As it now stands, on February 26 Jeb Bush will give the order to execute Amos King, an inmate on Florida’s death row who seems almost certainly innocent of the murder that put him there. There’s nothing new here. The state of Florida has been trying to kill King for the past 26 years. It is testimony to King’s fortitude and courage that he has survived all previous attempts by the state to take his life. But time is running out.
King was convicted of raping and killing an elderly white woman, Natalie Brady, in March of 1977. He maintains he is innocent. The facts back him up. He claims his trial was a sham. Even a cursory review of the court records reveals this to be a stunning understatement. Even so, the Florida justice system grinds on, as if in killing Amos King it might also extinguish all traces of its grotesque errors.
The case of Amos King encapsulates nearly everything that is wrong with the death penalty: he is a black man in a southern state accused of raping and killing a white woman; he is poor; he was represented by a shoddy lawyer appointed by the court; cops lied on the stand and manufactured evidence; the forensic analysis and autopsy were both botched; the judge kow-towed to the prosecution; the judge, the prosecutor, the public defender and the jury were all white; he is likely innocent of the crime.
“My being on death row all these years, yet not executed by now, represents to many what is wrong with the death penalty and court inefficiency,” says King. “The truth is it represents very poor, ever treacherous legal representation and serious abuse and misconduct by the trial judge and prosecution. It represents the sort of treatment anyone is subject to who can’t hire a good attorney. My case represents the triumph of politics over process. It represents racism. An how it combines with politics in higher places to victimize the weak.”
One of the reasons Amos King is still alive some 26 years after a death sentence was put on his head is that he chose not to stay quiet. He has fought tenaciously for his life and the lives of others in Florida’s grim death house. He has become a jailhouse lawyer, a poet, and an unwavering voice for the condemned.
Indeed, King even made the bloodthirsty Jeb Bush, a man with no detectable conscience, blink. Most recently, King was slated to be executed on December 2, 2002. But a scant 15 minutes before his scheduled execution prison officials interrupted King’s prayer session with Buddhist priest Casey Walpole to tell him that the governor had issued a rare 30-day stay of execution. The stay came at the request of attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, who demanded that the state conduct DNA tests on recently discovered evidence. The fact that there is new evidence in a case from 1977 tells you a lot about how the justice system works in Florida.
There was plenty of reason for Bush to tread with caution. In 2001, Scheck proved that Florida had condemned to death Frank Smith for the murder of Shandra Whitehead, an 8-year old girl. While awaiting execution, Smith died of cancer on death row. Scheck produced DNA evidence that exonerated Smith of the crime. Smith wasn’t alone. Florida leads the nation with 24 death row inmates released after DNA tests proved their innocent. In many of these cases, the state has deliberately concealed evidence proving the innocence of the condemned.
The test results from King’s samples came back a few weeks ago as “inconclusive.” This might convince a fair person that there was more than a reasonable doubt as to Amos King’s guilt. But Jeb Bush is not a fair person. He casually dismissed King’s plea for clemency and reset his appointment with death for February 26.
Let’s revisit what the state claims happened a few hours after midnight on March 18, 1977.
At the time, Amos King was serving a sentence at the Tarpon Springs work release facility for a gun theft charge. The night prior to the murder King was working at a local restaurant. A bed check by prison counselor James McDonough found King missing at around 3:40 am. McDonough said he later found King outside the building with blood on his shirt and with the crotch of his pants dripping with blood. The two men got into a fight. McDonough claimed that King drew a knife and slashed him several times on the hand. King left the office, then returned again to find McDonough talking on the phone with his superior. He supposedly slashed the counselor again and cut the phone cord. Then King fled the scene, ending up at his girlfriend’s house. King later turned himself in for fleeing the work center.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away in an all-white neighborhood the home of Natalie Brady was aflame. When police arrived, they found Brady’s body. She had been raped, beaten and slashed to death with a paring knife. The prosecution alleged that King fled the work center after returning from work, broke into Brady’s house, tortured her, raped her, stabbed her to death, robbed the house and then lit it on fire. Then they added an element of the macabre to the mix. Dr. Joan Wood, the coroner, testified that before she was raped, King jabbed knitting needles into the woman’s vagina, causing a wound that the prosecution said explained the bloody crotch of King’s pants seen by McDonough. The state never produced those pants.
