October 31, 2006

Condemned by The Perfect Storm

A few years ago there was a movie called “The Perfect Storm” that told of the tragedy of lives lost in the North Atlantic when several powerful storms systems coincidently came together, resulting in many deaths and many more lives changed forever.

How many of us have watched that movie and thought about events in our own lives that were (and are) an anthology of that event? Can circumstances coincidently come together in our own lives that forever, often tragically, change – or even predestine – our own fate? Can we look back upon this confluence of circumstances and see now that we were helplessly swept along in fates current until finally tossed ashore, our own lives victim of a perfect storm?

I’ve given that a lot of thought as I personally struggle with the “why” of me spending the last 23 years in solitary confinement condemned to death and have concluded that I am not on death row for any crime I allegedly committed but rather that I am condemned by the perfect storm, and that even my innocence simply doesn’t matter. See, “Southern Injustice: Condemning An Innocent Man.” rather, the elements that subsequently led to my present fate formed long before any crime allegedly occurred. When those preexisting elements in my life collided with contemporary circumstances these collective elements formed a perfect storm that sealed my fate and led me to death row.

Each year there are many thousands of murders in America. According to my World Almanac, in 1983 (the year my alleged crime took place) there were 19,310 homicides in the United States, but less than 100 men and women sentenced to death. Why did so few end up on death row -- why me? In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional (illegal) because it was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the states to rewrite their statutes to provide better guidance – but has anything really changed?

Simply question… why me? About the same time my capital crime was allegedly committed in rural Glades County, Florida a rich young man about my age was charged with what was called “the worst mass murder in Collier County history.” This man’s guilt (and stupidity) was never a question… he loaded the family vehicle up with explosives, then lured his entire immediate family into the vehicle and blew them up. The motive was clear – he wanted the entire family fortune for himself. Both cases were prosecuted by the same state attorney’s office at the same time. So, why did I get death, and he got life?

Of the thousand of men and women presently on death row there are an equal number of individual paths that brought the condemned here. But there is also an undeniable common journey, consistent contributing factors that have nothing to do with the alleged crime and as you objectively look beneath the surface an undeniable truth becomes self evident – we do not sentence people to death because of the particular nature of their alleged crime… rather, the fact is that we, as a society, decide who will live and who will die based upon who they are and their (in)ability to defend against the infinite resources of the state.

Let me ask you this… where would O.J. Simpson be today if he stood trial for the exact same crime in a small southern county and didn’t have the money to hire his “dream team” defense lawyers? That’s the undeniable truth – almost without exception. Those on death row are not condemned because of the particular crime they stood trial for, but because they were unable to defend against the resources available to the state… it is the lack of capital that makes you eligible for capital punishment.

Without the ability to defend against a capital murder charge, even your innocence becomes irrelevant. Of the approximately 130 men and women who have been legal exonerated and released from death row in past years, not even one of them came from wealth and privilege – and not even one had a “dream team” defense. Coincidence?

Before I came to prison I was completely ignorant of out legal system. To be honest, I never even gave it any thought. If someone had asked me back then if I supported the death penalty I probably would have immediately thought of Ted Bundy, as back then that’s all the news talked about and I would have said “Hell, yes!!” as that is the image I associated the death penalty with… that is the image prosecutors and politicians want all of us to see when we think about the death penalty.

Is Ted Bundy the archetypical image of the condemned man? Is his case emblematic of the average capital case that leads a man to death row? No, it is not! But the politicians and prosecutors do not want you to know that – they do not want you to think about the true portrait of those condemned to die.

Having become familiar with the reality of the system and its inherent prejudices against those least capable of defending against the formidable resources of the state, I now realize and accept that factors that eventually led me to be condemned to death, the elements of the storm that subsequently collided together with force and fury to create that “perfect storm,” began to form long before any alleged crime ever took place. In truth, the capital crime I allegedly committed was one of the least significant factors in determining my fate.

Like most of the others on death row the elements of my own storm began brewing the day I was born…. By being born, I was condemned to die. How’s that for irony? Bt far, the most significant factor that eventually led to me being condemned to death was simply being born into the family fate blessed me with.

Almost without exception (virtually none that I personally know of) those condemned to death share a common background. This will begin by being born into a dysfunctional family environment then being raised in extremely abusive surroundings. As the child of fate grows, this will predictably evolve into truancy, inevitable substance abuse (alcohol/drugs) at an early age and relatively small scrapes with the law.

Before any capital crime is allegedly committed that person is already a candidate to be condemned to death. Consistently my fellow lumpenproletariats (just call me “Lumpy” for short) share common traits… dysfunctional family, abusive childhood, lack of formal education, and serious psychological issues. The truth is, we were born to die.

Then comes the second storm front… the alleged crime. Often this crime will take place in a relatively rural county in the south. The case will be locally sensationalized so that before any jury is ever seated the redneck community has already formed a legally sanctioned lynch mob screaming for vengeance. A local hero will step up to the plate – the local politically ambitious and pathetically overzealous prosecutor – and will promise the good town folk that justice will be done. At that point even innocence becomes irrelevant, see “Southern Injustice: Condemning An Innocent Man” and such novel concepts of truth and justice are quickly forgotten, See, “Prosecutorial Misconduct: Does Immunity Invite Injustice?

Last, but by no means least, comes the final element, that fatal front that collides with force and fury against the proceeding two elements and that that perfect storm is formed. This is reflected when a lawyer is assigned to represent that person. While the state will have relatively infinite resources to prosecute the case and the power of the “good government” behind them, the soon to be condemned will be assigned a relatively inexperienced lawyer already out gunned and overwhelmed. Any defense is quickly becomes a pretense and a verdict of guilty is assured. Again, just look at the O.J. Simpson case and so many others like it. In America, the crime you stand accused of is a distant second to your ability to generate resources necessary to defend against it.. Those condemned to die are not condemned to death for the crime they allegedly committed but because of their inability to defend against it.

All of these elements came together in my case. I’ve long ago accepted that my innocence is simply irrelevant as I am condemned to death for who I am, not what I allegedly did. I am condemned by the perfect storm.