"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Monday, February 1, 2016

Michael Lambrix's plea for life at Florida's highest court

Michael Lambrix
Michael Lambrix
Michael Lambrix was supposed to die on Nov. 30, 1988.

He was moved to a special "Death Watch" cell near the execution chamber.

He met with the warden, who explained the process. He met with the chaplain. He met with the kitchen supervisor to plan his last meal.

"As I sat only feet away from the electric chair, I could feel the hum of electricity as the guard tested the chair to make sure it was working properly," Lambrix wrote in his book titled, "To Live and Die on Death Row." 

"Every minute of every hour ticked, each that much louder than the last. Somehow I felt my heartbeat itself became synchronized to the clock on the wall - when that ticking came to a stop, so would my heart."

The court issued an emergency stay on his execution, and it was rescheduled for the next day.

The ruling

On Jan. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional, because it gives too much power to judges and not enough to juries.

The ruling said juries play only an advisory role in recommending death while the judge can reach a different decision. The court handed down its decision in the case of Hurst v. Florida, siding with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of a 1998 murder. A jury voted 7-5 in favor of death, and a judge imposed the sentence.

Under Florida law, the state requires juries in capital sentencing hearings to weigh factors for and against imposing a death sentence. But the judge is not bound by those findings and can reach a different conclusion. The judge can also weigh other factors independently.

In the Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."

Roughly 10 hours before he was set to die, a full stay was granted so Lambrix's appeal could be heard in federal court.

Lambrix, 55, has again been scheduled to die.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the inmate's death warrant last year, setting his execution for Feb. 11.

But that was before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month found that the way Florida handles death penalty cases is unconstitutional.

Now, the question is whether that Hurst v. Florida ruling changes Lambrix's fate.

"Some of the best legal minds in the country are trying to answer that question," said Adam Tebrugge, a Bradenton defense attorney who previously filed a motion for clemency in Lambrix's case.

The Florida Supreme Court has refused to delay Lambrix's execution, which would be the 1st in the wake of the ruling. Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has said the new ruling doesn't apply to Lambrix.

Oral arguments are scheduled Feb. 2 before the Florida Supreme Court.

True crime

Lambrix's case sounds like the plot of a true crime novel or the lyrics of an old country song.

2 people dead after a night on the town in the swamplands of Glades County.

A woman reports her boyfriend as the murderer.

An affair between that girlfriend - the star witness - and lead investigator.

A man sentenced to death row.

The twists and turns of Lambrix's case are many and complex.

Lambrix sat down with a reporter from the Herald-Tribune in 2014 to discuss his case.

It was 1983. Lambrix and his girlfriend, Frances Smith, ran off to Glades County. Lambrix was a fugitive, having walked away from a work-release center where he was serving time for a bounced check. Smith left behind her husband and children.

On Feb. 5, a Saturday, the couple caught a ride into the town of LaBelle, halfway between Fort Myers and Lake Okeechobee and home of an annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. They met a man at a bar who called himself Chip, but his real name was Clarence Moore. Moore was waiting for his girlfriend, Aleisha Bryant, to end her shift as a waitress at a nearby restaurant.

The 3 drank and talked. Then they met up with Bryant and headed to another bar to dance.

As the bar cleared and closing time neared, the couples made a plan: grab a bottle of whiskey and some Coke, then head to the trailer where Lambrix and Smith were staying.

Smith cooked up some spaghetti.

Lambrix said he and Moore went outside, planning to play a prank on the women. Lambrix got Bryant to come outside and when she did, Moore jumped out and scared her.

Lambrix said the couple began arguing, so he headed inside.

Then, he heard a scream. Figuring the couple had run across an animal, Lambrix said he grabbed a tire iron and walked into the dark.

When he got close enough, Lambrix said he saw Moore sitting on top of Bryant, slamming her head against the ground. Lambrix said he shoved Moore.

"He immediately sprung back up toward me and came at me," Lambrix said. "I instinctively started swinging the tire iron."

An autopsy report shows Moore was struck 4 times on both sides of his head.

Lambrix tried to carry Bryant - who outweighed him - to the trailer, but he couldn't. When he put her down, he realized she wasn't breathing.

"That's when I realized she was already dead," Lambrix said.

Instead of going to the police, Lambrix and Smith dragged the bodies into the nearby woods and buried them in shallow graves. Lambrix tossed his bloody clothes and the tire iron over a bridge into a creek below. Then the couple left town in Moore's Cadillac.

