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Sarasota mon amour.


In the early winter of 1990, I decided to write a novel set in Florida--a courtroom drama. What fascinated me was the power given to (and taken by) Florida judges that enabled them to overturn a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and instead levy the death penalty. "Fry the sucker!" -- in proper judicial language, of course, although the convicted man really fried. In fact, later in the spring, in Raiford's electric chair, the head of one man burst into flames three times. Floridians, on the whole, seemed to be gripped by the spectacle, as the English had been by public hangings. ("We hang at eight; breakfast at nine," read the invitations in London.) Someone told me a former governor had earned the nickname "Barbecue Bob" and the current governor was envious.

No grotesque pun intended, this was good meat for fiction. I had just written a novel about a Texas criminal defense lawyer ("Trial," New York: Summit Books, 1990), and I was pleased with the outcome. Do it again, I thought, but set it elsewhere, make the theme richer. Writing a novel from some kind of inner need (as opposed to writing a potboiler for money) is an adventure, a trek into terra incognita both physical and emotional. Should be, anyway. No fun if you just go round the block again in your own footsteps.

A mundane question surfaced: a novel set where in Florida?

Sarasota, of course, because Sarasota and I were old lovers. I don't love Florida: too hot and humid, generally too redneck, thin-lipped and conservative--for my taste, anyway. But Sarasota's different. The loved one always is, at least for a while.

Our love affair had begun in June of 1972 under oddly bitter conditions. I had been convicted of perpetrating the Howard Hughes Autobiography Hoax and to my slight astonishment and deep woe, the judge in New York peered down from the bench and, in effect, said, "I don't care if you made full restitution and thought this whole affair was just fun and games. You jet-set storytellers can't trifle with corporate America and our billionaires. Two-and-a-half years in federal prison, my boy."

Since that moment I have never cared for criminal court judges, a bias that tends to show in my work. However, that judge, having also sentenced my wife to 60 days, did what he considered the decent thing and added: "Mr. Irving, your wife's jail time starts right away. You, however, don't have to report to the slammer until after she gets out. That's so you can finish this book you're writing in order to pay your considerable legal fees, and so there's a parent available to take care of your two unfortunate, innocent children."

Our home was in the Mediterranean; I was not permitted to return to it. Our kids, two boys, indeed unfortunate and innocent, were two and four years old. My own parents and my wife's parents had recently died. I had an obligation to finish the book, and I had to find an affordable summer place on the east coast of the United States and some womanly help. A dear friend, my father's former mistress, a vivacious woman named Estelle, lived on Longboat Key, where I had never been. Longboat Key? Sounded remote, pleasant, and I reckoned it had to be cheap in the heat of mid-summer. In a mild frenzy I telephoned and Estelle said, "Don't worry. Y'all come down!"

There was a wonderful old airport then in Sarasota, rather like an African bush station. I found a rental house on Birdie Lane, hired a bright attractive 19-year-old named Amy to live in and help with the boys, and Estelle gave me a beat-up old Cadillac she didn't use. In the evenings and early mornings I worked, and almost every day drove the kids to the Colony Beach & Tennis Club. Murf Klauber, the owner, threw a fraternal arm around my shoulder and said, "Use the place. Be my guest."

John D. MacDonald called and took me to a weekly luncheon of Sarasota writers, where I met Borden Deal, who befriended me. But MacKinlay Kantor wouldn't come to the lunch. John D. and Borden explained: "Mac's father was a con man of sorts. Mac doesn't want to meet you." Time had recently put me on its cover, displacing Richrd Nixon and naming me "Con Man of the Year." I hated that, it was painful, but I rarely let people know how much. I just said, "It's a lousy likeness of me. And look, for God's sake -- brown eyes!"

And to John D. and Borden I mumbled, "Oh, I'm sorry Mac won't come that's too bad."

So the summer was strange, bittersweet perhaps. A little holiday by the Gulf of Mexico before spending two years in prison. Positioning myself near the air conditioner, diligently I wrote and finished my book, paid my lawyers. A letter arrived from my wife in Nassau County Jail: I couldn't bear to think of her there. She talked of divorce. My kids and I splashed vigorously in the Colony pool, collected shells on the beach, hit a few tennis balls in the merciless sun, went somewhere to watch dolphins cavort. Estelle mothered me. I was no saint: I had a lighthearter, reciprocally instructive affair with Amy, the baby-sitter, half my age. One evening, heading out for dinner, I opened the creaking door of the Cadillac for her, and she snapped, "Please don't patronize me!" I wasn't allowed to light cigarettes, either. A modern young woman, but otherwise kind. Kind to the children, too. Prison loomed in my mind.

