HED: The needle and the damage done
A few years and about 10 executions ago, I made the trek up to Florida State Prison to watch a man die. (You can read about it here.) There were, as I reported back then, a number of things about the case that didn’t add up, at least to me, but the condemned, Wayne Tompkins, though he professed his innocence to the end, never seemed to arouse a lot of sympathy.
What I remember most from that afternoon are the little things: the emptiness of the prison yards as we were ushered in to the death chamber; the muffled, anxious sobs of the victim’s family members; the loud hum of the viewing room’s air conditioning unit, which had seen better days. The execution itself, on the other hand, was unremarkable, almost unmemorable, like watching a man go to sleep. This is, of course, by design – death anesthetized for easier viewing, a bloodless killing sterilized so as to not prick the conscience.
Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death-penalty activist who 20 years ago wrote the book Dead Man Walking, recently told Salon that watching an execution had compelled her to action:
I knew when I came out of that execution. It was the middle of the night. I’d never watched a protocol like that – a human being had been strapped down and killed in front of my eyes. I had in front of me the horror of his crime and then the horror of watching the state kill him. I threw up. My first instinct was to run, and then I went and realized I’d been called to tell the story and get it out to the people.
My reaction wasn’t quite that strong, though former Orlando Weekly editor Bob Whitby – who accompanied me on the trip – and I immediately thereafter beat a path to the nearest bar with a decent scotch, where we mulled, mostly in silence, the inherent strangeness of what we’d just witnessed: A man was killed in a manner designed to appear as peaceful as a surgery patient being put under. His death, of course, did not bring back his victim, or in all likelihood give her family any permanent sense of “closure,” whatever that means. It all struck me as deeply unsatisfying – utterly pointless.
I didn’t watch William Van Poyck die earlier this month, but from all accounts the ritual was the same. But Van Poyck – if we put his crime to the side for a moment – had made something of a name for himself in prison as a writer and amateur jailhouse lawyer and, if you believe his sister, whom I spoke with at some length last week, a very different person from the one sentenced to die in 1987.
The story she tells doesn’t by any stretch make William’s actions justifiable, but it does highlight the fact that these things don’t happen in a vacuum, and that the people we decide to execute aren’t always one-dimensional monsters.
According to Lisa Van Poyck – as well as William’s memoir, A Checkered Past (which I confess I haven’t had a chance to read) – after her and William’s mother died when he was a year and a half old, they were taken care of by housekeepers who were “very abusive.” One housekeeper in particular threatened to “cut us into little pieces and feed us to her dogs” if they told, Lisa says. Their father, a World War II veteran and wheelchair-bound amputee who worked for Eastern Airlines, was gone much of the time and didn’t notice the abuse; their older brother, Jeffrey, eventually saw the marks on Lisa and William’s bodies and told their father. The housekeeper was fired, and the children were sent to live with a family friend.
Unfortunately, that friend was bipolar, Lisa says, so things didn’t get much better. “We didn’t have a good start in life,” she told me.
Back then, William (who went by Bill) was “just a really good kid. He was very generous and patient.” But Jeffrey began acting out, breaking into houses and things like that, and soon enough Bill, about age 10, was right there with him. Bill in turn recruited his sister into burglary, and they were eventually caught and sent to reform school.
“Bill had been severely beaten in one of the reform schools,” Lisa says. “I remember Bill telling me about the beatings. [He told her,] ‘I would refuse to cry.’”
There is every reason to believe her. The Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, where Bill was sent, had a well-earned reputation as a hellhole in which young men were beaten, raped, tortured and even murdered by their guards. (Read more about the galling stories of Florida reform school abuse here.)
Bill got out when he was 15, and his sister, Lisa, 16. She left home soon afterward, after her stepmother beat her particularly viciously. Her younger brother kept breaking into houses, and rather quickly graduated to armed robbery. His career as a juvenile armed robber came to a rather quick stop after his gun accidentally went off and nearly blew off his foot. He spent 16 years, from age 17 to 33, in state prison before being paroled.