The plan was to abandon the car, but Smith got pulled over while driving it. She was arrested for aiding and abetting Lambrix, a fugitive. Authorities realized the vehicle belonged to a man who had been reported missing.

Smith told the police several stories and, on Valentine's Day, she went with a lawyer to the State Attorney's Office.

"That's when she said she knew where 2 bodies were buried," Lambrix said.

Soon after, Lambrix was arrested on 2 charges of 1st-degree murder.

His 1st trial ended in a hung jury after jurors deliberated late into the night without reaching a verdict. Because there was not a nearby hotel to sequester the jurors, the judge declared a mistrial.

Before his 2nd trial, Lambrix said prosecutors offered him a deal: plead guilty to 2nd-degree murder in exchange for a prison sentence of 22 to 27 years.

Lambrix refused, claiming that Moore killed Bryant and he killed Moore in self-defense.

Authorities said Lambrix - with plans to rob the couple - lured them outside one at a time, choking Bryant to death and fatally beating Moore.

After hearing the evidence at the second trial, it took the jury 45 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. They later recommended the death penalty in a 10-2 vote for Bryant's death and an 8-4 vote for Moore's.

Lambrix has spent 3 decades on death row at Florida State Prison, filing unsuccessful appeal after unsuccessful appeal.

Lambrix claims that the judge had it out for him and that members of the jury were too familiar with the case. He claims a tire iron presented as the murder weapon couldn't possibly have been the one he used, because storms would have washed it too far downstream to be found. The shirt presented as the one he was wearing was a small, which Lambrix explains would never have fit his 5-foot-10 frame. But the biggest problem, Lambrix said, is that a private investigator discovered Smith - the star witness - was allegedly having an affair with the lead investigator for the State Attorney's Office.

"This is a 1 witness case and she's it," Tebrugge said. "There is a whole variety of evidence that Frances (Smith) is not a reliable witness."

Tebrugge, the Bradenton attorney who spent 23 years as an assistant public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, filed a request for a new clemency hearing and interview in December 2014 for Lambrix. He wanted a chance to present the evidence that went unmentioned at trial and the positive qualities that Lambrix has demonstrated while incarcerated. He hoped that it might lead to having Lambrix's death sentence commuted to life in prison.

Tebrugge only learned that the clemency request was denied when he received news that the death warrant was signed.

Hurst v. Florida

Citing the Hurst v. Florida case, Lambrix's attorney, William Hennis of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, requested a stay of execution.

At the time, the Supreme Court had not ruled that Florida's death penalty is unconstitutional.

Florida juries, after convicting someone of 1st-degree murder, take a vote on whether to recommend the death penalty as punishment then provide that to the judge. But the judge has sole discretion over sentencing someone to life or death. For death to be an option, at least one aggravating factor must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Attorneys for Timothy Lee Hurst argued that handing that decision over to the judge instead of the jury is unconstitutional. In Hurst's case, a jury recommended a death sentence in a 7-5 vote, but did not present any findings of an aggravated factor. The judge, however, determined that 2 aggravators existed and imposed a death sentence.

"It departs from the procedures that apply in every other state that allows death sentencing," states the Hurst brief filed in May 2015. "And it undermines the jury's basic Sixth and Eighth Amendment functions as responsible factfinder and voice of the community's moral judgment."

The high court ruled on Jan. 12 in an 8-1 vote that Florida's death penalty indeed violates the Sixth Amendment.

"8 justices of the Supreme Court ruled that a jury must determine whether the ultimate penalty against someone - taking their life away - is imposed rather than the judge," said Michael Barfield, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "Most people perhaps did think that that was always the case, but not in Florida. Florida is an outlier in the manner in which the death penalty is imposed."

That ruling prompted Hennis to file an updated request for an indefinite stay of Lambrix's execution, which the Florida Supreme Court denied.

Hennis, however, has been granted a request to provide oral arguments this week. Attorneys for Lambrix and the state will receive at most 20 minutes to argue whether Hurst v. Florida applies to Lambrix's case, "including whether Hurst is retroactive, the effect of Hurst given the aggravating factors in Lambrix's case and whether any error is harmless," according to a Florida Supreme Court order scheduling the arguments.

Hennis did not return a message seeking comment.