My wife was released from jail on Long Island and flew down. How pale she was--and determined to divorce. In late August I left Sarasota for a prison camp in central Pennsylvania. I learned to pump rion, speak Italian and street black, steal food, say "sir" to guards and apologize to any man I bumped into in the hallways in case he was doing life without possibility of parole. In winter, now and then, I thought I heard shells crunching underfoot on the hot sand in front of the Colony, the yap and splash of kids in the pool.

Years later, when I flew up to Sarasota from my home in Mexico to write the novel about criminal justice, the past was hazy to the point of forgotten. I was remarried and so was my former wife; we were good friends and our kids were six feet two inches tall. I had returned to the Colony once for 10 days of tennis, but in 1990 the Florida I remembered was of another time and mood. Now, too, I had a new brother-in-law, John Proctor, a general contractor living on Siesta Key, a cheerful and warm-hearted fellow freshly married to a lovely, cheerful and warm-hearted woman.

I stayed with John and Laura and began researching my book. I had to get to know Sarasota again: I hung around the court-house and listened in on the opening skirmishes of the Penner trial, met Sheriff Geoff Monge, Chief Assistant State Attorney Henry Lee, Public Defender Elliot Metcalfe, cruised through Newtown and Prestancia, ate Okeechobee catfish at Walt's Fish Market with a local newspaper reporter, dined out with Mr. Chatterbox (who explained that the biggest urban problem most Sarasotans faced in the early 1990s was how to get the pine needles off the top of their pool cage), boated across the bay under the stars with my brother-in-law and his friends, one of whom said, "Yes, you're right, the facade of the city is all charm and artsy-fartsy elegance and big bucks -- sunny Camelot for the white middle class. But it's not quite so benign as they're trying to portray it to you. A while back a high-ranking police officer took home a confiscated expensive German car for his own use. He was found out, wasn't prosecuted, just allowed to resign. Another cop was convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct with a 14-year-old. The state attorney wanted jail time, but ended up settling for a year of community service and two years probation. That sort of thing happens fairly often in Florida."

I should have checked this out further, but coming from Mexico, it seemed to me so common as to merit barely a raised eyebrow.

"And there's a drug problem," my informant said. "It's a waterfront community, with easy access to Latin America."

"You're telling me there's lots of serious, drug-related crime?"

"Not quite. When the cops want to pop some people, they just round 'em up in Newtown. With the new open-container law, you're not allowed to drink beer on the street. A cop will go up to some black dude who's tilting a can of Bud, pat him down, look in his shoes and find six white rocks. Crack cocaine. Guy gets one month for each rock. It gets a little creative."

While I was in town a 76-year-old man was killed when his wife accidentally backed over him with their Mercedes as he prepared to fill it with gasoline. No charges were filed against her. and then at the airport an 84-year-old took the wheel while his wife went inside to pick up their grandkids; he stepped on the gas, ran amok, killed an elderly doctor and injured three other bystanders. He was released.

Mildly scary, but still not the stuff for a hard-hitting novel on the criminal justice system.

In March I spoke to a lawyer friend in New York. He said, "Meet me up in Jacksonville. I'll introduce you to a great lawyer who does capital cases and I'll take you to death row at Raiford. One of my clients has been there for 14 years. He's got seniority."

I left Sarasota with its luxury estates, country club village, fine bookstores and mellow sunsets, and drove north to Starke with its pine forests, RVs and Baptist churches. On the cork bulletin board at Raiford, Florida State Prison, guards offered mobile homes: "3 br 2 ba #3500 OBO, with 5 acres, $26,000."

Same state, different world.

My friend's client, Ernest Downs, erstwhile petty crook, had been hired for $5,000 back in 1976, along with another crook named Johnson, to murder a gambler for the half-million dollar insurance benefit. And they did it. A few months later, Johnson was arrested for burglary; he also confessed to the murder. But, he claimed, Downs had pulled the trigger. Johnson was put in the Florida witness protection program and walked away scot-free. The various conspirators, who had hired him and Downs to do the hit, received prison terms ranging from like to 10 years. Downs, who claimed that Johnson, not he, had pulled the trigger, was sentenced to death by electrocution.

