October 24, 2006

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Which is the greater injustice? Delaying the execution of a guilty person or delaying the exoneration of an innocent person? Politicians and judges all but openly compete with each other to invent and advocate establishing procedural rules to expedite review of capital cases when the intended objective is to expedite executions – but have you ever heard of a judge or politician advocating expedited review of a capital case for the purpose of determining whether an innocent person might have been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death?

If justice delayed is justice denied, then does it not stand to reason that this arguably self evident truth would apply with substantially greater force when the delays in question serve to, by deliberate design and intent, obstruct and impede the timely review of a substantiated claim of actual innocence?

Why is it that those wrongfully convicted and condemned to death often languish under this most extreme miscarriage of justice for decades before they can have their evidence heard and be judicially exonerated? Often this is because the evidence that does substantiate a claim of actual innocence is deliberately concealed for many years before being fortuitously discovered. But once discovered,
shouldn’t the judicial system adopt a policy and practice of expediting appellate review of that pled claim of actual innocence for the purpose of bringing a timely end to the claimed injustice?

The simple truth is that both the state and the courts want to expedite review when the objective is to speed up executions. Politically, that is a popular thing to do. But it is not in the states or courts interest to expedite review of a claim of actual innocence as the resulting exoneration embarrasses the system and undermines public confidence of the system as a whole. By delaying review and obstructing the ability to develop and present the evidence necessary to substantiate a claim of actual innocence that politically unpopular issue of actual innocence may even be rendered “moot” if the wrongfully condemned man simply dies of “natural causes” before his or her claim can be heard.

Consider the case of Frank Lee Smith, convicted and condemned to death in 1986 for the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year old girl in Broward County, Florida. Frank Smith insisted he was innocent, claiming a case of mistaken identity. In 1992 his lawyers discovered evidence that another man responsible for numerous other similar crimes in that area was also responsible for Smith’s alleged crime. The lawyers petitioned the local court for an order to compel the state to turn over forensic evidence held in their exclusive custody for DNA testing as such testing was not available when Smith was originally tried and convicted.

The Broward County State Attorney’s Office contested this motion and then methodically obstructed disclosure of this forensic evidence. However, Smith’s lawyers persisted and the evidence was finally tested – the DNA results conclusively confirmed that Frank Smith was completely innocent of the rape and murder he was convicted and condemned to death for committing. This exoneration came almost a year too late to help Frank Smith as months before that evidence was finally revealed Frank died of cancer while still on death row.

Frank Lee Smith spent a total of 16 years on death row even though the state had the evidence proving his innocence in their possession all along. Why would the state deliberately obstruct a person’s ability to establish their innocence? Isn’t the long recognized rule that a prosecutors first responsibility is to seek justice --not win at any cost? Smith’s case is not an isolated example of the Broward County State Attorney’s Office refusing to turn over DNA evidence that proved a wrongfully convicted person was innocent. See, Long v. Satz, 181 F. 3d 1271 (11th Cir. 1999) (prosecutor given immunity from civil action even though evidence established prosecutordeliberately concealed DNA evidence that would have proven man innocent.)

In March 1984 I was convicted and condemned to death for a double homicide in Glades County, Florida. I pled not guilty and have always and consistently maintained that the entire circumstantial case of alleged premeditated murder brought against me was deliberately fabricated.

By the states own admission the entire case was built upon the testimony of one witness – my ex-girlfriend – who herself readily admitted that she did not actually witness me commit and crime. There were no eyewitnesses, no physical or forensic evidence. And no confession to support this specious theory of alleged premeditated murder. The case went to trial in the small rural farming community of Glades County. The first trial ended in a “hung jury” but a retrial several months later resulted in a conviction and sentence of death. See, ”Southern Injustice: Condemning an Innocent Man”.

These convictions were affirmed by both the state and federal courts without any court ever addressing the sufficiency of the evidence or my pled claim of actual innocence. In 1988 I had a “death warrant” signed on me and came within hours of being executed before the Federal Court granted a stay of execution; that appeal was subsequently heard by the Supreme Court, but in a 5 to 4 decision, the Court ruled that although I was unquestionably illegally sentenced to death I could not be granted relief because my lawyers failed to properly file the appeals. See, Lambrix v, State, 520 U.S. 518 (1997). See also, "A Parody of Justice", by Martin Dyckman; St. Petersburg Times August 31st, 1997.

As I prepared to move back to “Death Watch” and again face execution a state witness unexpectedly admitted that her trial testimony was not true. Under sworn oath she told of how key witness Francis Smith and the states attorney’s lead investigator coerced her into providing that crucial false testimony. See, "Woman Recants Testimony in Murder Case".

