October 10, 2006

Southern Injustice: Condemning an Innocent Man

In February 1983 as the rural farming community of LaBelle, Florida prepared to celebrate its annual “Swamp Cabbage Festival” the top story around town was that a local 19-year old waitress recently reported missing. Aleisha Bryant was last seen with a man, known only as “Chip”, that past Sunday night at a rowdy bar just outside of town.

Initially the investigation revealed that Chip had come to town under a fictitious name Lawrence Lamberson, and was in fact really Clarence Edward Moore, a 35-year old “career criminal” from Miami with a propensity for violence against women and a known associate of south Florida drug smugglers. Chip could not be located either.

On February 9th, 1983 Chip’s car was located near Tampa being driven by Francis Smith, who when asked about the car told police it belonged to her boyfriend but she couldn’t remember his name. Smith was arrested and the car was impounded. Smith remained in custody for several days and gave numerous conflicting stories before being bonded out. The following week Smith, accompanied by her own lawyer, went to the states attorney’s office to “voluntarily” report a double murder.

Smith told how a few months earlier around Christmas she had abruptly abandoned her three young children and ran away with Mike Lambrix. Traveling together to LaBelle, they took up residence on a ranch in nearby Glades County, where they lived under the name “Townsend” as Lambrix had recently walked away from a minimum security work release center where he was serving a sentence for passing a worthless check – Lambrix’s only prior conviction.

On February 5th Lambrix and Smith went to the “Town Tavern” in LaBelle, where the met Chip and Bryant. The four then traveled together to “Squeaky’s”, where they drank and danced until the bar closed. They all agreed to go back to Lambrix’s place for a late night dinner as Bryant had to be at work in a few hours and Chip was leaving town.

Smith claimed that after arriving at the trailer she began cooking a spaghetti dinner while Lambrix, Chip, and Bryant sat in the adjacent living room. Smith later testified that they were all “laughing, teasing and playing around” when Lambrix and Chip decided to go outside. About 20 minutes later Lambrix returned looking “normal” and told Bryant that Chip wanted her to come outside. Smith stayed in the trailer cooking. About 45 minutes later Lambrix again returned alone – but this time was “covered in blood” and told Smith that “they’re dead.”

According to Smith, she followed Lambrix into the bathroom and as he washed up she asked what happened, Lambrix refused to talk about it. They went to a store to purchase a flashlight and shovel. After returning to the trailer Smith claims Lambrix forced her to help bury the two bodies before fleeing the area together in Chip’s car.

Smith was given a polygraph, which showed “significant signs of deception” yet based exclusively on her account a warrant charging Lambrix with capital premeditated murder was issued and a statewide “manhunt” ensued. Lambrix was apprehended several weeks later in Orlando, Florida.

Lambrix was almost immediately transferred to the small two-cell Glades County Jail in Moore Haven, Florida and a local inexperienced public defender was assigned to represent him. Motions were filed to have the case moved to another county because of graphically sensationalized stories in the local weekly paper; they were summarily denied. By December 1983 the case was brought to trial at the small courthouse in Moore Haven with Judge Adams presiding.

In opening arguments the state prosecutor Randall McGruther conceded that there were no eyewitnesses, no physical or forensic evidence, and no confessions to support his theory of alleged premeditated murder. The entire case was founded upon Francis Smith’s testimony that after meeting Chip and Bryant, Lambrix invited them back to the trailer, then took Chip out first – returning alone – then took Bryant out again subsequently returning alone, only this time covered in blood. Smith testified that Lambrix told her he hit the man in the head and choked Bryant, and then placed her face down in a pond to ensure she died. The alleged motive was to steal the car.

This otherwise unsupported theory of alleged premeditated murder was corroborated by state witness Deborah Hanzel, (The girlfriend of Smith’s own cousin) who testified that Lambrix also told her that he committed the murders to steal the car, and by Robert Daniels, a local states attorney’s investigator who was responsible for developing the circumstantial evidence used to support Smith’s story.