Lisa had lost track of him at this point. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years later, when she wrote to him at the Florida State Prison – where she assumed he was still locked up on the armed robbery charge – that she found out he’d been involved in a murder and sentenced to death. She told me that after his release, he secured a job at a roofing company, but then the company went bankrupt, and as you might expect, work was hard to find for someone with his background. So, he took up selling drugs, mostly pot and coke. It was then that he decided to try to break an old friend out of jail, which led to guard Fred Griffis’ death and Van Poyck’s eventual appointment with the executioner. (Van Poyck denied to the end that he was the actual triggerman, but under state law this didn’t really matter.)
Like many death-row inmates, Bill had shitty lawyers. His trial lawyer had never before handled a capital case, and didn’t bother raising objections. One of his appellate lawyers, Lisa says, was a previously disbarred cocaine addict who didn’t even bother showing up for hearing or corresponding with his client. With decent representation, maybe he would have ended up with a life sentence. Or maybe not.
Behind bars and facing the prospect of death, Van Poyck experienced what his sister described to me as a “spiritual epiphany.” Van Poyck was, as she tells it, suicidal, and in fact a buddy had smuggled in some cyanide he was considering taking. But just then, he had “a visitation from a spirit” that brought him “a feeling of peace. He came to realize that that very fabric of the universe is love. Whatever happened, it was OK.”
I don’t have much use for supposed spiritual revelations, whether they’re of the jailhouse variety or not. But whatever happened, Van Poyck spent the last two decades or so of his life a more focused man, one who wrote a memoir and two novels, published (through letters to Lisa) a blog about life on death row, and wrote not only his own appeals but also helped his fellow inmates with their situations.
In one instance, Lisa told me, he filed a lawsuit that allowed a number of prisoners to get out of the prison’s isolation ring, a shithole where Van Poyck was held for three years. That was what gave him the greatest sense of meaning on death row: helping people. Perhaps it was his means of atonement.
“He wanted to help other kids,” Lisa says of his writings. “Especially kids going down the road of crime. He wanted them to stop and look at him.”
(Read a collection of Van Poyck’s blog entries here[JB1] .)
After Van Poyck’s execution, death-row inmate Michael Lambrix wrote a eulogy published on the blog Minutes Before Six and excerpted at length below:
Perhaps the greater tragedy in the sacrificial murder of William Van Poyck is that few actually came to know Billy for the person he is and as too many all but openly celebrate his state-sanctioned lynching, they will only know the grossly distorted “facts” of his crime. As with all those condemned to death, our society does not want to know anything about the person they have decided to kill – the less they know, the better, as God forbid “we, the people” should recognize any measure of humanity within those condemned by our own hand.
Those of us who actually knew Billy came to realize that Billy just wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most prisoners. Only a few years older than me, Billy was already doing seriously hard time before I even made it into my first year of high school. Back then, doing time meant surviving in the jungle that most maximum security prisons were before this new generation of politically ambitious prison administrators invented the concept of mass confinement of any and all inmates who dared to show any inclination of violence or anything less than absolute submission.
Billy came of age doing hard time in some of the worst prisons our society created, back when violence and death were served as cold and predictable as the cockroach infested grits each morning in the prison chow hall. It wasn’t enough to be physically strong to survive, as strength meant nothing when another crept up behind you and drove the blade of a homemade knife deep down into your flesh. It didn’t matter how big you were, and physically, Billy wasn’t that big of a guy and some might have described him as even small in stature. But as they say down here in the South, it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the heart in the dog and Billy had a lot of heart and even against the odds, would stand his ground against anyone if he knew he was right, and all too often Billy would put his own life on the line to stand up for those who couldn’t. That’s just the kind of person he was.
I’ve know a lot of convicts through the too many years I’ve spent in prison – and a lot more who only too quickly will call themselves “convicts” even though they are not worthy. Billy was old school, and he earned his stripes the hard way. In this world we live in, prison can break the best of them and anyone who tries to tell you it can’t is full of – well, you know. It takes someone with incredible inner strength and courage to rise above this cesspool of humanity and remain their own man despite the forces perpetually pushing at you from all sides.