In Florida, the justice system works like a fast-food restaurant. The murder of Natalie Brady occurred on March 18. A grand jury indicted King for the crime less than a month later. The first trial date was set for May 31. It was continued until July 5, only two months after the indictment. The trial, including the death penalty phase, lasted less than three days. King was convicted and sentenced to death on July 8. He was put on death row on July 13, where he has resided ever since-making him the dean of Florida’s death row.
Why did King’s case go to trial so quickly? There’s an unbelievably venal explanation. The presiding judge in the case, Harry Andrews, was in a race with other judges in Florida to preside over the first televised trial in the state. In fact, Judge Andrews moved up the starting time of the trial by a half-day in order to beat another televised trial starting on the same day in Miami.
King’s lead attorney was a public defender and drunk named Thomas Cole. Cole and King knew each other. In fact, Cole had unsuccessfully defended King on the gun theft charges that had landed him in Tarpon Springs. King had criticized his handling of that case and Cole had called him an annoyance. As soon as King learned that Cole had been slated as his lawyer for the Brady murder trial, he petitioned the court to appoint a new lawyer. The court refused.
Cole was totally unprepared for King’s trial. In fact, he only met twice with King before the trial began. Like many public defenders, Cole had been working several other cases at the time. Indeed, the judge in the King trial wanted Cole to try another felony case simultaneously.
In any event, Cole entered the King trial in a state of mental and physical fatigue. On the morning the trial was to begin, Cole asked the judge to remove him from the case. “As an officer of the court, I cannot give Amos King a fair trial today, or this week,” Cole implored. The judge denied his request. During the trial Cole again begged the judge for a recess, saying on the record: “Judge, I am beat. I have to go home and get some sleep.” Later in the trial, Cole announced again that he was exhausted. “I can’t think anymore,” Cole told the judge. Again the judge refused.
If Cole was tired, it wasn’t because he was spending too much time exerting himself in the defense of Amos King. Cole barely roused himself to cross-examine witnesses. He offered only minimal challenges to the most critical (and suspect) pieces of evidence offered by the prosecution. He failed to poke holes in the prosecution’s shifting timeline for the murder, which would have demonstrated it would have been nearly impossible for King to have committed the crime. He didn’t probe the biases of witnesses, including a prison guard with a record of tampering with evidence and fixing polygraph tests. Cole also failed to aggressively pursue the fact that the cops interrogated King without an attorney and without reading him his Miranda rights. Even worse, Cole inexplicably chose not to present exculpatory evidence, such as hair and fiber samples taken from Brady’s nightgown and sheets, that might have cleared King.
Things started to go wrong from the start, beginning with jury selection. In his rush to get on TV, the judge corrupted the jury selection process by combining it with the consolidation of the indictment and the particulars of the charges, a scenario ripe with prejudice. Cole stood mute as the prosecution empanelled a dream jury of 10 women and two men. All white. Average age: 65. This jury of white grannies was ready to consign King to death before the trial even started. In fact, as the trial convened one of the jurors covered her face with her hands, got the attention of the judge, and asked to be given another seat because she was “horrified” of being so close to King.
King was stunned as Cole sat on his hands through the trial, allowing witness to present testimony that veered sharply pre-trial depositions and the known facts of the case. King repeatedly sent messages to the judge challenging Cole’s competency, only to be rebuffed and chided for making a nuisance of himself. “Were I as violent as they portrayed, I would’ve attacked Mr. Cole in the courtroom,” says King.
The jury was primed to convict before opening statements. But they were certainly enticed into voting to King to death by the sensational testimony of the coroner, the infamous Dr. Joan Wood. In the 1977 trial, Wood testified that Brady died between 2:45 and 3:45 am, geared to harmonize with the prison counselor’s testimony that King was missing from his bunk. But six years later Wood backpedaled. In her 1985 testimony, Wood said death could have occurred as early as 1:45 am, when King was working at Nellie Kelly’s restaurant.
At the original trial, Wood also testified that King jabbed knitting needles into Natalie’s Brady’s vagina prior to the rape, opening a bloody gash. There were gasps from the women jurors as Wood described this horrific scene. Wood said she took vaginal washings of blood and semen. This potentially exculpatory evidence has never turned up. The knitting needles themselves didn’t show signs of blood and looked weathered, as if they’d been laying outside for months and not beside the bed of the slain seamstress. Cole, of course, didn’t follow up on these anomalies.