If Hurst v. Florida is deemed retroactive, it would apply to the 389 inmates on Florida's death row, including Lambrix.

"He's the next scheduled execution so that's why all of the attention is starting to focus on this case," Tebrugge said. "That's why it's disappointing that the Florida Supreme Court has ordered this expedited briefing when the questions are very complicated."

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered that 6 other death row inmates can file briefs on how Hurst v. Florida might apply to their death sentences before oral arguments are heard in their cases. One of those inmates is Michael King, who was convicted in 2009 for the abduction, rape and killing of North Port's Denise Lee. The same jury that convicted King also recommended 12-0 that he die for the crimes.

Besides King, orders can be filed on behalf of Richard Knight, convicted in a Broward County case; Raymond Bright, convicted in a Bay County case; Dontae Morris, convicted in a Hillsborough County case; Jacob John Dougan, convicted in a Duval County case; and Eric Lee Simmons, convicted in a Lake County case.

"The ACLU believes that the decision must be and will be applied retroactively, meaning that everyone who is currently sentenced to death under that defective system must be given a new sentencing hearing," Barfield said. "The ACLU doesn't believe the death penalty should ever be applied, but if we are going to apply it, it should be unanimous and it should be imposed by the jury."

Left wondering

Lambrix is left wondering when he'll die and whether it will be by natural causes or poison coursing through his veins.

"You go through a process, and at the end of the process you have the acceptance that death is the probable outcome," Lambrix previously told the Herald-Tribune. "Some of the guys back here compare it to having a gun put next to your head. Each time you go through this clemency thing or the possibility of a warrant or an appeal being denied, it's like they're playing Russian roulette with you and pulling the trigger.

"You're playing with powers bigger than you and there's not much you can do."

Lambrix doesn't consider himself religious, but says he is spiritual. He says he believes things happen for a reason, though he can't figure out why things happened the way they did.

Lambrix wonders if he could have done something different to change that night in 1983. Sometimes he wonders if karma caught up to him. Or maybe he simply overreacted.

"You can't get away from the fact that 2 people died that night and 1 person died at my hands," Lambrix said.

He's worked hard to find worth. Practically illiterate when he was sent to death row, Lambrix has learned to read and write. He's learned law to work on his own case and others.

His real interest, though, inspired by the movie "Back to the Future," is theoretical quantum physics.

"I'm completely infatuated, obsessed with this super string theory," Lambrix said. "I love thinking about it because it provides that escape mechanism - that fantasy of being able to go through this imaginary wormhole back to that night and change events. I could go back and be a good father, be a good husband, live a good life.

"There is a certain measure of comfort thinking in an infinite number of these alternate realities, Chip and Aleisha are living a happy life wherever they might be."

Lambrix tries to find redeeming qualities in people, even his neighbors who have committed horrendous crimes or been notorious serial killers, like Ted Bundy.

"I try to see something good in everybody," Lambrix said. "If you go through life throwing stones, sooner or later, those stones are going to get thrown back at you."

Lambrix said he also knows there are plenty of innocent people on death row.

"Florida has had more people exonerated from death row than any other state in the nation," said Barfield, the ACLU of Florida vice president.

Some have been exonerated by DNA evidence, but not all cases have that. Without DNA, exoneration can be nearly impossible.

Lambrix doesn't feel that his case is an anomaly, but is, instead, indicative of the criminal justice system. He has evidence he wants to present, but it's not DNA, and no one wants to hear it.

"I'm just another death row prisoner," Lambrix said. "The last thing I want is for anyone to blindly take my word for this. I just want a fair review."

Source: Herald Tribune, January 30, 2016

How the nation's lowest bar for the death penalty has shaped death row

Florida has more than 170 people on death row today who may not have been condemned to die in any other state - the result of its 1-of-a-kind law that allows a jury to recommend capital punishment by a simple majority vote, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found.

Unburdened by the need to reach a unanimous decision, Florida juries typically don't. 2/3 of the people Florida has executed since 1995 were condemned to die on the recommendation of fewer than 12 jurors, the Times analysis found.

No other state allows juries to recommend death by a 7-5 vote. Of the 32 states that have the death penalty, 29 require a unanimous vote of 12. Alabama requires 10. Delaware calls for jurors to unanimously agree on whether the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, but their sentencing recommendation can be split.

