FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The two prisons that house men on Florida’s death row stand on a pleasant two-lane road that runs past farms and cow pastures about 30 miles north of Gainesville.
Union Correctional Institution and Florida State Prison, low-rise complexes surrounded by fences, razor-wire and flat open fields, are the most likely destinations for Nikolas Cruz if a jury sentences the confessed Parkland school killer to death.
For most of Florida’s 307 death row inmates, who are pursuing appeals that can take a decade or more to inch through the courts, a death sentence means years on death row, with the vast majority of that time spent alone in 6-by-9-foot cells.
“Imagine being in your bathroom,” said David Martin, 36, convicted in 2009 of beating his girlfriend to death with a hammer, one of two death row inmates at Union who agreed to interviews with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “You can’t leave. You live in the bathroom. You sleep 2 feet away from your toilet. No air conditioning, which means there’s windows open and ants and mosquitoes and other bugs. Some days get really hot. It’s hard to sleep on a damp bed.”
The day begins with breakfast at 5 a.m., delivered on a tray. Each inmate has a 13-inch black-and-white TV without cable and a computer tablet for reading, movies and solitary video games. Lunch arrives from 10:30-11 a.m. and dinner from 4-4:30 p.m. They can shower every other day and receive a certain number of hours per week of outdoor recreation. Inmates may buy snacks and keep them in their cells.
Until the recent settlement of a lawsuit, which accused the state of Florida of inhumanely subjecting death row inmates to solitary confinement, inmates spent their time alone, able to talk to nearby inmates only through the bars of their cells. Now they get a few hours of “day room” time with other inmates every six days, with plans to expand that to up to five days a week, with three to four hours there per day.
Executions, held only at Florida State Prison, are rare. The last one took place in 2019, when a lethal injection was administered to Gary Ray Bowles, known as the I-95 killer for his 1994 murders of six gay men in North Florida. One other person was executed in Florida that year.
As the days tick by toward an execution date that may never arrive, life passes slowly.
“One client told me, ‘Listen, if I could kill myself and get away with it, I’d do it,’” said Terence Lenamon, a Miami criminal defense lawyer who has represented several death row inmates. “‘But I can’t figure out how to do it, because if I do it and they take everything away from me, strip you down, and then you’re locked up with nothing.’ I just think it’s the isolation. A lot of these guys have mental health issues.”
Daily life on death row
When David Martin arrived on death row in 2010, he said he felt anxious about mixing with other murderers. But he said fellow inmates supplied him with shorts, shower shoes, coffee, toothpaste and other personal items, passing them between the bars of their cells.
“You might not think there’s nice people here,” he said. “There’s nice people. People try to help each other. Try to give good advice. If someone needs something, someone else has got it. We look out for each other.”
Asked how he would respond to people who said if he didn’t want to be there, he shouldn’t have done what he did, he said, “They’re right.”
He’s made friends, he said, largely by talking to other inmates on his wing of the prison.
“Our cell fronts are open, just open bars, so we can talk to whoever’s on the wing,” he said. “There’s 14 of us. And if I want to, I can talk in my vent in the back of the cell and talk to the guys on the other wing. I can’t see them. I can only see them when I go to the day room or to the yard.”
With his best friend, a man named Matt, he said: “We talk a lot about music, talk a lot about his kids. He gave up his appeals, and I’d like to slap him for that, but I’m not allowed to. He tries to convert me to Christianity, and I don’t do it.”
School shooter faces death penalty
Whether the Parkland killer joins them will be up to a jury currently hearing testimony in Fort Lauderdale, in a trial devoted solely to whether Cruz should get death or life in prison without possibility of parole. He has already pleaded guilty to murdering 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, and wounding 17 others.
He would be the youngest person on death row. The youngest current inmate is Michael Bargo, 30, convicted of shooting to death a 15-year-old boy in Marion County. Bargo, who was 18 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to death in 2013 and resentenced in 2019.
Cruz appears well-informed about what could await him on death row, judging from summaries of recorded phone calls and visits at his current home in the Broward County Main Jail.
During one call, he described researching how much “rec time he will get when he gets there,” according to summaries by the Broward Sheriff’s Office released to the South Florida Sun Sentinel under the state’s public records law. On another call, he mentioned getting his own iPad to watch movies.
