Execution Day—Involuntary Witness to Murder
Michael Lambrix was awarded Third Place in Essay in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
Execution Day—Involuntary Witness to Murder
As if a scene straight out of The Twilight Zone, circumstances trapped me within the cold and calculated process that resulted in the murder by state sanctioned execution of Oscar Ray Bolin on January 7, 2016. In all the years I’ve been on Florida’s death row, I’ve never been in such close proximity to an execution as it unfolded around me, forcing me to become part of the very process that they intended to then subject me to in precisely five weeks’ time.
On November 30, 2015, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my death warrant, and I was immediately transferred from the main death row unit at Union Correctional (less than a mile away) to the “death watch” housing area on the bottom floor of Q-wing at Florida State Prison. I joined Oscar down there—his own death warrant had been signed about five weeks earlier and they intended to murder him on January 7. There are only three cells in the death watch area, and Oscar was in cell one, and I was placed in cell three, with an empty cell separating us.
Through those five weeks, each day brought him closer—his wife of almost twenty years solidly by his side, uncompromised in her commitment to stand by him and prove that he was innocent. And those familiar with the case knew that recently developed evidence did establish a persuasive issue of innocence, too.
His final rounds of appeals focused specifically on evidence supporting his innocence and the hope that the courts would do the right thing. As the New Year weekend passed, the Federal District Court summarily denied review of his innocence claim upon the finding that the lower Federal Court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear his claim of innocence. But there was hope, as the District Court granted a “Certificate of Appealability” (“C.O.A.”) authorizing appellate review before the Eleventh Circuit, and soon after the Eleventh Circuit issued an order establishing a “briefing schedule” in March . . . it seemed all but certain that Oscar would be granted a stay of execution and his claim of innocence would be fully briefed and heard by the appellate court.
Monday, January 4 passed as he anxiously awaited word that a stay of execution would be granted, but there was only silence from the court. Each day his wife spent every minute she could and it is impossible to imagine the pain she felt—she too was unquestionably a victim caught up in this cold process that unfolded around her.
I sat in my solitary cell not more than 10 feet away and found myself impressed with the strength Oscar exhibited, and the concern he held for his wife and what this process inflicted on her. Society wanted to label this man a cold-blooded killer, yet if only those only too willing to throw stones could see the desperate concern he had for his wife, they could see how wrong they are.
Now I struggle to find the words—and with a reluctance to even write about what I involuntarily witnessed. But if I don’t, then who will? And is it really fair that the record of what transpired would otherwise be the state’s own version, leaving no perspective from those that they kill?
I must emphasize that even as much as these events impacted me due to my close proximity to this process, it is not comparable to what they were forced to endure, and the loss those who loved Oscar Bolin suffered. My attempt to share what transpired from my own unique perspective is done in the hope that perhaps by bearing witness, others would see just how incomprehensibly inhuman this process it, and how truly cold-blooded this act of murder is . . . and to know it is carried out in all of our names.
And I apologize for rambling on—it is not easy for me to find the necessary words. I can only hope that I can convey the true impact of what unfolded and compel those that read this to ask themselves whether this truly is what we aspire our society to be? It’s easy to justify the death penalty by claiming that it is in the interest of justice to kill those convicted of killing another—to become a killer ourselves.
But how many give a thought at all to just how much contemplation is put into this process employed to take that life? I am again reminded of what I once read, written by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.”
Think about that. It’s easy to dismiss what I say by blindly insisting that a jury convicted Oscar Bolin of murder and that justice demands that society take his life. But really—who is actually investing more conscious thought into the act of taking a human life?
It is for this reason I’m determined to share my own unique perspective of what this process is, and how by these very actions it reduces society itself to that very level of becoming “the monster.” Perhaps in my attempt to share this, others can see just how wrong this is.
On the early morning of Monday, January 4, the day began with the death watch staff advising both me and Oscar of our scheduled visits and phone calls for that day. I had already asked my family and friends not to visit that week as I didn’t want my visits to interfere in any way with Oscar’s visits. All I had was a phone call from my son early that morning and a legal phone call with my lawyer later that day.
Oscar had a visit with his wife and both anxiously awaited any word from the Eleventh Circuit courts hoping that a full stay of execution would come and the court would allow full and fair review of his innocence claim. But the day passed without any word from the court. By that evening, Bolin was down to 72 hours—and I know from personal experience how difficult that was, as I had come within hours of execution myself when I was on death watch years earlier—only I was granted a stay.
