Part 3: 'We feel like lepers,' an inmate's family falls into its own prison

Unsplashed background img 1

Death Row inmate Timothy Hurst has lived on death row for half the time Mike Lambrix has. But for a year now, the former has been at the center of Lambrix’s life.

Lambrix's execution was called off because, on Jan. 12, 2016 in the case of Hurst v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the way Florida sentences people to death is unconstitutional.

Because Mike Lambrix was next to die when the Supreme Court decision came down, for the past year all these questions about whom the Hurst decision applies to and how have been at the center of his life.

“It is all but almost certain that I probably would be dead right now if not for Hurst,” said Lambrix. "But at the same time I really hate Hurst."

Lambrix falls into the group of prisoners who don’t automatically get a chance to be resentenced because he was condemned to death before 2002. He’s challenging that.

“It's easy for those outside of the circle to say, “Hey great, you've got a life sentence.” Well, life is not that great. And so, you know, as I said, I'm conflicted about the Hurst issue. On one hand it may very well have saved my life and given me more time to fight the fight that I really want to fight.”

The fight he really wants to fight is to prove his innocence.

In 1984 at his second trial, Lambrix was convicted of murdering two people in Glades County, Florida. Prosecutors say he strangled a woman to death and killed her boyfriend by hitting him in the head with a tire iron. He hid the bodies and fled.

Lambrix doesn’t deny that he was involved in these deaths, but he says it didn’t happen the way prosecutors told the story. Lambrix says he hit the guy in the head to stop him from strangling the woman. Lambrix says he didn’t touch her.

The prosecution connected the death to Lambrix based on witness testimony. A woman who Lambrix was hanging out with was arrested later and offered her testimony. She later said she had had an affair with the prosecution’s lead investigator, an allegation he denies and the court threw out.

Before one of his trials, Lambrix said prosecutors offered him a deal. If he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, they’d give him a less than 30-year prison sentence. Lambrix would have walked free years ago.

So for 33 years, Lambrix has been trying to get the courts to hear evidence to support his side of the story. This is the fight the ongoing litigation over Hurst may give him time to pursue.

Technically, he still has a signed death warrant. The document doesn’t really expire.

“Tomorrow I could be right back down there on Death Watch again,” said Lambrix.

The U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t very clear at the time, says former state Justice Charley Wells, so he said the court did its best to interpret the ruling in Ring v. Arizona.

“And I am really critical of the U.S. Supreme Court for not being more definitive,” said Justice Wells. “You're always grappling when there is a change in the law with how does that affect the cases that have been tried under the existing law. And that just sets up a conundrum when you're dealing with death. “

Fast forward 14 years to the Hurst v. Florida decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that their 2002 decision about who can sentence someone to death did apply to Florida. In practical terms, it means that the state’s death penalty has essentially been unconstitutional since 2002.

Death Row routine

In the meantime, Lambrix has been moved off Death Watch. He is not in Cell 1 anymore. He is back with the others on Death Row and he has tried to go back to as much of a daily routine as he can.

He gets up between 4:30 and 5 in the morning with a cup of coffee, “like every person's day always should.”

Then he watches the news, ABC first and then he channel surfs. After that, around 9 a.m., he starts reading “while it's still quiet because most everybody else around me is still asleep,” said Lambrix.

Sometimes Lambrix does what he calls “dreams and schemes,” where he designs imaginary houses to get his mind out of the prison and his imagination flowing.

Lambrix reads and writes prolifically. He’s written or contributed to a half-dozen books. He sends essays and updates to a friend who publishes them on a blog because there’s no access to computers on Death Row. He corresponds with people all over the world, some of whom visit.

Words seem to give him a kind of freedom. He gets to rail against what he sees as injustices. He regularly documents his life on Death Row. And he often uses words to lend poetry to his surroundings.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his blog posts.

"May 1, 2010 When I look out the dusty window on the outer catwalk of this cellblock, I can see a patch of green grass between the [prison] wings and I try to remember what it felt like to stand barefoot on the grass, to feel the blades of grass beneath my feet and how it would give way as I took each step. But it has been too many years now since I felt the touch of grass and although I can still describe how it might have felt like, I cannot really remember or imagine how it actually felt to the touch."

Sometimes Lambrix will listen to music on his mp3 player; Jewel and Train are his go-to right now.

Lunch comes sometime between 11 and noon.

“The state food's not exactly… the Holiday Inn. So most of us will buy things like ramen soups off the canteen with the spicy soups and little packs of refried beans with jalapenos,” said Lambrix. “So we'll take whatever we can salvage off the tray, you know, whether it be rice or noodles or beans or whatever and mix it all up and make your own little soup. And then, of course, to cook it… we obviously don't have stoves or anything, so you have to run the hot water in the sink for a little bit to where it's hot. So that's what I call my crockpot.”

After lunch, more writing, mostly letters. Death Row inmates get three showers a week. Afterwards he starts watching TV at around 8 p.m.