In 1985, Wood recanted this sickening theory. In court, she testified she couldn’t determine what had caused the wound to Brady’s vagina. “Whether the injury to her vagina is only tearing caused by a penis, or whether it is an injury resulting from the insertion into the vagina of some foreign object I can’t say.”
In retrospect, the macabre story of the knitting needles seemed designed only to enflame the fears of the elderly women on the juror. It worked. The deliberations were swift and merciless. When the jurors entered the courtroom to read their verdict they all sported dark sunglasses. A reporter asked them why they were wearing shades. A juror explained that the sunglasses were meant to conceal their sad eyes, reddened by profusive tears for the victim.
As for Wood, she was later run out of office for negligence and providing misleading and false testimony in numerous criminal cases. The Pinellas county attorney Paul McCabe vowed to “review all questionable cases” in which Wood was involved. But despite the dramatic backtracking in her testimony, McCabe didn’t review Wood’s conduct in the case of Amos King.
How bad was Wood? In 1998, one of her autopsies was reviewed by another medical examiner. He found that Wood had misidentified the sex of a dead child and wrongly attributed the cause of death to “blunt head trauma & neck injuries.” In fact, the child had died of pneumonia. The accused was exonerated.
In 1983, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with King that his lawyer Thomas Cole, who died in 1979 car crash, was incompetent. His death sentence was vacated on the grounds that he had received “ineffective assistance of counsel.” In his opinion overturning the death verdict, Federal Appeals Court Judge Paul Roney wrote: “King was convicted on circumstantial evidence which, however strong, leaves room for doubt that a skilled attorney might raise to a sufficient level that, though not enough to defeat conviction, might convince a jury that the ultimate penalty should not be executed.” But even this ruling was absurd. The court ruled that Cole was incompetent, but only overturned King’s death sentence, not his guilty verdict.
So King’s case bounced back and forth from one court to another over the next 20 years. Stays have been granted and overturned. New evidence has come forward; old evidence has been lost. It took King almost 20 years to get a complete trial record and 2,000 new pages showed up days after the stay of execution had been granted. Lawyers and judges came and went. One judge was disqualified for bias. In the 1985 retrial on the death verdict, King, unable to offer evidence of innocence, was sentenced to death once again. Last year, King ended up in the courtroom of Judge Susan Shaeffer, who greeted him with an outrageous salutation. “Why aren’t you dead yet?” Shaeffer taunted. “Why are you still alive?” It turns out that Shaeffer had been a colleague of Thomas Cole in the Pinellas county public defenders office. Welcome to the criminal justice system in Florida, where judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors are all members of the same grim fraternity.
The answer to Shaeffer’s horrific question is simple when you get to know the kind of man Amos King is. Despite facing a stacked deck in a state that places no value on the life a black inmate, he has never stopped fighting for his life and fighting to expose the malign system that is conspiring to extinguish it.
King is almost certainly innocent of the crime for which Jeb Bush seems intent on putting him to death. But it shouldn’t matter. The history of his case starkly illustrates the unspeakable cruelty of the nation’s death penalty system, where people are killed with barely a ripple crossing the conscience of the state or the press. King’s execution has been set and reset numerous times. He has been saved from the death needle with only fifteen minutes to spare and then told he will face its lethal spike once again. This is a kind of mental torture that few of us can comprehend and few other societies tolerate. He watched helplessly as his botched, fast-forwarded trial was declared to be fair over and over again. He witnessed his own alcoholic lawyer slump through his trial as if suffering a 3-day hangover. He has seen officers of the court lie, cops and the coroner fabricate evidence and the press demands his head, instead of exposing the corruption at the heart of the case. He never got a jury of his peers. Not even one juror. But still, at this late hour, he cries out for justice.
This is what it’s come to. We live in an age of casual barbarity, where we tolerate humanitarian bombings and embrace politicians who send people to death as a demonstration of their machismo. Don’t look too closely at the way this all works, because you’ll be forever repulsed by what you see. For this isn’t a justice system; it’s a bloody sewer.
Please spare a moment to help spare Amos King’s life. Send Jeb Bush an email demanding that he stop the execution of Amos King.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org