Having received financial donations from supporters throughout his confinement at the county jail, Cruz may find he has ample funds on death row to buy moves over the internet and snacks from the prison canteen.
After one supporter told him he shouldn’t get the death penalty, he said, “I think I deserve it. I’m not going to lie.”
If Cruz does go to death row, he will join men responsible for some of the most notorious murders in recent Florida history.
Current death row residents include Rory Conde, the Tamiami Strangler, who killed six prostitutes in the mid-1990s; Gerhard Hojan, who shot to death two employees of a Waffle House in Davie during a robbery, firing after one woman begged for mercy; Howard Steven Ault, a Fort Lauderdale man who raped an 11-year-old girl in front of her 7-year-old sister before strangling them both; and Randy Tundidor, who kidnapped his landlord, a Nova Southeastern University professor, as well as the professor’s wife and son, then stabbed him to death as he pleaded for his life.
There are 304 men and three women on Florida’s death row, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. The women are housed at Lowell Annex near Ocala.
Lawsuit leads to improved conditions
Conditions on death row have begun to change. In April a federal judge approved the settlement of a lawsuit between death row inmates and the Florida Department of Corrections, which requires the department to create “day rooms” for prisoners to gather for scheduled periods of time together. The rooms have a TV, chairs and a kiosk for downloading movies and other web materials onto their tablets.
“It’s a tenet of our legal system that no matter what anyone’s done, they deserve humane treatment,” said Evan Shea, a partner in the law firm Venable LLC, who led the legal effort. “Now it’s changed over time what we define humane treatment as, and what the courts have found in the last decade or two is that what we’ve learned about prolonged isolation is that it’s not humane. Just like we wouldn’t — no matter what anyone’s done — we wouldn’t torture them or subject them to other kinds of torment, we shouldn’t subject them to this kind of psychological torment.”
The worst thing on death row is the boredom, said William Silvia Jr., convicted of shooting his ex-wife to death in Winter Park with a shotgun.
“I usually sit around and watch television,” said Silvia, seated in a wheelchair because of arthritis in his spine. “Read. Other guys exercise in their cell. I obviously cannot do that.”
He uses his tablet to play video games and listen to music, mostly country and classic rock.
Breakfast that day was “some kind of meat stuff and two squares that are supposed to be biscuits but they’re not. Corn grits. Sliced potatoes that aren’t cooked all the way.”
At the new day room, he can use the kiosk to download movies but can’t often do so because of the cost.
“You have to, of course, pay for it,” he said. “It depends on what the movie is. The newest movies are like eight dollars.”
The difficult path to a death sentence
When convicted killer John Spenkelink went to the electric chair in 1979, Florida became the first state to execute an inmate against their will since the reinstatement of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the electric chair remains at Florida State Prison, condemned inmates now get a choice between electrocution and lethal injection.
The number of convicts sent to death row in Florida has declined sharply, but the state still has the second-largest death row population in the United States after California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
For most of state history, a jury could recommend a death sentence, but the final decision was up to a judge.
But now, since a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and action by the state Legislature, a death sentence may be imposed only by a jury, and the decision must be unanimous. That requirement means a single dissenting juror can prevent a death sentence, imposing a high bar on prosecutors as they attempt to make the case for death.
Despite the strict conditions on death row, its individual cells can represent an improvement for some inmates over life in the general prison population. They get TVs and can avoid the stress of interacting with other prisoners.
“They have their individual rooms,” said Lenamon, the Miami defense lawyer. “They don’t have to deal with other people’s personalities. I think the state has figured out a good way to keep these people alive so they could face the ultimate sanction. It’s very tight, very strict and you don’t see a lot of violence.”
So strong was the appeal of death row that William Wells, dubbed the Monster of Mayport for murdering five people and leaving their decomposing bodies in his mobile home, decided to kill two inmates just to upgrade his life term to a death sentence.
“He killed a whole bunch of people including his wife, so he goes to prison, and every day he gets the blues, so he decides to kill somebody,” said Lenamon, who represented the current death row inmate. “He found a way to kill somebody, went to trial, got life, and then he went and killed somebody else and he got death finally. And he wanted death because he wanted to go to death row because they’re the only ones allowed TV. He was focused on getting a TV.”