STARKE, Fla. Michael Lambrix has spent a lifetime on Death Row, successfully dodging his execution over a period of three decades and six governors, with the help of timely intervention by the courts.
In his latest case of good timing, he might even outlast the system that produced his death sentence.
Lambrix, 56, a Tampa high school dropout and Army veteran convicted of two killings, is at the center of an epic legal challenge to Florida’s death penalty sentencing system.
He’s the first inmate whose execution was halted after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down the state’s death penalty sentencing system as a violation of the right to trial by jury and forced the Legislature to rewrite the law.
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“He was sentenced to die under an unconstitutional statute,” said William Hennis, an attorney handling Lambrix’s appeals.
Hennis wants the Florida Supreme Court to spare Lambrix from execution and sentence him to life without parole, but Attorney General Palm Bondi, on behalf of the state, says Lambrix’s death is long overdue and that the Hurst decision should not be applied retroactively.
“It is time for Lambrix’s sentence for these brutal murders to be carried out,” Bondi’s office argued in court papers.
Dozens of Death Row inmates sentenced under the same flawed system could be affected by the fate of Lambrix, who spends his days in his cell writing prolifically about his claim of innocence.
If Lambrix loses, Gov. Rick Scott is expected to issue a third death warrant for his execution.
If Lambrix wins, it could dramatically reduce the Death Row population of 389 inmates, while adding to the anguish of the families of victims who long ago expected he would die as sentenced.
“It’s my last hope,” Lambrix said in a Herald/Times interview at Florida State Prison.
He has come within hours of death. He planned his last meal and was fitted in January for a blue suit an inmate wears to an execution. He was in a “death watch” cell, last stop before the execution chamber.
“You’re mentally prepared,” he said. “But confronting your own mortality is always difficult.”
The capital crime
Cary Michael Lambrix went to Death Row 32 years ago this month. He was 24.
Born in California and raised by an alcoholic father who moved the family to Florida, he quit school at 15 and ran away from home.
He joined the carnival circuit and then the Army, which sent him to Fort Sill, Okla., where a head injury from a fall ended his military career. Every month, a government disability check for $133 arrives at his cell in Starke, he said.
By 21, Lambrix was back in Florida, married with two young children — and broke.
He was sentenced to two years in prison after writing a worthless check to a lawn and garden store while he was on probation.
By his own account, he was a heavy drinker and pot smoker.
His downward spiral accelerated when he walked away from a work-release detail in Lakeland and went to Glades County with his girlfriend, Frances Smith.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 1983, after a Saturday spent drinking, Lambrix said he and Smith met a couple at a tavern and invited them to his rented mobile home on a ranch near LaBelle for spaghetti.
As the drinking continued, Lambrix, by his account, was “wasted,” and Clarence Edward Moore Jr., 35, and Alesiha Dawn Bryant, 19, a waitress, were murdered that night.
Lambrix contends that Moore strangled Bryant and that he used a tire iron to fatally batter Moore in self-defense. He admits that he and Smith buried both victims in a shallow grave and that he refused to call police because he was a fugitive from that work detail.
After a Hillsborough County deputy caught Smith driving Moore’s stolen Cadillac, she avoided charges by becoming the state’s chief witness against Lambrix. Smith recalled a blood-soaked Lambrix walking back into his trailer and saying, “They’re dead.”
Bondi’s office advocates for crime victims. Her spokesman, Whitney Ray, declined to provide contact information for the victims’ families in this case, citing a blanket public records exemption for clemency proceedings.
A haunting arrest
After the murders, police cast a wide net for the killer. Lambrix was arrested a few weeks later at work as a greeter at a haunted house in Orlando, “wearing white face makeup highlighted by black circles around the eyes,” the Lakeland Ledger reported.
“It required me to wear a ducktail tuxedo,” Lambrix said. “Sort of like Count Dracula.”
Lambrix’s first trial ended with a hung jury. He was convicted at a retrial largely on the testimony of Smith, but the case is marked by bizarre circumstances.
Smith later admitted that she was having an affair with a lead investigator for the state attorney’s office at the time.
Another state witness, Deborah Hanzel of Thonotosassa, recanted her testimony two decades later, saying investigators pressured her into lying by saying Lambrix would try to kill her and her children, the News-Press of Fort Myers reported.
“You all scare people into saying what you want,” Hanzel said.
No physical evidence tied Lambrix to the deaths. He said fingernail scrapings on Bryant that might have proved Moore strangled her mysteriously disappeared.
