exactly five years ago this week the letter arrived from the investigator. A single sheet of paper with two names and addresses, the only two matches – but they matched perfectly! My little girl “Nikki” was now 24 years old and lived only a few miles away. Her last name had been changed, but everything else matched.
It took me days to write and rewrite that first letter. What if it wasn’t her, but just by coincidence another Jennifer Nicole with the same date of birth? Jennifer was a common name. I began the letter with an apology if I was wrong, but that “you
might be my daughter” I sent her a poem that I had written many years before just for her. Then I waited. What if it was her but she didn’t want anything to do with me?
Several weeks slowly passed and each day my hope faded. Then there was a single small envelope from the Jennifer I had written. I nervously held it, afraid to open it for fear of the response within. I sat on the edge of my bunk just looking at the envelope and then finally I opened it. Only a single folded page within, and as I pilled it out I prepared myself for the rejection.
Then there it was in my hand, unfolded. And it began “Dear Daddy” and I cried. Like the scribble of a young child, it was difficult to read. But it was her – it was my little girl and she was happy to hear from me and wanted to get to know me. A few days later I got another letter from my ex-wife. They had moved to the adjacent county in 1986 when she remarried (for the 4th time) and had been living just a few miles away all these years. She explained how Jennifer had suffered permanent brain damage and was mentally handicapped, with the functional capacity of somewhere between a child and a young teenager. She didn’t think it was in Jennifer’s interest to know me since I was on death row, as they assumed I would be executed and Jennifer couldn’t deal with that.
But Jennifer got my letter and wanted to get to know me. Through the next few weeks we exchanged several more letters. Then my parents offered to help by picking Jennifer up when they came to visit so we arranged to get Jennifer on my visiting list. Before long, there she was - after all these years I was having a visit with my daughter. As she came into the visiting room I gave her a big hug as if I didn’t want to let her go. Her smile lit up the room and she giggled as only little girls can do. Then we talked for hours and she told me about the little kitten she had and the movies she liked and the friends that she had known forever and on and on, and throughout it I could only smile.
In recent years we had many more visits. I came to know that more than anything else she just wanted to have a normal life. She wanted a boyfriend, then a husband and a family of her own. And I just wanted her to be happy.
Last year she met someone she fell in love with. Now 29 years old, although limited, she is capable of independent living. She wanted to be loved and he loved her. He too has limited mental capacities, but able to work a job and drive a car. Suddenly I realized my little girl was grown up. After so many years of praying that I could be part of her life, she now wanted more…she wanted to be Billy’s wife.
How could I let my little girl go? But it wasn’t my choice. What mattered most is that she would be happy. Jennifer and Billy married and I haven’t seen her since. They had moved further away to be closer to where Billy worked and with a very limited income, they simply couldn’t afford to visit.
A few months ago Jennifer gave birth to her first child, a healthy little girl they named Sarah Anne. Now I anxiously await the day that I might meet my new grand daughter, knowing that it may be some years. But like with my daughter, I will not give up hope, because I know that as long as hope remains the impossible might yet happen. It pains me to know that my little girl now must struggle just to pay the bills and yet there is nothing I can do. I assure them that I understand that they can’t afford to visit and I will be patient. But in my heart of hearts, it cuts to my soul knowing they are so close and yet so far away. And each day I pray the day will come when I get to see my little girl – and my granddaughter, and I will.
For more of Mike's writings please visit Mike's blogs Death Row Journals and Doing Life on Death Row