I doubt there would be any words to describe that intangible essence of the inner self that provides that measure of strength within that allows the very few to maintain their own sense of self when others all around them slowly become part of that environment. But anyone who has done hard time will recognize that unique quality and respect of the man who can master it.
It is that measure of the man within that best describes just who Billy was as a person.
“He is a very loving, giving person,” adds Lisa, who even a few weeks after his death spoke of him in the first person on occasion. “You would be amazed at what he went through. He still was not a broken man. He rose to the occasion every step of the way.”
The day of his execution, Lisa, a couple friends and a spiritual advisor were allowed to visit Van Poyck. It was a “contact visit,” one of the rare times death-row inmates can physically interact with their family members. They were crying and hugging him.
“He’s crying too,” Lisa recalls, “but he has a big smile on his face. ‘Look at all the love I have,’ [he said]. ‘My heart’s overflowing.’”
Maybe William Van Poyck deserved to die, though I don’t think, as a philosophical matter, that even if that’s the case the state of Florida should have been empowered to kill him.
Below we offer a selection of mostly unedited entries from “Death Row Diary,” by William Van Poyck (in the form of letters to his sister). These entries span the last year and a half of his life, though he started writing the blog in the mid-2000s. To read the entirety of Van Poyck’s musings on death and prison life, visit http://deathrowdiary.blogspot.com.
I have 21 days left to live. The fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world but as good an example as any occurred here on Monday morning when, as I was being dressed out here on Q-Wing for a visit, a sudden radio call brought the wing officers rushing upstairs where they found a prisoner (non-death row) hanging in his cell. After 20+ years in prison this guy (Earl) had finally given in to the utter hopelessness that can seize the heart and spirit of any man mired forever in an American maximum-security prison. The irony wasn't lost on me that while 3 of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead - with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate – the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast. When everything has been taken from you, the one thing you have left, that nobody can take away, is the decision to live or die. In that context choosing death can look like freedom. I've been there myself, I understand the depth of despair and regret that can constrict your heart until all hope is wrung out and life itself is a bitter gall caught in your throat. Death, like despair, permeates this wing like a suffocating shroud, this forlorn cellblock with its long and well-traveled history of violent murders, despondent suicides and extended litany of executions.
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on Phase II of death watch, which begins 7 days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a “dry run” or “mock execution,” basically duplicating the procedures that will occur 7 days later. This is when you know you're making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days. Right now I’m on deck; when Elmer goes I'll be up to bat (that’s enough sports metaphors for now).
I just learned today that the Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, has denied our motion for a stay of execution and the attorneys’ motions to withdraw, and has ordered these 3 different attorneys to represent me – over their vigorous objections that they are unqualified and unfamiliar with my case – on the eve of my execution. It’s a circus and a farce; nothing like this has happened in Florida and it’s setting a bad precedent. The media are running with the story (Florida is looking really bad in this matter, the butt of jokes in the legal community) but the Supreme Court, or at least 4 of the 7 Justices, are doggedly determined to kill me on June 12, lawyers or no lawyers, and nobody can tell them otherwise. They’ve decided to “pretend” I have legal representation (not competent, or qualified representation, just representation in name only) and let it go at that.
I’m being overwhelmed with letters of support from around the world and across the country, often from people I don’t know, who thank me for positively impacting their lives (or lives of a loved one) through my writings, either my books, or short stories, or the blog posts. I will not be able to reply to all these letters in the short time I have left here on Schoolhouse Earth, but I am moved and humbled by these messages. I am not unusual in wanting to believe, at the end of my line, that my life counted for something good, that I had some positive influence on someone, that my life made a difference, that I was able to at least partially atone for the many mistakes I made earlier in life. There’s not much you can do in that direction from the confines of a cell; writing is about the only available vehicle that can transcend the prison bars. That was the only tool I had, and I tried to use it in a positive, productive manner. These letters tell me I succeeded and that counts for a lot in my heart.
That’s it for now, Sis. Give yourself a big hug for me, and a tummy rub for the doggies!