By Tuesday morning, January 5, Oscar was down to 60 hours, and the clock continued to tick away, and yet still nothing from the courts on whether they would allow his claim of innocence to be heard. Oscar spent from late morning until mid-afternoon with his wife in the non-contact visiting area. Upon his return, his demeanor was more subdued, and the stress and anxiety he felt became all but tangible. And as I sat silently a few feet away in my own solitary cell, I wondered whether any of those willing to take his life gave even so much as a moment of thought into what they were inflicting upon other human beings—and again, Oscar was not the only one forced to count down those final hours anxiously hoping that phone would ring with the news that the court would allow his claim of innocence to be heard . . . every second of every moment, every hour that passed inflicted incomprehensible pain upon his wife and those that cared for him.
That evening passed in an uncomfortable silence as the courts would have closed their doors for the night and no news would come until at least that next morning. That psychological trauma of uncertainty weighed heavily upon them.
I doubt Oscar slept much that Tuesday night—I know I didn’t. His T.V. remained on into the early morning hours. By that next morning (Wednesday), he was down to about 36 hours until his still scheduled execution, and still no word from the court. It would be a long day. They brought the breakfast trays as they did each morning, but neither of us had any interest in eating. Down here on death watch, our meals are kept under direct supervision of security staff to ensure nobody (other prisoners or staff) has any chance of tampering with the food or smuggling anything to the condemned prisoner.
This methodical countdown to the intended execution actually starts a full week before, when they remove all personal property from the condemned prisoner’s cell, placing him (or her) on “Phase II.” From the moment they place the condemned prisoner on Phase II (that final week), a guard is posted directly in front of the cell 24 hours a day, his only job to observe the condemned prisoner to ensure he (or she) doesn’t attempt suicide or harm themselves—and a few have tried. Any activity is written in a forest green “Death Watch Log.” Throughout this time, not even for one second are you allowed to forget that they are counting down your last days—and last hours.
Oscar again had a visit with his wife as she stood faithfully by him spending every moment she could—even if those visits were restricted to a few hours of non-contact (through glass) visits.
By early afternoon Oscar returned to his death watch cell—still no word from the court. The hours dragged by as Oscar talked to the guard stationed in front of his cell, simply talking about anything at all.
Warden Palmer came down, accompanied by Deputy Secretary Dixon (the second highest Department of Corrections employee). They talked to Oscar for a while, mostly just to check on how he was holding up. But the preparations had begun and that final 24 hours was quickly approaching. After they talked to Oscar, they stepped that few feet further down to the front of my cell and spoke to me.
I must admit that I was impressed by their professionalism and their sincerity that bordered on genuine concern. Perhaps the most heard expression on death watch is an almost apologetic “we’re just doing our job,” and the truth is that the current staff assigned to work the death watch area and interact with the condemned prisoners counting down their final hours go to great lengths to treat us with a sense of dignity and respect seldom even seen in the prison system.
The significance of this cannot be understated. I’ve been down here on death watch before years ago and came within hours of being executed myself, and there’s always been a deliberate distance between the condemned and the staff—especially the higher ranking staff. But it’s different this time. In the five weeks that I’ve been down here, almost daily high ranking staff have come down to the death watch housing area and made a point of talking to us in an informal manner, abandoning that implicit wall of separation between them and us.
And now none other than the Deputy Secretary himself personally came down to talk to us—I’ve never heard of this before. Shortly after they left, Oscar asked the sergeant for the barber clippers. He wanted to shave his own chest and legs, rather than have them do it the next day. It had to be done, as the lethal injection process requires the attachment of heart monitors, and Oscar preferred to shave it himself—as most would.
Oscar received another legal phone call later that afternoon—now down to almost 24 hours until his scheduled execution, and still no decision by the Eleventh Circuit as to whether or not they’d allow review of his innocence claim. The lawyers would call if any news came, but it was assumed that the judges deciding his fate already called it a day and went home. No further phone call came that night. Again Oscar stayed up late, unable to sleep until sometime in the early morning hours and he was not alone, as sleep would be hard to come by.
We reached the day of execution. Typically, they change shifts at 6:00am, working a full 12-hour shift. But on days of scheduled execution, they change shifts at 4:30am, as with the execution scheduled at 6:00pm they cannot do a shift change then, as the entire institution will go on lockdown during that time.
