Personal Essay: Witnessing The Last Chapter In Florida Death Row Inmate Mike Lambrix's Story
If Mike Lambrix’s case played out today exactly the way it did when he was convicted in 1984, he would not have been sent to Death Row and executed, as he was Thursday night.
For more than a year and a half I exchanged letters with Lambrix, who preferred to go by Mike. I met him and his family to report the radio documentary: “Cell 1: Florida’s Death Penalty in Limbo.” The death penalty in Florida is no longer in limbo, and Lambrix was the second inmate to be put to death since executions resumed at the end of August.
After a four-hour delay, he recited his final words, those of the Lord's Prayer. Fifteen minutes later, he was pronounced dead at 10:10p.m.
Over the time I got to know him, we talked a lot about how he would prepare for his execution and what that was like for him and his family. It was a plan that he stuck to as he counted down to his execution.
Lambrix was convicted of murdering two people on the same night in 1983: Aleisha Bryant was strangled and Clarence Moore Jr. was hit over the head with a tire iron.
For 34 years, Lambrix has insisted he was innocent of the crimes he was convicted of. His first trial ended in a hung jury, it was his second trial that convicted him of the two murders.
In Florida, juries take two votes, one to convict and another on whether to sentence defendants to death.
In 1984, the jurors were divided on his sentence. They swung in favor of the death penalty by 8-4 for one murder and 10-2 for the other, neither unanimous.
Last year, the Florida Supreme Court found that sending someone to death without a unanimous jury would be unconstitutional. And before that, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s method of sentencing someone to death unconstitutional because a judge had the final say, not the jury.
But, because Lambrix’s case was so old he didn't get the chance that more than 100 Death Row inmates have gotten over the past year, the chance to be resentenced.
I met Mike Lambrix for the first time in April of last year, about two months after I sent my first letter to him.
He walked into the small interview room with his orange prison shirt on--the Death Row uniform. He joked around with the guard, almost like they were pals… except he had to ask him to loosen the chain around his waist that connected with his handcuffs so that he could shake my hand.
At that time, Florida’s death penalty had been going through a series of legal challenges and nobody knew what was in store for the almost 400 people on Death Row. Mike Lambrix was next in line to be executed when the death penalty was thrown into limbo.
He talked to me about what it was like to watch the guy set to die before him, Oscar Bolin, go through the slow process of divvying up his property, try on his death suit and say his final goodbyes to his family. Lambrix talked about what it was like to prepare for his own death.
Lambrix was on Death Row for nearly 34 years.
“The death penalty is a commentary on who we are as a society,” he said at a group interview on Tuesday. “And that's why it's important that those of us on this side of the bars, on my side of the bars, try to help others to understand this side of it. Because, if we forget that the person that we are condemning is still a human being then we make the choice to compromise the sanctity of life.”
It’s not my place as a reporter to talk about my opinions on the death penalty or lead you to a particular conclusion on one side of the debate or the other.
My job is to help you understand it.
Over the past two years, I talked with families of victims. I was never able to get through to the families of Aleisha Bryant and Clarence Moore, but I did talk to others for the documentary we made.
Mike Lambrix was willing to share his story too.
“We have to be able to understand the dynamics of this from both sides, my side included,” he said. “So, the reason I write what I write and I have been very vocal is because even if I'm gone I want to leave something behind. And I’d like to think that one day, maybe not today, but one day, what I leave behind in my writings will be relevant to a society that will evolve.”
In Florida, the public and reporters actually have more access to government records than in most other states.
Execution is an exception.
For example, how the state comes up with the method it will use to execute someone… that’s a secret. Who the person is that’s actually conducting the execution, that’s a secret. Executions are not open to the public, just 10 reporters (usually far fewer) with pencils and pads of paper. Those are the only public eyes in the room.
Gaining access to people on Death Row is difficult. Florida State Prison and Union Correctional, the two facilities where Death Row is housed, is in the middle of a cow pasture between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Really all you can do is write letters, and once per month a Death Row inmate is allowed a single hour-long interview.
I don’t say this to suggest the state is hiding anything inappropriate, but, executions are a government function, no different than a commission meeting or a parole hearing. Executions are done in the name of the public.
For Lambrix, this was the fourth time he’d had to prepare for his execution. The first three were all stayed – two in 1988 and a third in Feb. 2016.
This week, again, he was planning his last meal.
“I want a Thanksgiving dinner because I am going to share it at Thanksgiving dinner with my mother,” explained Lambrix.
“His thing is when he got out of prison he wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner, homemade Thanksgiving dinner by me and then he wanted to go over to his sister and have another Thanksgiving dinner,” said Lambrix’s mom, Lorita Yeafoli, during an interview last year. “You know, the turkey, the dressing, the sweet potatoes, the mashed potatoes, dressing, olives, deviled eggs, all the stuff he likes.”
The prison version of that consisted of a turkey breast and drumstick, giblet gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and brown sugar, mixed vegetables with butter, a soft dinner roll with honey and butter, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, chocolate milk and vanilla caramel gelato ice cream.
It’s his family, and his mom especially, that had Lambrix worried leading up to his death.
“My mom has stood by me for so many years and I am so blessed, and my family too,” said Lambrix. “It's very hard on them, and I just wish I could reach through that glass and give her a big hug."
After a sleepless night, he had that Thanksgiving meal the morning of his execution as his mom sat on the other side of a pane of glass.
Ever since I met him, Lambrix has tried to keep things upbeat for his family, to try and keep them from suffering too much.
Even when he talked about his funeral arrangements--who would pick up his remains, where he’d be buried--he cracked jokes about his 12-day hunger strike to protest his scheduled execution.
The suit for his execution didn’t fit anymore.
“Because he'd lost 18 pounds, the trousers promptly fell to the floor, they had to be taken away to be taken up.” Jan Arriens recounted Lambrix telling him last week.
Arriens, who lives in the UK, had been exchanging letters with Lambrix since the early 1990s.
“So I said to Mike, you've got to eat a lot of those burgers you get in the visitors’ room and then get so fat the trousers won’t fit and they would have to be taken away again at the last minute.”
On Tuesday, Lambrix repeated that line in front of corrections administrators.
“…and that way we can get another couple of days. But I shouldn't say that. Now they know,” joked Lambrix.
I wrote another letter to Lambrix last week. I thanked him for telling his story, for trusting me with it.
His response arrived the morning of his execution. It's waiting for me back in Miami.
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