Love & Peace,
On Tuesday they came and measured me for my execution/burial suit. Sometime soon I’ll be given the details on how “the body” will be disposed of following the legally required autopsy (will my cause of death really be a mystery?). I understand the State will pay for a cremation should I choose this form of disposal (I do) and my ashes will be available at a Gainesville funeral home; but don’t quote me on that yet. Discussing the practical aspects of my upcoming death was a little disconcerting, but I took it in stride.
I've been on death watch for 10 days now and I have 31 days left to live. (It seems surreal when I write that out, and just as surreal that all those around me accept this as a normal and natural thing). My cell (one of three) is next to the execution chamber so I won’t have far to walk. There's another guy down here with me, his execution is set for 2 weeks before mine so assuming he doesn’t get a stay I’ll have a front row seat to how the final days and hours play out. Aren't I lucky?
I gotta tell you, Sis, there’s a big difference between contemplating your death in the abstract and seriously considering it when it’s an absolute, undeniable soon-to-occur fact, when you are counting down the exact days you have left here on Schoolhouse Earth. I got little sleep the first week, perhaps 2 hours a night and then I was up and wide awake at 2:00 a.m., mind racing, thoughts all a-jumble, despite my best breathing and meditation techniques. I’d finally get my mind onto some mundane subject and then, bam!, my gut would knot up as the thought suddenly elbowed its way into my mind, these guys are going to take me next door and kill me in X number of days! This still happens a dozen times a day, and more at night.
When your warrant gets signed so many things suddenly become trivial. I’ve already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I’ll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I've been dragging around, and studying, for 2 decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance. My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what’s happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What’s the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that’s out the window now. Again, what’s the point? Now, every decision about how to spend the next hour reminds me of Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where she had to constantly evaluate whether her boyfriends were really “sponge worthy.” I spend my time in my spiritual/metaphysical books, or listening to my MP3 player, or meditating/contemplating/reflecting on life’s universal mysteries.
After 10 days on death watch you know what I've come away with? This shit isn’t right! On so many levels! I’m not talking about me, about the particulars of my case. I mean across the board, for anyone. This institutionalized and ritualized killing of our fellow human beings, this process which, in its mundane daily regularity seeks to make this very abnormal thing normal and acceptable. It’s sick, and it’s crazy when you actually consider what’s going on. The folks here who are thanklessly tasked with actually carrying it out, they do not like doing it. They see us, talk with us, occasionally laugh and joke with us, on a daily basis, and then one day they have to come in and kill us. This ain’t natural! One day, I pray, we as a nation will have an expansion of consciousness and we’ll ask ourselves how we ever thought this was right.
Today is Mother’s Day, and as I usually do this time of year I open my photo album and look at those old black and white photos of Mom (God, she was beautiful!) and wonder how my life would have turned out differently if she had not died when I was a baby, if I'd had a mother to love me, raise me, guide and nurture me, a mom I could love, look up to, and be determined not to disappoint. These are, for now, unanswerable questions, but when I pass over to the next plane I hope to get some answers. If nothing else I’ll be with Mom and Dad and that is what gives me such peace.
Love & Light,
Today Governor Scott signed my death warrant and my execution date has been scheduled for June 12th, at 6pm. I wasn’t really surprised when they showed up at my cell door with the chains and shackles; for the last month or so I’ve had a strong premonition that my warrant was about to be signed, but that wasn’t something I wanted to share with you.
Sis, you know I’m a straight shooter, I’m not into sugar coating things, so I don't want you to have any illusions about this. I do not expect any delays or stays. This is it. In 40 days these folks will take me into the room next door and kill me.
I know this is an impossible request but to the extent you can, please don’t worry about me. You know I am mentally strong, and I’m in a good place spiritually. Right now I’m more concerned about the pain I'm causing you and everyone else who loves me and cares about me. I am ready for this, Sis, and I am at peace. After 40+ years of living in cages I am ready to leave this dead end existence and move on. I leave with many regrets over the people I have hurt, and those I've disappointed, and over a life squandered away. My spirit will fly away hugging all the life lessons learned over 58 years on Schoolhouse Earth and with an implacable determination not to repeat these mistakes the next time around.