"There must have been other evidence," I suggested.

"There was none," my lawyer friend said.

"Then how can the state be so arbitrary?"

"They needed a body to burn. And the state can do whatever it damn well wants when it comes to plea-bargaining."

Downs now was in love. Her name was Denise, a chaplain's assistant at the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville; her job was to push the Christian book cart around to the cells. He had met her there in '88 during the last of his many appeals. They wanted to marry, if he wasn't electrocuted first.

Might be the beginning of a story, I thought. We met Downs -- a mild, muscular, well-spoken man of 41 -- in a visitor's cubicle, and he talked about life on death row. "they execute so slowly," he said, "they got so many stacked up that pretty soon the dam's gonna break. Just a matter of time before they start burning 'em two at a whack. Lights come on here at 4:30 a.m. They feed between 5:30 and 6. No work to do. You stay all the time in your cell, watch TV, read, listen to radio, eat all your meals there. Twice a week you get to go to the yard for two hous. Anytime you leave your cell you get handcuffed behind your back, even to go th the shower. You only see the other guys when you're going up and down the row, or in the yard. You can talk, though. You play long-distance chess. But I've never been around such sorry sonsofbitches in all my life. When you hear two men arguing over which one raped and killed the oldest woma -- 'Man, mine was 62!' -- 'Well, mine was only 50, so you win' -- you know you're in an evil place. And both those guys got off on appeal, got life instead of death. Something wrong with the system."

In Florida, as I'd already learned, there was an "override provision" in the criminal code, meaning that a judge could disregard a jury's recommendation for a life sentence and give the defendant the death penalty. Only two other states, Alabama and Indiana, had such a provision; it had happened twice in Alabama and six times in Indiana, as opposed to 89 times in Florida courts. In 1981, almost solely on the basis of fingerprint evidence, Annibal Jaramillo was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced by the judge to die, although the trial jury had unanimously recommended a sentence of life imprisonment. Jaramillo had visited the crime scene the day before the murders occurred and so had a plausible explanation for the presence of his prints. After he had spent 15 months on death row, the Florida Supreme Court voted six to one that the state's evidence was insufficient to support even the guilty verdict, much less the judge's death sentence. Jaramillo was freed.

I made a note: "Find Jaramillo, get his story."

In Gainsville, on this same trip, I talked to Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Florida. He had co-authored a book detailing 350 known wrongful convictions for homicide since 1900, including 100 involving the death of a defendant who later was shown to be innocent. Over the last decade, Florida had led the U.S.A. both in the number of people sentenced to death and in the number executed. Today almost one out of every six persons condemned to die in the U.S.A. lives on death row in Florida.

Later I spoke to Tom McCoun, a top St. Petersburg defense lawyer and former prosecutor. "What's with Florida?" I asked. "What's this lust to kill?"

"People coming dowm from the North. They want to get away from fear as well as cold. Want the illusion of a crime-free paradise where they're safe. The state was always conservative, now it's conservative Republican. We used to get eight for 10 people on a jury panel of 40 who said, 'Yes. I object to the death penalty.' Now we get barely one or two."

And therefore, I realized, the governor of Florida will always be a "death governor".

Mike Radelet had told me that 15 of the 350 known wrongful convictions for murder had taken place in Florida.

Known. What about the unknown ones? I had a Florida novel.

I continued onward to Jacksonville, home of the Gator Bowl -- a businesslike city of hot pavements and high-rises and tumble-down shacks out of Tobacco Row, a city whose dream is to have an NFL franchise--to meet William Sheppard, the lawyer recommended by my New York friend. Gray-bearded and Whitmanesque, gruff and intense, master of profanity and criminal law, Bill in '84 had received the Florida Bar's Pro Bono Service Award from his peers for his "relentless devotion to serving the poor." Now in '90, he graciously consented to serve me: to let me hang out with him for a week while he practiced his trade. Of Jacksonville he said, "This is a real Southern city. What I'm sayin', this ain't f--ing Sarasota."

One day I asked Bill if his long gray beard ever prejudiced the jury. He growled, "Hell, no, because the juries are already prejudiced against any defendant. Don't you know in this country and especially in the Sunshine State, you're f--ing guilty until proven innocent?"