At his trial, Lambrix said he wanted to testify in his defense, but his rookie public defender wouldn’t let him.
“I’ve never asked anybody to believe me. Let the evidence speak for itself,” Lambrix said in a prison interview, wearing handcuffs and leg irons as a correctional officer watched from a few feet away. “The problem is, the courts have never looked at the evidence.”
Before the second trial, the state offered Lambrix a deal.
If he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, he would get a sentence of 22 to 27 years.
Lambrix refused. He received a death sentence instead.
The prosecutor, former State Attorney Randy McGruther, said that was the right result.
“It was a brutal double homicide,” McGruther said. “Evidence at trial was clear that he killed both of the individuals in question. No court has yet to find any credence to his claims.”
Lambrix has raised an array of legal defenses that the courts have rejected, sometimes by the narrowest of margins and other times on technical grounds, or “procedurally barred” in legal jargon, with no factual review, because his lawyers raised the claims too late.
“Lambrix has already consumed more than his fair share of this court’s and the state’s limited resources,” Bondi’s office argued in opposing the latest delay in his execution. “Lambrix’s inconsistent and changing claims of innocence are not remotely persuasive.”
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Lambrix’s death sentence by a 5-4 margin.
In an opinion written by the late Antonin Scalia, the nation’s highest court ruled that he should die even though his 1984 sentence was based on factors that were later ruled unconstitutional because they were too vague to prevent the death penalty from being imposed arbitrarily.
Death Row longevity
Lambrix has been on Death Row for so long that the FDLE agent who arrested him at the haunted house, Rick Look, died last year in St. Augustine.
The governor who signed his initial death warrant, Bob Martinez, was voted out of office 26 years ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the key 1997 decision, Scalia, died last month.
The decades roll by, and Lambrix remains on Death Row.
At the state prison in Starke, north of Gainesville, all Death Row inmates wear distinctive clothing to set them apart: orange shirt, blue pants.
The color scheme calls to mind a certain university, but prison officials insist that it’s a coincidence.
“I’d like to say it’s because I’m a Gator fan, but it’s not,” Florida State Prison Warden John Palmer said.
Palmer, a 26-year veteran of the prison system, knows “Mike” Lambrix well and calls him a “very respectful” inmate.
Lambrix’s tiny cell is also his 6-foot-by-9-foot law office.
In handwriting so precise that it looks typewritten, he has written thousands of letters and blog posts, made dozens of public records requests, acted as his own lawyer at times and given his version of events in an online book, “To Live and Die on Death Row.”
More than a decade ago, after hearing that Gov. Charlie Crist wanted greater diversity on the bench, Lambrix applied for a Supreme Court vacancy.
He can play chess and Scrabble with fellow inmates and has a 13-inch black-and-white TV set (Death Row inmates can buy one with their own money).
Cable TV is off limits, but Lambrix watches the Florida Channel from a public TV station in Jacksonville and complained that the station didn’t televise recent oral arguments on death penalty cases from the Florida Supreme Court.
“They’re completely focused on legislative sessions,” Lambrix said.
As perhaps the best-known resident of Florida’s Death Row, Lambrix gets mountains of mail, frequent visits from his legal team, gives interviews and is championed by anti-death penalty groups around the world.
He meets regularly with “Brother Dale” Recinella, a spiritual adviser from Tallahassee.
His request to receive the Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion right before his scheduled Feb. 11 execution was at first refused by prison officials who cited fasting regulations, but Corrections Secretary Julie Jones personally approved it, spokesman McKinley Lewis said.
Lambrix’s latest stay of execution is indefinite, with no hearing scheduled.
With his fate in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, Lambrix knows that the execution chamber remains a distinct possibility. He faces it with grim humor and said he would consider asking for “groundhog stew” for his last meal.
“According to Field & Stream magazine, you have to put it in a Crockpot for three days,” Lambrix said. “They can’t kill me till I get my food.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.
Michael Lambrix timeline
1980: Arrested for bounced check in Hillsborough County.
1982: Escapes from work-release program in Lakeland.
1983: Alesiha Bryant and Clarence Moore are murdered in Glades County.
1983: Arrested while working in an Orlando haunted house.
1984: Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.
1986: Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentence, 4 to 3.
1997: U.S. Supreme Court upholds death sentence, 5 to 4.
2015: Gov. Rick Scott signs latest death warrant.
2016: U.S. Supreme Court rules Florida death penalty sentencing system is unconstitutional; Florida Supreme Court postpones his execution.