I know you are sad and hurting, Sis; I wish I could wipe away your tears. Dwell on our good memories from the days of our youth, and hang onto our shared belief that life on this planet is temporary, as our separation will be temporary, and we will be together again in our true Home. Most of all, remember that Love abides and conquers all.
Light & Love,
On March 1, 2013, just three days after Paul Howell unexpectedly received his February 6th last minute stay of execution Gov. Scott, not letting any grass grow under his feet, signed another death warrant, setting an April 10 execution date for Larry Mann (well, technically the governor just signs a warrant authorizing an execution within a certain time frame, say between Feb 28th to April 15th, while the FSP warden sets the actual death date). I don't know Mann personally, though he's been on the row for 32 years. I know his case is out of Pinellas County (St. Petersburg and Clearwater) and the victim was a little girl, so it's a sad and tragic one. You know, I've spent four decades deeply immersed in legal work - long before I came to the row - and I commonly read, every week, all of the appellate decisions published in the Southern Reporters and Florida Law Weekly (also all the Federal equivalents) which includes all the capital appeals issued by the Florida Supreme Court. Consequently I've read and studied hundreds of death penalty decisions just from the Florida Supreme Court alone; these decisions describe, often in great detail, the events leading up to, through and following the homicide(s) in question. The ones involving child victims are, as you can imagine, the most difficult to digest, and it is not uncommon for me to cry over some of them, they can be so heartbreaking. I vividly recall reading one direct appeal decision, back in the 1980s (when I worked in the law library, here, before I came on the row), where a young mother was brutally murdered in her house over a period of time – an extended attack – and the entire episode was recorded because the woman had managed to dial 911 before dropping the phone. Consequently, the 911 operator listened to the entire attack (back then they lacked the technology to quickly discern the location of any 911 call) and the Supreme Court published the entire transcript as a part of its opinion. As I read the transcript – much screaming, yelling, praying, begging – and visualized the scene, it just became too much for me and I broke down, crying, then hurdled the book across my cell, cursing the person who did that horrible thing, and cursing a God who allowed it to happen. That incident is still indelibly burned into my mind. It's soul-searching cases like that which really challenge your opposition to the death penalty.
On a lighter note I caught two great PBS music shows (part of their regular fund-raising events) which I highly recommend to anyone. First was Andrea Borcelli (the great blind tenor) with Love in Portofino (Portofino is a small, picturesque fishing village in Italy; I was there in 1971). This program really showcases Borcelli's wide range and magnificent voice, no matter which genre he chooses to sing. His love and passion for music of all kinds really comes through here. He's a master! The second was Joe Bonamassa, the great blues guitarist. This show was completely acoustic and unforgettable. About a third of the way through the program Joe, on acoustic guitar, performed a tour de force piece which begins like a classical Spanish guitar riff and then morphs into an indescribable, wide-ranging, genre-busting extravaganza which is guaranteed (if you appreciate good music) to blow your mind. He gets a well-deserved standing ovation, and you'll be standing, too!
Just finished reading September Hope, by John C McManus, which very competently details the September 1944 Airborne invasion of Holland by American, British and Free Polish paratroopers. As you know, this is where Dad, then a Captain in the 82nd Airborne Division, lost his leg to a German mortar round. You'll be glad to know that Dad is mentioned and occasionally quoted, throughout the book. I was, however, a little surprised and dismayed to see me and my current situation mentioned in a footnote in the back (Chapter 15, note 5, page 485) where the author describes me as “a hardened criminal” currently on death row. I don't see myself as “a hardened criminal,” but, being honest, I cannot fault an objective observer for describing me as such. That is certainly who I was, long ago.
That's it for now, Sis. Give yourself a hug for me!