Jurors are divided on most Florida executions

The number of inmates Florida has executed since 1995 might be very different if the state required more jurors to agree before sending prisoners to death row.

First take away the 7-5 cases. No other state allows a single juror to decide.

Then remove the 8-4s. The chart is now showing cases with at least 9 votes, which Florida prosecutors recently proposed making the state's new standard.

Take away 9-3 cases to see how many others would meet the bar in Alabama, which requires at least 10 votes - the next most lax state after Florida.

Remove the 10-2 votes. More than 1/2 of the cases are now gone.

Take away the 11-1s. Only 1/3 of Florida's executions were unanimous - the level required in 29 of 32 states.

Note: Analysis excludes death sentences ordered by judges without jury recommendations, and two cases where sentencing information was not available.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty statute, forcing the Legislature to rewrite it. Although the court did not explicitly address the issue of non-unanimous jury votes, legal experts say this part of Florida's law is in constitutional jeopardy.

The Times reviewed more than 450 death penalty cases dating back decades to determine how juries voted in the penalty phase of capital trials. The juries' sentencing recommendations are merely advisory, another unusual feature, but no Florida judge has ignored a jury's guidance in nearly two decades.

The Times found that prisoners who were sentenced to death based on non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to have their cases overturned on direct appeal, or to be ultimately acquitted.

Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations. Of the 20 people who have been exonerated and for whom sentencing information is available, 15 were sent to death row by a divided jury. 3 others were cases in which judges imposed the death penalty over a jury's recommendation of life in prison.

"Those figures confirm our greatest fears about the Florida statute," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Because of the unreliability of non-unanimous sentences, it's long been felt they increase the risk of sentencing innocent people to death."

The latest exoneree, a Pasco County man named Derral W. Hodgkins, was condemned to die in 2013 after a jury recommended the death penalty for the murder of his former girlfriend Teresa Lodge in 2006. Despite his previous conviction for a horrific crime - he admitted to raping and driving his car over a 12-year-old girl - only a bare majority of jurors agreed that he deserved the death penalty. They voted 7-5.

Hodgkins walked off death row in October after the Florida Supreme Court threw out his conviction. The court called the prosecutors' case "purely circumstantial" and said they had mischaracterized crucial DNA evidence, portraying it in a light that flattered their narrative.

Several years before Hodgkins there was Herman Lindsey, who was convicted and sent to death row for killing a woman during a Fort Lauderdale pawnshop robbery. The murder took place in 1994, but police pinned it on Lindsey 12 years later, and a jury voted 8-4 to recommend death.

In 2009, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn Lindsey's conviction. Laying out the evidence in the case, the justices said none of it linked Lindsey to the scene of the crime and all of it was circumstantial.

"The state's evidence, while perhaps sufficient to create some suspicion, is simply not sufficient to support a conviction," they wrote.

Of the 389 people currently on Florida's death row, 4 out of 5 were sent there by a non-unanimous jury that could not sentence them to death in almost any other state, according to the Times analysis. Only 77 are condemned to die because a jury voted unanimously, and 22 others waived their right to a jury.

And yet, data on convictions, exonerations, and executions suggest that these non-unanimous jury verdicts often don't survive scrutiny by appellate courts. The Times analysis found that a person sentenced to death row by a unanimous jury is more likely to be executed than someone condemned by a divided jury.

Over the course of the past 2 decades, the state has executed 59 people. 1/3 of them were sentenced to death by unanimous juries, compared with 1 in 5 of the prisoners in the state's general death row population.

It's impossible to say with certainty whether Florida would send more or fewer people to death row if a future law required jurors to reach a unanimous decision. No one knows in which direction today's 7-5 or 9-3 juries would swing if everyone had to agree.

"Florida has long been an outlier state with regard to our death penalty scheme," said Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills of the 10th Judicial Circuit, who chairs the Florida Public Defender Association's death penalty committee.

"That's a polite way of saying that we are the kid everybody knew in grade school that ate paste."

Most exonerated death row inmates were split votes

More death row inmates are exonerated in Florida than anywhere else in America.

But many of those cases might not have reached death row if Florida used even Alabama's lenient standard. At least 17 were sentenced to death on the recommendation of 9 jurors or fewer.

Without those 17 cases, Florida would drop from 1st in the country to No. 10.

The quality of the jury deliberations in the Hodgkins case may demonstrate how flawed cases can wind up on death row.

