|Copyright Times Publishing Co. Jul 11, 2004
Before the state takes a life, which it does in
your name and mine, it should be clear to a moral certainty that the
prisoner is guilty and that he is among the worst of the worst.
Florida has been moving in that direction for a
long time, but we're not there yet. A case in point is that of
Michael Lambrix, who was condemned 20 years ago for the deaths of a
man and woman near Fort Myers. The state claimed he killed them to
take their car. His story is that the man killed the woman and that
he killed the man while trying to save her. For reasons that only
lawyers understand, Lambrix has never been able to tell it to a
He was once a day away from the electric chair when
a stay came through. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court said that
sentencing proceedings like his weren't fair, but when he asked for
the same break the court held 5-4 that because he had already lost
his direct appeal the "new rule" did not apply.
A few months after that, the Florida Supreme Court
ruled against him a seventh time and he wanted a new lawyer. So he
wrote to Gov. Lawton Chiles. Sign my death warrant, he said. Set my
execution date. That will make them find me a new lawyer.
When I last wrote about him, it was to deplore the
inhuman hypertechnicality of a judiciary that would let one man die
under circumstances identical to those under which it spared
The Lambrix case has now taken an even stranger
It brings to mind why smart cops and prosecutors
have a saying that to sleep with a witness is to mess up the case.
(That is not the precise phraseology, but this is a family
newspaper, not the well of the U.S. Senate.)
At a hearing before a circuit judge three months
ago, a witness who was instrumental in sending Lambrix to death row
said under oath that she was having a brief affair with a lead
investigator during the prosecution. The witness, Frances
Smith-Ottinger, had been Lambrix's girlfriend, was caught driving
the stolen car, and for a time was a suspect herself.
No one else knew about the alleged affair when
Lambrix was tried. Had his attorneys known, they could have used it
to attack her testimony. The average time from conviction to
execution is 11.85 years, and if the state had succeeded in killing
Lambrix that quickly no one would know now.
"There were some rumors about this that came to
light," says Dan Hallenberg, Lambrix's lawyer from the Capital
Collateral regional office at Fort Lauderdale. "We simply asked her,
I expected her to deny it, everybody's mouth dropped open."
What's more, there's a second witness who says
under oath that she lied at the trial to make it look as if Lambrix
killed in cold blood to steal the car. That witness, Deborah Hanzel,
says in a sworn affidavit that she lied about what Lambrix told her
in a telephone conversation. She says she lied because
Smith-Ottinger put her up to it.
"Because of the stories the police and Francis
Smith were telling me about Mr. Lambrix," she said in an affidavit,
"I was convinced that he likely would come after my children and me
. . ." So she let Smith persuade her to "back up her story by
telling the police that Mr. Lambrix told me that he killed the
people in order to steal their car. . . .
"When I asked Frances if that was what really
happened, she told me she didn't really know what happened outside
but that Mr. Lambrix had told her that the guy went nuts and he had
to hit him."
It would be an understatement to call this a
messed-up case. With so much in doubt about it, how could anyone
still insist on Lambrix's execution?
Yet the game goes on. The state is concededing
nothing. From its viewpoint, witnesses who say now that they were
lying then could as easily be lying now.
"I don't think the taxpayers would want to pay for
an entire new trial when there was no constitutional error committed
in the trial in 1984," says Carol Dittmar, the assistant attorney
general in charge of the case. "If you give him a new trial, you're
giving him a chance to litigate another 20 years in postconviction.
I don't think that's a good way to spend taxpayer money."
Maybe not. But if the judge decides that
Smith-Ottinger is telling the truth about the affair - the former
investigator, Robert Daniels, hasn't been heard from yet - it seems
to me there would remain only one decent alternative to a new trial.
That would be to offer Lambrix a plea bargain. His case has its own
holes, chiefly that he did bury the bodies and did take off with the
car. His excuse, that he was technically an escapee, having walked
away from a work release center on a forgery conviction, might not
be persuasive with a jury.
But neither does it prove that he killed in cold
blood, or that this case merits the death penalty more than the 99
percent of homicides in which it is not sought or imposed.
It is cases like this that reiterate a fundamental
question: Is capital punishment worth whatever good anyone thinks it