When I was 28 years old, I returned to school “to make something of my life.” (Translation: I was tired of working a Monday-Friday 9-5 job that was going nowhere, I was single, and I thought going to school would be more fun than continuing to work for a corporate conglomerate.)
Getting a bachelor’s degree would have been the easiest thing to do, but I already had one that I wasn’t using, so there was no need to add another to my collection of worthless documents. An acquaintance had recently completed law school and he told me that it was a great experience, great fun, and not that difficult. I’ve always had an aptitude for academics things, provided that they interest me. I thought I could probably perform at least at a mediocre level, so . . . why not? I really had very little understanding of what lawyer’s actually do on a daily basis but I could address that problem later, so . . . I took the LSAT and applied to law school.
I received my bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and I forever have felt a great loyalty to the school, so I decided that was where I wanted to attend. That was the end of that question. I knew where I would attend law school; now, I just needed to actually get accepted by the law school admissions committee.
I did reasonably well on the LSAT, I had some friends who told the usual lies on my letters of recommendation, my undergraduate GPA was reasonably good for a science major, and the admissions committee liked candidates who had been out of school for a few years, so I was accepted. I packed my bags and moved back to Tallahassee.
My friend was right. Law school was a great experience. I was surrounded by bright, motivated students and a good faculty. I had great fun. Bering a law student makes a guy suddenly become a much more attractive prospect for dating and I began fraternizing with the opposite gender on a regular basis. And, as promised, law school was not THAT difficult. I had to do more work than I did as an undergraduate, but if I spent two hours a day studying, I kept up with my classes and I stayed in the top 20% of my class.
At the end of my first year, I applied for an internship in the Legislature, which was only three blocks from the law school. It was a great deal for me; in exchange for 24 hours of work per week, it paid my books and tuition, and paid me an amount equivalent to $1,400 per month in today’s dollars. Apparently, conservative law students were a hot commodity and the Minority Office (Republican leadership) of the House offered me a position which I immediately accepted.
When I started working in the Minority Office, I learned that the preceding intern in that office had been selected as an official witness for an execution at the state prison in Raiford. The idea of witnessing an execution immediately intrigued me. I had no sick desire to watch someone die but I did have a desire to become a prosecutor, and . . . if I had a successful career as a prosecutor, I would probably be involved in the prosecution of murder cases where the death penalty was a possibility. I thought that it would be hypocritical to ask a jury to recommend the death penalty if it was something that I thought was too horrific for me to actually witness.
The position that I held as an intern was not a lofty position, but in state government, everyone knows that you should show great deference to anyone associated with the Legislature because that is where the money comes from! The Department of Corrections understood these “facts of life” and, when I wrote to the Secretary of the Department asking to be included on the list of official witnesses for a future execution, I got a prompt reply assuring me that I would be listed for the next execution.
I quickly determined that the next prisoner scheduled for execution was Timothy C. Palmes. All appeals in death penalty cases in Florida are handled by the Florida Supreme Court, which is across the street from the legislative offices in the Capitol. The records in all appeals are public records. I went to the Supreme Court, requested the record, and read the transcript from the trial of State vs. Palmes.
Palmes was on probation for manslaughter at the time of his most recent offense. He was unemployed and living with Jane Albert and her 7 year old daughter, Stephanie. Albert had a job working at Stone’s Furniture, an independent furniture retailer in downtown Jacksonville. Mr. Stone did his own financing for people who could not otherwise qualify for credit and he needed someone to collect his past due accounts. Palmes asked for the job but Stone knew that Palmes was as bad as bad new gets and he didn’t want to be associated with Palmes in any way. Palmes was one of those guys who didn’t handle rejection very well. He decided to kill Stone.
Palmes and his friend – Ronald Straight - began to plan their crime. They would have the girlfriend invite Stone to the apartment on the pretext of introducing him to one of Albert’s female friends. They would kill Stone in the apartment, steal his car, steal whatever else they could, and flee the state. Palmes and Straight purchased some plywood and other materials and built a plywood box in which to put the body.
On the morning of the crime, Albert went to work and left her daughter with Palmes and Straight. Stone arrived at the apartment and his fate was sealed. For the next 30 minutes, Palmes and Straight slowly killed Stone. They gagged him, bound his hands and feet with wire, placed a plastic bag over his head, and put him in the plywood box. For about 30 minutes they beat him with a hammer, cut off several of his fingers and tortured him. The two of them used a butcher’s knife and machete to stab Stone 18 times. Seven year old Stephanie was a witness to the gruesome ordeal. Meanwhile, Albert took $2,800 from the store’s cash receipts.