With that final 24 hours now counting down, each minute was managed by strict “Execution Day” protocol, and the day started earlier than usual. As if an invisible cloud hung in the air, you could all but feel the weight of this day, and it was that tangible, and undoubtedly more so on Oscar. But he was holding up remarkably well, maintaining his composure even though the strain was obvious in his voice. How does one go about the day that they know they are to die? Again, I’ve been there myself and I know how he felt and it cannot easily be put into words.
Oscar was diabetic and as with each morning, the nurse came to check his blood sugar level and administer insulin, if necessary. Now within that final 12 hours, nothing would be left to chance. Around 7:00am, they let Oscar take a shower, and then after locking down the entire institution, they took him up front for a last visit with his wife. They would be allowed a two-hour non-contact visit until 10:00am, then an additional one-hour contact visit—the last visit before the scheduled execution.
Shortly after 11:00am they escorted Oscar back to the Q-wing death watch cell. A few minutes later “Brother Dale” Recenelli was allowed to come down and spend a few hours with Oscar as his designated spiritual advisor. Contrary to the Hollywood movies depicting the execution process, the prison chaplain is rarely, if ever, involved as each of us are allowed to have our own religious representative—and many choose “Brother Dale” as he is well-known and respected amongst the death row population.
Many years ago Brother Dale was a very successful lawyer, making more money than most can dream of. But then he experienced a life-changing event and spiritual transformation, as chronicled in his book And I Walk on Death Row. Brother Dale and his equally devoted wife Susan gave up their wealth and privilege and devoted their lives to their faith and ministering to death row.
Even as these final hours continued to count down, I remained in that solitary cell only a few feet away and unable to escape the events as they continued to unfold around me. There are only three cells on death watch and I found it odd that they kept me down here as they proceeded with this final process—when I was on death watch in 1988, they moved me upstairs to another cell removed from the death watch area, as they didn’t want any other prisoners in the death watch area as these final events unfolded.
Brother Dale left about 2:00pm and the death watch lieutenant, a familiar presence on death watch, then made a point of talking to Oscar, and they went over the protocol—shortly before 4:00pm he would shower again and then be brought around to the west side of the wing, where they only had one cell immediately adjacent to the door that led to the execution chamber. I listened as this process was explained, knowing only too well that in precisely five weeks I would be given the same talk.
The warden and assistant warden came down again and talked to Oscar. A few minutes later, the Secretary (director) of the Florida Department of Corrections, Julie Jones, personally came to Oscar’s cell and sat in a chair and talked to him—I’ve never heard of that happening before. But her tone of voice and mannerisms reflected genuine empathy toward Oscar, and he thanked her for taking that time to talk to him.
As they now closed in on that final two hours before the scheduled execution, Oscar received another phone call from his lawyer—the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals still had not ruled on whether they would grant a stay of execution and allow a full review of his pled innocence claim. Oscar’s voice was obviously stressed. Per protocol, the nurse gave him five mg. of Valium to calm his nerves.
Just before 4:00pm, Oscar spoke to me, wanting to talk about a problem he and I had years ago—a problem that I alone was responsible for and of which I have often regretted. In the five weeks we had been on death watch together, it was not spoken of. But now, to my amazement, even dealing with all that he was dealing with, Oscar wanted me to know that he forgave me for what I did. And for a few minutes we talked. And then the warden and his staff removed Oscar from his cell and escorted him around to the west side of the wing, to the execution chamber holding cell, where he would remain until the court cleared the way for execution, or he received a stay of execution and was brought back to this side.
A single sergeant remained on this side, and for the first time since I was brought to death watch I was alone as the sergeant remained at the desk just outside the cell block area—and I didn’t want to be alone. As I do often, especially when stressed, I paced in my cell anxious to hear any word on what was going on and checking my watch almost every minute, and each minute dragged by so slowly it was almost as if time itself had stopped and I couldn’t begin to imagine what Oscar and his wife were going through.
At irregular intervals, the sergeant would walk down to my cell to check on me and I asked whether there was any more news. The Eleventh Circuit had denied his appeal and the case quickly moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court. The designated time of scheduled execution—6:00pm—came and went without any word from the Supreme Court.
Oscar would remain in that holding cell until the Supreme Court cleared the way for execution—but at least both he and his loved ones still had hope as the minutes continued to tick away.