No defense was presented and Lambrix’s own lawyer compelled the trial judge to prohibit Lambrix from personally testifying even though Lambrix was the only one who could have told the jury what really happened outside.

Instead, Lambrix’s attorney argued that substantial reasonable doubt existed as the states theory of alleged premeditated murder directly conflicted with the evidence. Smith admitted that she never witnessed anything that might have occurred outside. The state’s own medical examiner confirmed that there was no actual evidence that Bryant died of strangulation or drowning – in fact there was no pond on the property.

Further, Chip was the only one who suffered any physical injuries that would have resulted in the loss of blood. Thus Chip had to still be alive when Bryant went outside, so whatever actually transpired outside had to happen spontaneously, without premeditated intent. Additionally, all of Chip’s wounds were to his front forehead so Chip had to be facing his combatant and the absence of any defense wounds strongly suggest Chip had to have been the aggressor.

Both Chip and Bryant each substantially outweighed lambrix, so how could he have simultaneously killed both in two completely different ways? Would a healthy 19-year old woman passively allow herself to be strangled without struggling? Smith admitted Lambrix had no scratches or bruises on him – yet the autopsy on Chip revealed numerous scratches on his abdomen. Fingernail scrapings that might have conclusively identified Bryant’s true assailant conveniently disappeared.

Last, Smith told numerous conflicting accounts before coming up with the one that propitiously exonerated her of all culpability. Collectively, counsel argued substantial reasonable doubt existed precluding a finding of guilt.

Without any local facilities available to sequester the jury the deliberations dragged on over eleven hours into the early morning without food or necessary medicine. Finally, the jury announced it could not agree on any verdict and over Lambrix’s objection a “hung jury” was declared.

After the state announced its intentions to retry the case, Lambrix’s counsel renewed the motions to have the case moved to another county; this was denied. In February 19984 the retrial began after Lambrix refused a second-degree murder plea, which would have resulted in a maximum sentence of 22 to 27 years.

The original was abruptly and inexplicitly replaced by Judge Richard Stanley, a former local prosecutor with a reputation for bias against capital defendants. Ultimately, the jury empanelled to retry the case included the jury foreman (Snyder) who admitted he already believed Lambrix was guilty as well as four other jurors directly related to the local sheriff’s department including the stepfather (Wilburn) of a local sheriff deputy who at the time of trial was under an FBI investigation for physically assaulting Lambrix several months earlier.

As the state presented its same case for the second time, Judge Stanley prohibited Lambrix’s attorneys from cross-examining the key witness Francis Smith about the numerous conflicting stories she had told or the polygraph examination. Judge Stanley felt this might “confuse” the jury. Lambrix was again prohibited from testifying. Once again Deborah Hanzel and investigator Robert Daniels corroborated Smith’s testimony.

Lambrix’s attorney presented no defense beyond arguing reasonable doubt. This time the jury deliberated barely an hour before returning with a verdict of guilty on each count of capital murder. Following a brief sentencing phase, the jury then recommended by a majority vote “death” be imposed on both counts.

On March 22, 1984 Lambrix was formally sentenced to death. Judge Stanley refused to recognize any mitigating circumstances even though the undisputed evidence established that Lambrix was honorably discharged for the Army following a disabling duty related accident, was a former Boy Scout and Catholic alter boy, as well as a father of three young children, with no significant prior criminal history.

Since March 1984 Lambrix has remained in solitary confinement on Florida’s death row, never once wavering in his insistence that the entire case of alleged premeditated murder brought against him was deliberately fabricated.

Although prohibited from testifying at trial, Lambrix’s stead fast claim of what actually took place outside that night is in fact entirely consistent with the evidence. Perhaps the hardest thing to defend against is a deliberately fabricated lie, especially when it is supported by the state.

Lambrix readily admits to meeting Chip and Bryant that night and inviting them back to his home. After arriving at the trailer they continued to drink. Both unquestionably intoxicated, Chip and Lambrix went outside, where, in their drunken stupor they concocted a plan to play a practical joke on the tow women. As Chip hid behind a nearby cattle trough, Lambrix went inside the trailer and told Smith and Bryant they wanted to show them something outside. Smith was still cooking dinner, so only Bryant followed him outside.