That night, Palmes and Straight put the box in a van and dumped it in the St. Johns River. They took Stone’s car and the four of them (Palmes, Straight, Albert, and her daughter) left the state. They were arrested in California about one week later. At trial, Palmes was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by electrocution.
This case was the poster child for the death penalty. Palmes had previously received leniency in his manslaughter conviction. He built a box for the body before the murder was committed; it was impossible to suggest that the murder was not premeditated. There was no pretext of moral justification, no suggestion that Palmes was acting in the heat of the moment. It was a horrible death for Stone and it was committed under circumstances that made an innocent 7 year old child a witness to a most extreme example of man’s inhumanity.
The execution was initially scheduled for Tuesday, November 6, 1984. On Monday, November 5, I received a phone call informing me that a temporary stay had been issued. On Wednesday, I received another phone call. The US Supreme Court had rejected Palmes’ final appeal and the execution was rescheduled for Thursday, November 8.
The execution was scheduled for 10 AM and I was requested to be at the prison by 8 AM. I set my alarm for 4:30 am, awoke, showered, put on a navy blue suit, got in my car, and headed for Raiford. As I was making my preparations, Palmes also was making his preparations. He had visited with his mother, sisters, and nieces until 1 AM, then ate his final meal at 4:30 am. He sat in a cell about 30 feet from the death chamber as he ate a T-bone steak, eggs, hash brown potatoes, biscuits, orange juice and coffee.
When I arrived, I parked and entered the visitors’ entrance. I was escorted to an inmate cafeteria which was several hundred yards from the visitors’ entrance. The prison was on lockdown; every prisoner was locked up in their cell and there was absolutely no possibility that I would ever see any prisoner other than Palmes. At several points we passed through doors which automatically closed after we passed. Just as in the movies, the doors banged shut and the noise reverberated through the otherwise quiet and empty corridors.
In the cafeteria, I was shown the selection of complimentary doughnuts and coffee. I don’t remember what I was expecting to encounter that morning but I’m sure my expectations didn’t include free doughnuts and coffee. I was present to witness an execution, the intentional ending of a human life, the ultimate price extracted by society, precipitated by extremely barbaric and vicious atrocities. I was here to witness an extremely unusual and controversial event and to help ne to prepare for what I was about to witness, I was given doughnuts.
I was the last witness to arrive; the other eleven witnesses were already present. I don’t remember having much conversation with the others. What do you say at an execution? “Hi, how’s your football team doing this year?”
I remember observing ashtrays obviously made by the inmates from scrap pieces of construction lumber. I had never before been in a state prison and the sights and sounds were all new to me. My brain was trying to make sense of all of this sensory input but I could only conclude that in the world of surreal occurrences, I had reached the platinum level.
After about an hour of waiting, we were escorted outside and placed in two vans which drove us to a remote part of the prison where the death chamber was located. We entered the building and found ourselves in the witnesses’ portion of the chamber. There were two rows of folding white chairs arranged for us. The witness chamber was separated from the adjoining room by large glass panels. I was seated in the front row. A brief explanation of the mechanics of the event was given and then we waited.
Palmes was led into the chamber, placed in the electric chair, and immediately strapped in place so that it was impossible for him to make any movement other than the slightest gestures with his hands. The movements of the staff in accomplishing this were obviously well rehearsed.
The warden was present and standing to the right of the electric chair (nicknamed “Old Sparky” and built in my hometown in 1924.) On the wall behind the warden were three phones, one connected to the Florida Supreme Court, one connected to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and one connected to the US Supreme Court. If any court issued a last minute stay, one of those phones would ring and the warden would be advised to stop the proceedings.
There was a momentary blink in the room’s lights. I was told that, for executions, the prison switched from the local utility to a generator on the prison grounds. This insulated the utility from getting caught up in any protests or legal proceedings involving executions. It also eliminated the possibility that death penalty protesters would target the utility for sabotage as a means of stopping an execution.
As soon as Palmes was strapped in, one wire was connected to his left leg and the other was connected to a leather harness/strap which was placed on Palmes’ head. A safety switch behind the electric chair was in the “off” position, ensuring that the staff connecting the device to Palmes would not be accidentally electrocuted during that process.