For the past week this prison has been a beehive of activity with countless prisoners inducted to sweep, mop, scrub and paint the joint top to bottom in anticipation of the upcoming annual ACA (American Correctional Association) inspection (called "audits" in a vaguely Scientology lexicon). It sort of begs the question inasmuch as ACA inspections have become a sham. Back in the day ACA inspections actually meant something (if nothing else, we all ate well on inspection day)! The Association had a large measure of independence and was generally respected for its impartiality. Their standards were progressive and had teeth because their certification was coveted by prison systems eager to prove (to courts and those few lawmakers who actually cared) that they'd left the stone age and were treating prisoners like humans (or at least like mammals). But, over the last two decades, the ACA has been thoroughly infiltrated and taken over by a revolving door of correctional insiders (ex-wardens, ex-colonels, ex-Secretaries of Departments of Corrections) who moved in, started paying themselves huge salaries, and began spraining their wrists busily patting each others' backs in a self-congratulatory orgy. The standards have been substantially watered down and riddled with “exceptions” and exemptions and the inspections (with plenty of advance warning) have become rote routines. There’s no drama with the certifications, which are virtually guaranteed for any prison willing to pay their fees. Now they just visit each Potemkin Village, walk a few hallways, visit a few carefully selected cells (but never talk to any actual prisoners), then rubber stamp their approval. Now it’s akin to having the American Petroleum Institute award grades to Exxon-Mobil for its environmental policies or asking the National Rifle Association if it favors increased gun control legislation. The results are entirely predictable and equally meaningless. Hell, they don’t even feed us a decent meal on inspection days anymore; they shovel out the same rotten slop we get every day, knowing the “Inspectors” couldn't care less.
If you get a chance to catch the PBS series Searching for Shakespeare, don’t miss it. It's interesting on many levels and reminds me why he is the greatest wordsmith in the English language.
Ok, Sis, I'll wrap this up and post it so you can dig out of the latest blizzard.
Dear Sis ~
Having a certain degree of free time to enjoy (no legal work on the agenda) I finished reading James Ford Rhodes' History of the Civil War 1861-1865, a concise, one-volume history which is surprisingly comprehensive given the scope of the subject mater. I've read many a history of this war over the decades (I find myself returning to this terrible conflagration time and again) and this is a good one, both being scholarly yet written at the layman’s level, and noteworthy for its objectivity. Rhodes originally authored a seven-volume history of the United States covering the period from 1850-1877 and written (or at least begun) in 1891, including five volumes covering the war. Later on, beginning in 1913, he produced the single volume I just read, published in 1917, and for which Rhodes was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. What's interesting about this book is that Rhodes was able to, and did, interview a lot of the survivors of the war for his source materials and in that sense he was "closer" to the actual events (he was a teenager himself during the war) than writers of later generations, a fact which subtly makes itself apparent in this book, both by his vernacular and perspective. Another thing that struck me, and this was surprising, or at least unexpected, was how much the language and rhetoric of the southern politicians who were vigorously advocating for secession, and war with the Union, matches (often word for word) the rhetoric of today's contemporary Tea Party advocates, from “state’s rights” arguments right on down the line. Whenever I read a history of our civil war I'm again powerfully reminded of what a bloody and violent people we are; it seems to be in our DNA, in our sinews and bones, this deep need to resort to bloodletting to resolve our disputes.
You cannot be a serious historian of this nation without coming to this conclusion, for there have been precious few years in the last 240 where we have not been at war with some nation of peoples, somewhere. We claim to be a peaceful nation but the cold facts prove that to be a lie.
Well, Governor Scott has been taking a brief respite from his prior busy schedule of signing death warrants (our last execution was April 12th) but I've heard from a reasonably reliable source (an attorney in a position to know) that he will soon resume. I've even heard three specific names mentioned but I won't repeat them here. I've often wondered how a governor makes this decision. Does he wake up one day and tell himself “time to kill someone”? How does he choose the particular prisoner from the long list of available names? Under Florida's system the governor has sole discretion as to who to kill, how many to kill, and at what pace. It's totally subjective on his part, and necessarily arbitrary and capricious. Maybe he just throws a dart at the list. Nobody knows, except the governor and those closest to him. Only the governor knows if this decision(s) weigh on his heart and mind.