It took almost five years before an evidentiary hearing was finally held. At that time the key witness also testified not surprisingly denying she coerced the witness to falsely testify. But then it was unexpectedly revealed for the first time ever that while I was being prosecuted, this key witness and the state attorney’s own lead investigator (Robert Daniels) – the very person who swore out the warrant for my arrest and was responsible for developing all the circumstantial evidence used to corroborate the key witness’ testimony – was actually having a secret personal relationship “of a sexual nature” with the key witness. See, "Witness Admits Affair With Investigator".

Subsequent to this discovery my state provided lawyers retained numerous independent “experts” in the field of homicide investigation and autopsies to determine whether this investigators relationship with the key witness tainted the development of the circumstantial evidence used to convict and condemn me. Without exception these experts concluded that the evidence was at the very least manipulated to favor the state, and crucial evidence was fabricated.

The presently pending appeal arguing and substantiating my actual innocence was filed in the lower state court in January 1998 – almost 9 years ago – and remains pending. With a copious wealth of evidence now substantiating my claim of innocence, why would the lower court and the state deliberately procrastinate review of my pled claim of actual innocence?

In 1988 when the governor signed my death warrant and formally scheduled my execution a lawyer was assigned to represent me on my first post conviction appeal. It took exactly 32 days for both the lower court and the Florida Supreme Court to completely review and deny that entire original post conviction appeal.

If the state courts can thoroughly review an original post conviction appeal challenging the convictions and death sentences on only 32 days when they intend to execute a person, then why is it taking almost a full decade to provide review of a claim of actual innocence in the same courts?

At the risk of redundancy, I ask again…Which is the greater injustice? Delaying the execution of a guilty person, or delaying the exoneration of an innocent person? If the sate courts can expedite review pf my post conviction appeal when they wanted to execute me, then why can’t they expedite review of my substantiated claim of actual innocence?

Will my fate be similar to that of Frank Lee Smith – will the state deliberately obstruct review until I too die of “natural causes.” Thus, rendering my claim of actual innocence moot? I was 22 years old when charged with this case in early 1983 – I am now 46 years old and have spent most of my life in solitary confinement condemned to death in spite of my innocence.

What is the difference between deliberately executing an innocent man and deliberately procrastinating review of a substantiated claim of innocence until the person dies on death row conveniently rendering the issue moot?

Although I have only a 9th grade formal education and am not formally trained in law, I believe that under both the Florida and U.S. Constitutions I do have a fundamental constitutional right to timely review without unnecessary delay of my pled claim of actual innocence.

Incredibly, the state has advocated and imposed procedural rules that require capital appeals to be filed within specific periods of time. If a death sentenced prisoner fails to meet these strictly enforced time limitations, then he or she is forever “procedurally barred” from pursuing those post conviction claims, even if the evidence proves actual innocence. See, Herrara v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993).

However, there are no rules that prohibit the state from obstructing or procrastinating review of a capital case that argues actual innocence. Why do politicians and judges push for a plethora of procedural rules designed to expedite the review of capital conviction appeals for the purpose of expediting executions -- but not even one rule that requires expedited review of a substantiated claim of innocence?

After too many years of attempting to compel the lower state court to expedite review of my claim of actual innocence I personally initiated a “Petition for Writ of Mandamas, alternatively habeas Corpus’ in the Florida Supreme Court arguing that the lower courts failure to provide “timely” review of my actual innocence appeal effectively deprived me of my state constitutional right to meaningful review “without delay.” See, Florida Constitution, Article I, Sec. 13 (explicitly recognizing that writ of habeas corpus “shall be grantable of right … returnable without delay”); Article I, Sec. 21 (“the courts shall be open to every person … and justice shall be administered without denial or delay”), thus now entitling we to relief from these wrongful convictions.

Being that I am barely able to afford a simple cup of coffee – much less hire a lawyer willing to represent me in this action, I was compelled to file this action with the Florida Supreme Court “pro se,” which means on my own without a lawyer. However, on August 3, 2006 the court summarily dismissed this case upon a finding that it was “an unauthorized pro se filing.” See, Lambrix v. State, Fla S. Ct. Case No. SC06-0038. I immediately filed a “motion for rehearing” arguing that I must be allowed to pursue the case in pro se capacity as I cannot afford a lawyer, nor has a lawyer been appointed to represent me in this matter. This now remains pending.

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied, but without competent legal representation willing to zealously advocate not only my now substantiated claim of actual innocence, but also take the action necessary to expedite review, justice will continue to be denied. I am presently represented by a state funded and statutorily limited state agency (the “Capital Collateral Regional Counsel”) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida – but this office is chronically under funded and unwilling to publicly advocate my claim of actual innocence. These are competent and committed lawyers, but by deliberate design and intent they are statutorily constrained from publicly advocating a claim of actual innocence or pursuing the necessary action to expedite review.

I remain condemned to a fate worse than death, -- I am condemned to slowly rot away while the state and the lower court procrastinate review until I too perhaps die of “natural causes” and my claim of actual innocence is rendered “moot.”