As the two approached the feed trough Chip suddenly jumped out successfully startling Bryant as planned…but Bryant unrepentantly responded with anger, verbally confronting Chip. Unaware of Chip’s history of violence against women Lambrix left the two alone to work it out, walking back towards the trailer.

Just as Lambrix reached the trailer he heard a scream and knowing the closes neighbor was some distance away he knew it had to be them. Then came another scream; Lambrix began going back around the trailer towards the pasture. Assuming they must have run into a wild animal or something, Lambrix intuitively grabbed the jack handle from a car as he passed it; the jack was out from work done earlier in the day.

Upon reaching the trough Lambrix realized that Chip and Bryant were not where he had left them, it was a cloudy night with minimal moonlight, which made it difficult to see more than a few feet but he heard something back in the pasture and moved in that direction.

Suddenly Lambrix walked up on them -- Chip had Bryant pinned to the ground on her back with him straddled over her, violently assaulting her. Lambrix ordered Chip to let her go only to be pugnaciously told to mind his own business, Lambrix forcibly pushed Chip off Bryant but as he fell to far side Chip immediately lunged back toward Lambrix and as he did Lambrix instinctively swung the tire iron repeatedly until realizing that Chip was down.

Assuming Bryant was only unconscious, Lambrix attempted to carry her back to the trailer, but she significantly out weighted him, forcing Lambrix to lay her down. At that time Lambrix attempted to resuscitate her – to no avail. Realizing then that she was dead Lambrix returned to Chip but he was beyond help too, as his head was crushed from the blows.

Lambrix returned to the trailer covered in blood and told Smith they were dead, then went to the bathroom and vomited before washing up. Both Lambrix and Smith then went to a store to obtain a flashlight and shovel and in route Lambrix reluctantly told Smith that Chip had “gone nuts” on Bryant and as he tried to stop him, Chip turned on him. Knowing that Lambrix had an arrest warrant for leaving the work release they both agreed they couldn’t go to the sheriff and that they would superficially conceal the two bodies then abandon Chips car near Tampa – which Smith was supposedly doing when she was arrested.

After being sentenced to death Lambrix was assigned a local attorney whop had no experience litigating capital appeals – and made no attempt to even meet with Lambrix. Without addressing the sufficiency of the specious circumstantial evidence, the deprivation of Lambrix’s “fundamental” right to testify. Or the composition of the jury, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously affirmed both the convictions and sentences of death.

In September 1988 a “death warrant” was signed, scheduling Lambrix’s execution for November 30th, 1988. Only then was post conviction counsel assigned – but at the last moment this counsel argued that it was “impossible’ to investigate and present Lambrix’s claims – including actual innocence – because the sate funded agency did not have adequate resources or staff.

In a cursory order the trial court summarily denied the request for any additional time and as Lambrix was measured for the suit they intended to kill him in and ordered his last meal, by a marginal four to three vote the Florida Supreme Court also denied relief. However, the court did grant a 48-hour temporary stay of execution to allow an appeal to the federal court and as Lambrix again came within hours of execution the federal court finally granted a full stay.

In August 1991 the Federal District Court provided an evidentiary hearing on the limited issues that were actually raised in the state courts. At that time both former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Alan Sundberg and nationally renowned criminal defense attorney Ray Black testified in Lambrix’s behalf, that the legal representation Lambrix was provided at both trial and on appeal was pathetically incompetent.

In May 1992 the Federal District Court denied relief in an order that was subsequently affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The United States Supreme Court then granted limited review but by a five to four vote ruled that although Lambrix was unconstitutionally sentenced to death, because his lawyers has failed to properly present the claim, any relief was procedurally barred.

As these federal appeals were pending Lambrix’s lawyers also filed a new appeal in the state courts arguing that Lambrix must be allowed to present his claim of actual innocence, which prior counsel failed to raise as the “fundamental miscarriage of justice” doctrine requires an exemption of statutory procedural bars.

However, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that previously appointed counsels’ failure to timely raise the claims could not establish “cause” for exemption of procedural time limitations as Lambrix had no constitutional right to post conviction counsel so such counsel cannot legally be “ineffective.” The court made no attempt to address Lambrix’s comprehensively pled claim of actual innocence.

In 1996 Lambrix lost both his state and federal appeals – Congress abruptly eliminated the funding for the agency responsible for representing him, so Lambrix suddenly found himself without a lawyer. Once again facing an imminent “death warrant” Lambrix petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for appointment of new counsel, and his case was assigned to a state funded agency chronically plagued by inadequate funding and insufficient staff.

As Lambrix mentally prepared to be moved back to “death watch” new evidence came to light regarding Lambrix’s trial judge in another capital case. In that case, after the court personally came forth hours before Raleigh Porter was to be executed Judge Stanley was compelled to testify that he had become a judge to avenge his colleagues murder, and that if it was up to him, he would have shot capital defendants “dead between the eyes.” Based on this evidence, the Florida Supreme Court threw out Porter’s death sentences because of Judge Stanley’s pervasive bias against capital defendants.

Arguing that Lambrix must be provided similar relief – Lambrix is now the only person still remaining under sentence of death imposed by Judge Stanley – the new lawyers filed an appeal that prevented a new death warrant from being signed.

Lambrix’s lawyers then sought out state witness Deborah Hanzel to clarify an ambiguity in the original trial record. To their surprise Hanzel volunteered that her trial testimony was not true – that Lambrix never did actually tell her that he had killed anyone. Asked why she didn’t come forward with this crucial information earlier, Hanzel replied that she thought Lambrix had been executed.

Almost five years later Lambrix was finally granted an evidentiary hearing on this newly discovered evidence. At that time Hanzel provided more information – that she was deliberately coerced into providing that false testimony by the key witness Francis Smith and an investigator with the States Attorney’s Office. They had known all along that Lambrix has acted in involuntary self-defense.

Several months later another hearing was held and for the first time Lambrix was allowed to testify about what really happened that night. The state did not and could not discredit Lambrix’s claim of “involuntary self-defense.”

The state then called their key witness Francis Smith (now Francis Ottinger) to deny that she coerced Hanzel to provide false testimony. However, Smith was not aware that only days earlier her recently divorced husband has provided Lambrix’s lawyers with starting new information – that while Lambrix was being prosecuted on these capital charges, Smith was having a secret relationship “of a sexual nature” with the State Attorney’s own investigator, Robert Daniels – the very person who has sworn out the affidavit initiating these charges against Lambrix, then was responsible for developing the circumstantial evidence used to corroborate Smith’s story.
As Smith took the stand she predictably denied coercing Hanzel to provide false testimony – then Lambrix’s lawyers asked Smith if it was true that she was having a sexual relationship with investigator Daniels while Lambrix was being prosecuted. At first, perjuring herself she denied any relationship, but then reluctantly admitted it.

Lambrix’s claims of actual innocence have been pending before Judge R. Thomas Corbin of the Lee County Circuit Court in Ft. Myers, Florida for almost nine years now. Although hearings have been sporadically provided each has been deliberately limited to only a small part of the available evidence, which collectively proves Lambrix’s actual innocence. Every element of the states case is now exposed as being deliberately fabricated with an intent to have Lambrix wrongfully convicted, the local court and states attorney’s office have joined forces to obstruct public exposure of this inconceivable injustice by simply not allowing the case to proceed to a finality.

Recently at a July 2006 hearing the state offered to reduce Lambrix’s sentences to “life” if Lambrix would drop these actual innocence appeals – an offer Lambrix “categorically refused.” The case remains pending. Justice delayed is justice denied. If you would like to help end this injustice you can write to Judge Corbin encouraging him to expeditiously reach a final decision at the following addresses:

Judge R. Thomas Corbin
Lee County Justice Center
1700 Monroe Street
Ft. Myers, FL 33901