Alright, Sis, I'll close this up and mail it off. Give yourself a hug for me and give the doggies a rub on their snouts!
Love & Peace,
It's been pouring rain, off and on, for the past 7-8 days and according to the local weather girl, the next 5-6 days will bring the same. Everything here in this big concrete prison (which lacks any effective ventilation) is damp and musty; it's like living in an old castle but without any notions of romanticism or adventure, more like the castle's dungeon, in fact. This morning I saw a few rays of sunshine and thought there'd be a day-long respite so I went ahead with my regular weekend routing of scrubbing my floor, then doing my laundry. This was a mistake. About the time I finished and began hanging my sheets, T-shirts and drawers on my makeshift clothesline, the heavens opened up and a powerful thunderstorm moved in. It's been homesteading this area for hours now and the humidity is so thick that water is drizzling down my walls and the decades-old, multi-layered paint is blistering out, with water trapped in balloon-like knots from water weeping right through the concrete. This happens all over the building whenever we get any prolonged rainstorms. As you know from your visits, the roof leaks badly all over and the prison is strewn with plastic 5-gallon buckets catching the water. Doing my own laundry (most of us do it) has become even more of an imperative over the last year or two. For starters, you cannot exchange your state clothes for clean stuff at the weekly laundry exchange because all the laundry issues now are old, ripped-up rags, stuff right out of a cartoon version of the rags Napoleon's army wore as they withdrew from Russia. There is no money available here for any new clothing. The sheets, towels, socks, T-shirts and drawers are almost black with filth; they look like what mechanics use in garages to clean up with. The laundry has taken to cutting all the sheets in half lengthwise and cutting all the towels in half (sewing up the edges) to try to make things stretch. More basic than that, though, is that for at least a year, maybe two, the laundry has simply quit using any soap when it “washes” the clothes. They stuff they pass out stinks worse than it does when it's turned in. If you do get something from the laundry, the first thing you and have to do is wash it. Most people do what I do, they bribe someone to get ahold of a couple of new sheets and a new towel, and then they just keep them, washing them by hand every week. Since we cannot obtain any laundry soap (for reasons unknown they stopped selling it to us 10 years ago) we've gotta use canteen-bought shampoo to do our laundry (VO-5 is the cheapest). And of course, we've gotta wash all our stuff in our toilets; this sounds gross to the uninitiated, but we keep our stainless steel toilets scrubbed clean. You then plug it up and flush it until it fills, then add shampoo and laundry and go to work. This is old-school and is universal in prisons around the country (although 95% of prisons have made this obsolete by offering real laundry services. But Florida in general and Florida State Prison in particular are 30 years behind the times and the administration seems to revel in its backwardness). Hell, this prison doesn't even have hot water to the cells. Anyway, Sis, that's it for now from the rainy Big House. I'll write again soon when the sun comes out!
Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening. In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed. Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960s-era hearse I've watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population. I've seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You've already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you're given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it's time to die. To me this is cruel and unusual punishment by any definition. Consider this: Florida, like every other death penalty state, uses a list of statutory aggravators which the jury and judge use and weigh in determining whether to impose a death sentence. As an example, some of the aggravators are, the victim was young; the victim was elderly; the victim was a law enforcement officer; the homicide occurred during the course of a felony, etc. Well, the Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the two (2) most serious aggravators in Florida's capital sentencing scheme are: 1) Heinous, Atrocious and cruel (HAC); and 2) Cold, Calculated and Premeditated (CCP). The Court has, in a slew of cases, held that the HAC applies when a victim is held captive and conscious and knows he is about to die; forcing a victim to consider his imminent death while he is helpless to escape it constitutes HAC. Likewise, CCP applies when there is “heightened premeditation,” over and above “regular” premeditation, and when the killing is the result of a well thought out plan. By that definition HAC and CCP apply to all executions where we spend years reflecting on our imminent death and the killing is done with heightened premeditation, part of a well thought out plan or scheme.
Just a little something to consider.
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