“I watch way too much TV,” said Lambrix.

Prisoners have their own TVs in their cells and they have to plug headphones in to listen. But, some shows, PBS nature shows in particular, they will watch together at the same time.

“And then guys talk about it,” said Lambrix, “throughout the day, from noon all the way up until late evening, we talk to each other.”

They have these conversations through the bars, up and down the corridor. They talk about all kinds of things - politics, foreign policy, criminal justice.

“I've been saying for years they need to create a Death Row think tank,” said Lambrix. “Perhaps not always [with] the best of solutions, but pretty much every world problem’s been solved on Death Row already.”

It’s all about trying to get your head out of the 6- by 9-foot prison cell.

Feeling like a leper

“We don't make real close friends. We kind of stay more to ourselves with the family,” says Lorita Yeafoli.

Lambrix's mom, Lorita Yeafoli, usually visits him on Saturdays, sometimes with one of his sisters or his stepdad.

“You know it's just family talking and when he gets smart mouthed, I put him in this place,” said Yeafoli.

They buy him food from the canteen on their visits: two cheeseburgers, ice cream, potato chips and pineapple orange juice.

Lambrix will fill them in on what’s going on with his case, which can sometimes get hard when he’s lost an appeal or been denied a hearing.

It’s clear when talking with him and his family that everyone is trying to put on a good face. Sometimes his family learns more about what Lambrix feels by reading his blog

"May 1, 2010, After more than a quarter of a century now in continuous solitary confinement on Florida’s Death Row… I’ve spent my share of time contemplating that inevitable question of whether I might have gone insane – and if I had not already crossed over that bridge of no return, when would I?"

Yeafoli is constantly waiting to hear news about Lambrix’s case or some other case that could impact his. She watches Florida Supreme Court hearings on the death penalty and scrutinizes their questions to see if there’s any indication on how the justices might feel about the issue.

While she and the rest of the family help Lambrix get away from the routine of prison, his mom has felt more and more imprisoned.

She and Mike’s stepdad John moved from California to Florida to be closer to the prison.

“We don't make real close friends. We kind of stay more to ourselves with the family,” said Yeafoli. “Because if we become real close friends with somebody and we have to tell them [about Lambrix], we know they may walk away. In California, when we mentioned we’re coming [over] here because of this, we had a lot of friends that kind of didn’t want to be near us or didn't want to say anything and just kind of drifted away.”

She says it feels like being a leper. "If you are a leper, you are not going to contaminate anybody purposely, but they are afraid of you. You just get the glances and you get kind of a cold shoulder or you get less invites to places. So we don't talk about our private life that much."

“We’ve had churches that say that they believe in the death penalty and all this and we walked away,” said Yeafoli. “We tell the pastor when we go in, we want him to know that this is what we have in our life, what we're dealing with. And we ask him point blank what their views are. And some say, ‘Oh well, I'm not for the death penalty.’ But then when they get in the pulpit they're saying something else and that's when we leave.”

She says they haven’t been going to church lately, since Lambrix was put on Death Watch. They just didn’t want to deal with any additional stress.

And so Yeafoli has retreated into the family. And it’s not like she and her husband are natural homebodies.

John is a Korean War veteran. He and Lorita used to be very involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Disabled American Veterans charity. They served as various chairs locally and regionally in California.

"I just keep praying that he'll win"

Lorita used to support the death penalty before everything happened with her son.

“I listened to the news and I read the papers and my biggest thing was anybody that injured a child,” said Yeafoli. “If they hurt a child, they're not even human. So, the death penalty should apply. And then I went and understood it more.”

She says she recognizes the pain and the anger of victims’ families. But now that it’s her son, she doesn’t think the death penalty is the answer.

“I just keep praying that he'll win,” said Yeafoli. “I hope all of them win, really. There might be some that [people] think deserve it more than the others, but I'm against the death penalty.”

“If any woman has sat anywhere near one of her children and known that they're dying from something,” explains Yeafoli, “then they can relate to what I'm going through. Because, every time I see my son it may be my last time. And that rips out part of a mother's heart and part of her soul.”

Now, she considers herself friends with a lot of the others guys on Death Row. She sees them during visits with Mike; she’s friendly with their wives and girlfriends. They’re really some of the few people who actually understand what it’s like for her.

Before Lambrix’s execution got put on hold, he had to talk arrangements with his mom. She would get his remains, cremated. The family has a burial site for cremains, because that was the plan for her and John.

It’s not something she likes to think—or talk—about much. But for Lambrix, living in a place named for their sentence, he thinks about it a lot.

“I've actually had dreams of [being executed],” said Lambrix. “I think about it, I’ve played it out in my own mind, I've written about it. I think what troubles me the most about the process is that it just, it's just too easy. It compromises the sense that you're taking a human life... I personally think that every execution should be televised live.”

He’s thinking people should be more aware of what actually happens in that moment, not in an abstract sense, but in a very real way.