After the apparatus was connected, the switch behind the chair was placed in the “on” position. This did not start the procedure because one more switch needed to be activated and that was in the executioner’s chamber, adjacent to the room where the chair was located. A horizontal slit in the wall allowed the executioner to receive instructions from the warden.
The executioner entered the room via the same door through which Palmes had been brought in. I remember imagining the horror that I would be experiencing if I was the one sitting in Old Sparky! The executioner had a black mask and hood on his head. His manner of dress gave no clue to his identity, but he was an imposing figure. He immediately went into his separate chamber and that was the last that I saw of the executioner.
The warden read the death warrant which had been signed by the governor. He then asked Palmes if he had any final statement to make. The inmate nodded affirmatively and the warden held a microphone in front of Palmes’ so that all of us witnesses could hear his statement. ''My family's love has been my strength. That's all. Goodbye.''
The warden lowered a leather drape over Palmes’ face and then he nodded at the executioner. Within a few seconds, it was obvious that the last switch had been energized and a powerful electric current had taken control of Palmes’ body. His body lurched into a stiff position and then remained frozen in that posture. The current was applied at varying levels for a period of approximately 30 seconds and then it was turned off. As soon as the current stopped, the body slumped down into the chair.
In the death chamber, the safety switch was also turned off. A physician approached Palmes, placed a stethoscope on his chest, and felt for a carotid pulse. After a few moments, the doctor looked at the warden and nodded affirmatively, indicating that Palmes was dead.
“The sentence in the State of Florida versus Timothy Charles Palmes has been carried out. Please exit through the door at the rear of the room.”
We emerged into bright sunlight and it was momentarily overwhelming . . . as if we needed one more thing to make us feel overwhelmed. I was still processing what I had just seen. From what I could observe, I didn’t think that death by electrocution was an unnecessarily cruel procedure.
I was not consumed with thoughts about executions but simply thoughts about death. I had never previously witnessed anyone die. I was looking at this man one minute and he was living, breathing, talking; the next minute he was dead. All of this was so unnecessary, so easily avoided, so stupid! Life is fragile. One day, I will die. One minute, I’ll be breathing and the next minute, I’ll be dead. I really try to never think about it.
I got in my car and drove to Jacksonville. As I exited the prison parking lot, I passed the death penalty protestors who were kept at a distance from the prison. Their protests were heard by virtually no one and their efforts had no effect on anything. I also passed death penalty supporters who were cheering. More insanity!
I met my brother for lunch and we talked about what I had witnessed. I drowned my sorrows in barbecue. Later, I watched the television reports of the execution. Palmes, by all indications, was a world class worthless son of a bitch and he was being made famous. This was perfectly consistent with the remainder of the absurd day I had experienced.
One year later, I did an internship in the state attorney’s office, and I prosecuted a few felony cases, but interns don’t prosecute murder cases. I never got a job as a prosecutor. For thirty years, I have practiced law but I don’t handle criminal cases. I could but I choose not to do so.
In 1992, I held my uncle’s hand as he took his last breath. He had fought a valiant battle with cancer of the bladder but the grim reaper ultimately prevailed. His second wife had predeceased him and his two children were alienated from him; he was alone, except for his four nephews who lived nearby. He was a good man but he died and the world didn’t notice. No one cared. There was no story on the six o’clock news for a good man who had departed this world.
In 2007, I spent Christmas Eve sleeping in a chair in my father’s hospital room; I knew he didn’t have much longer to live. He died on December 30 while I was sitting on the edge of his bed. By this time, I was a bit older and a bit wiser and I was more prepared to handle death. Death is something I just don't want to think about, so my coping mechanisms included denial and Glenfiddich. .
This year, in the month of March, I attended three funerals. All three of the dearly departed were wonderful people. They were people who will be sorely missed. Attending those funerals helped me to understand something about death: you can’t prevent it from eventually catching up with you, but you can live your life to the best of your abilities. You can hope that your life inspires others in some way, that they will incorporate something about your beliefs and values, and that some part of you lives on in the lives of others. Don’t leave a good looking corpse; leave good looking memories!
I hope that you have many years before you must contemplate the frailty of our existence, the temporary nature of our time on planet Earth. There’s nothing you can do about it, but you can lead a good life and be proud of the legacy which you will leave behind.
In the meanwhile, of course, I also highly recommend denial and Glenfiddich (but not too much!)