Most don’t realize just how many people are involved in this execution process, and everybody remained on hold knowing whether the execution would proceed or not. Immediately adjacent to my cell was a solid steel door that led directly into a hallway stretching the entire width of the wing. Just inside this door was an area with a coffee pot and chairs, and I could hear a number of unknown people congregated only a few feet away from me on the other side of the door as they discussed the continued uncertainty.
A larger crowd of unknown participants congregated on the lower quarter-deck area between the west side of the wing where the death watch housing area was and the door that led into the east side where Oscar remained in the holding cell. I couldn’t make out what they were saying and wondered, especially when I periodically heard laughter. I suppose this long wait was stressful on them, too, and a moment of levity could be forgiven. And yet I found myself wondering what they could possibly find funny as they awaited that moment of time when they would each assume their assigned task and take the life of another human being.
One hour passed, and then another, and another yet. Then at almost 10:00pm it suddenly got quiet—very quiet. All the voices that continuously hummed both behind that steel door and the quarterdeck area just suddenly went silent and without anyone around to tell me; I knew that they all moved to their positions in the execution chamber.
It remained utterly silent—so quiet that I could hear the coffee pot percolating at the sergeant’s desk on the other side of the gate, and I held my watch as the minutes passed, and I strained to hear any sound at all. But there was nothing, and I knew they were now putting Oscar to death. I cannot explain it, but I just felt it—and I got on my knees and I prayed, and yet I couldn’t find any words and found myself kneeling at my bunk in silence for several minutes.
Then I heard what sounded like a door on the other side of that concrete wall that separated my cell from the execution chamber. Then I once again heard muffled voices on the other side of that steel door. It was over and it went quickly . . . Oscar was dead. A few minutes later I heard the sound of a number of people going up the stairs leading away from the execution chamber. Their job was done, and in an orderly manner they were leaving.
For obvious reasons, I didn’t sleep that night. Only a few feet behind that wall of my cell, Oscar’s body now lay growing cold. There are no words that can describe how I felt, but that emptiness that consumed me and left me lying in my bunk in complete silence through the night.
Somewhere in the early morning hours I fell asleep, only to awaken just after 7:00am. It was a new day. The death watch lieutenant was already here and I was now the only one left on death watch. But just that quickly, I was instructed that I had to immediately pack my property, as they had to move me to cell one—the cell that Oscar only recently vacated.
I didn’t want to move to that cell, but I didn’t have any choice. That was the same cell I had previously occupied in late 1998 when I myself came within hours of my own execution and especially knowing that only a few hours ago Oscar was in that cell still alive and holding on to hope, I just didn’t want to be moved to that cell. Every person who has been executed in the State of Florida in the past 40 years was housed in that cell prior to their execution.
But it wasn’t a choice, and I obediently packed my property and with the officer’s assistance, I was moved from cell three to cell one. And as I worked on putting all my property back where it belonged (storing it in the single steel footlocker bolted firmly to the floor), a long-awaited phone call from my close friend Jan Arriens came through.
While on death watch, we are allowed two personal phone calls each week, and since my warrant was signed five weeks earlier, I had anxiously awaited the opportunity to talk to Jan, but through the Christmas holiday he was visiting his family in Australia. Having only recently returned to his home in England, he arranged this phone call.
It was good to hear a friendly voice just at that time when I most especially needed a friend. But we only had a few minutes to talk and unlike those eternal moments of the night before, these minutes passed far too quickly. But just hearing the voice of a friend comforted me.
Shortly after that phone call, I then had a legal visit and was escorted to the front of the prison to meet with my lawyer’s investigator. We spent hours going over legal issues, and then it was back to the death watch cell. Not long after I returned, I learned that the governor had already signed another death warrant. This machinery of death continued to roll along. By mid-afternoon, a familiar face was brought down to join me . . . Mark Asay (who we call “Catfish”) had his death warrant signed that morning, with his execution scheduled for March 17, exactly five weeks after my own scheduled execution.
With the methodical precision of a machine, Florida has resumed executions with a vengeance, establishing a predictable pattern of signing a new death warrant even before the body of the the last executed prisoner has grown cold.
Now I remain in the infamous “cell one,” next in line to be executed—and on February 11, 2016, at 6:00pm, the State of Florida plans to kill me. Until then, I will remain in a cell in which the last 23 occupants, without exception, resided until their own execution. I do not like being in this solitary cell.