After taking an initial vote, six jurors raised their hands in favor of condemning Hodgkins to death. 6 hands went up in favor of life in prison without parole.

"There wasn't a person who didn't believe he was guilty," said juror Francine Gillam, 66. But that wasn't the question they were tasked with answering. Gillam, a devout Catholic, said she was one of several jurors who couldn't bring themselves to vote for capital punishment, not because they doubted the state's evidence, but because of their religious convictions.

"We were just deadlocked," said juror Jay Stamper, 55. "For almost the whole time we were in there, it was 6-6."

They went around 1 more time, each person giving the reasoning behind the vote. By the time everyone had spoken, 1 woman had changed her mind. Asked how long this process took, three jurors interviewed by the Times estimated deliberations lasted an hour or 2.

"It wasn't that much of a discussion," Gillam recalled. "We kind of batted the issues around the table, like, should this monster live?"

"1 person changed her mind and that was that," Stamper said.

To the defense attorneys who represented Hodgkins at trial, the fact that their client's life hung on 1 juror's about-face was stunning.

"That's crazy," defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand said. "First of all I'm shocked they didn't have problems with whether or not he was guilty. But then, just the fact that it's so whimsical ... it doesn't sound like their decision was based on any significant consideration of the aggravating or mitigating factors."

In 2006, the Capital Jury Project, a consortium of researchers who study decision-making in death penalty cases, released the results of a survey of jurors from 13 states. In it, they found that jurors who were not required to reach a unanimous vote to recommend a death sentence were more likely to take less time to make a decision.

Among all those surveyed, Florida jurors were the fastest decision makers - 38 % reported spending an hour or less on their sentencing recommendation.

Florida jurors were also the least likely to ask to review testimony or read a transcript during deliberations, and the most likely to reach a decision after only 1 vote.

The study called it "an apparent rush to judgment."

Hodgkins' acquittal shocked the jurors who learned about it, several of whom said they feared he would murder again. But the fact that the Florida Supreme Court reversed a death sentence recommended by a closely divided jury is no surprise.

Nearly 1/2 of all 7-5 jury decisions are overturned on appeal, according to a study by the Florida Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. Analyzing jury verdicts from 2000 to 2012, the committee found that 47 % of 7-5 decisions were either overturned and sent back for a new trial, or the defendant was acquitted. In some cases, the prisoner's sentence was reduced to life without parole.

By comparison, 63 % of unanimous jury decisions over the same period were upheld by higher courts.

It's not that state Supreme Court justices see the closely divided jury recommendations and decide to overturn the case. But experts in jury dynamics and death penalty cases say that because there's less discussion, Florida jurors are less likely to raise the specter of doubt or spend hours examining the case for possible holes.

"When they can do less than a unanimous verdict, people on the jury can look around and see, well, we've got e8 people voting for death. If I vote for life, then I can go home and say I didn't vote for death, and the guy still gets the death penalty," O.H. Eaton Jr., a retired circuit judge and nationally recognized death penalty expert, testified before a state Senate committee last week.

"Whereas when you have a unanimous verdict, everybody's got to work, and they've got to come to grips with the issue, and they've got to make a decision."

Florida prosecutors are pushing a bill that would require jurors to reach a unanimous decision on whether the aggravating factors in the case outweigh the mitigating factors. But when it comes to recommending a sentence, the bill raises the standard only to a supermajority, a 9-3 vote.

State Attorney Brad King of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Ocala told lawmakers last week that jurors aren't always honest during voir dire - the questioning of prospective jurors - about their true feelings on capital punishment.

"We need some safety valve for that 1 particular, or those 3 particular jurors that just say: 'I can't do this,'" King said.

To many defense attorneys, the prosecutors' bill reads like an obvious attempt to hold onto their advantage in death penalty cases.

Asked what would have happened if they had been required to reach a unanimous verdict, jurors in Hodgkins' case joked they might still be deliberating years later.

Stacey Ness, a juror who voted in favor of the death penalty, speculated that the case would have ended in a life sentence.

"You can only convince so many people, and if someone is truly set in their religious beliefs, like a real strong Catholic, they're not going to impose the death penalty," she said.

Gillam, who opposed the death penalty at the time, guessed the opposite.

Both sides had apparently been willing to bend, but the discussion never reached that point.

Source: tampabay.com, January 30, 2016

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