Too soon I would have cause to remember that remark.

In late April, not much more than an hour away from Jax, another execution took place at Raiford -- a man named Tafero. One of the prison staff noticed that the sponge to be placed inside the helmet (the better to conduct electricity into the shaved scalp) was dirty. He drove over to a convenience store and bought a new one. Unfortunately it was nylon, not natural sponge. Tafero's head caught on fire, spurting blue flame. No one knew why at the time. They had to give him three separate lengthy jolts over a nine-minute period. Three times his head caught on fire. But it was all right, he finally died.

The prison's Medical Executive Director later stated in an affidavit: "There was understandable human consternation, but there was no collapse. There was understandable human perplexity, but there was no panic. What was necessary was done. What was intended was accomplished. Under given circumstances that surfaced, the results were far less than aesthetically attractive. But with rare serene exceptions, after forty-odd years experience, it is held that most deaths are without aesthetic attractiveness, regardless of causation."

Eloquent. Quotable. My notebook was thickening.

On May 22, 1990, a week after I arrived in Jacksonville and began following Bill Sheppard around, I was arrested and jailed. Not for murder, but for retail theft.

This is what happened.

In March, at a Radio Shack in Los Angeles, my wife had bought an intercom for our house in Mexico, the better to communicate between my office and hers. But in monkeying with it to reduce the static (as per the instruction sheet), I damaged it. So I brought the intercom up with me to Jacksonville to try and exchange it.

One afternoon I took it to Radio Shack in the Regency Mall and began to explain my problem. (To set the scene better: I wore a T-shirt, jeans, running shoes and carried a straw Spanish shopping basket.) No, I didn't have the receipt, or the packaging. Sorry, said the pleasant and pretty young woman behind the counter, they couldn't help me. I was sorry, too. I put the machine back in my basket and left the store, stopping only for a moment to inspect a shelf that held a variety of Radio Shack intercoms and other gadgets.

Half an hour later, in a nearby book store in the mall, I was arrested by Jacksonville Deputy Sheriffs Jefferson and Gamble for stealing the intercom still in my possession. Jefferson, in charge, was a big fellow who lacked the wit of Bill Cosby. The young woman behind the counter as well as a customer had both seen me do the deed, Jefferson said.

(Don't think that in my next novel there isn't going to be an instance of false eyewitness testimony.)

"Look," I said, "this is my intercom, although I've lost the receipt for it. It's broken and I tried to exchange it. I broke it. Only I know in what way it's broken. If you'll let me, I can prove that. It's absolutely impossible that anyone saw me steal it."

Jefferson said, "You can tell all that to the judge. 'Cause these people here at Radio Shack say that the serial number of the intercom you got is the same as on their new stock. I checked, and that's true. You're in trouble."

"I doubt there's a serial number," I tried to say, "although there may be a Radio Shack product number because my wife bought it at a Radio Shack in California"--but he was busy reading me my rights. Remain silent? Writers can't do that too well. I kept babbling: "Hey, I'm innocent." I was then frisked, handcuffed painfully behind my back, marched through the mall for all to gawk at, stuffed into the back of a patrol car and driven to jail.

"I can't get out of the car," I said. "My knees are stuck." "Try," Jefferson said.

I will omit the details of the next eight hours; I'm sure everyone's seen enough movies to know what it's like to be cuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, stripped of all possessions, searched, yelled at by correctional officers of the Bold New City of the South, as Jacksonville calls itself, shoved into four or five different greenwalled holding cells with telephones that didn't work, a single open toilet with no seat, and, for company, a dozen or so friendly well-spoken fellows who've been arrested for possession of crack cocaine...I wondered why I'd ever left Siesta Key.

Fortunately, earlier, from the mall, I had managed to reach Bill Sheppard on the telephone, and in the early morning I was released on my own recognizance, with a court date set for the future. I walked back to my hotel in darkness, feeling worn and shaky, but breathing the warm, soft air of comparative liberty.

Not guilty by reason of innocence and other people's reckless stupidity, that's how I'm going to plead, and produce a copy of my receipt. And then I'll have my day in court with Radio Shack, a Tandy company -- although I'm all too aware of an old gypsy curse that goes: "May you have a lawsuit in which you know you're in the right."

But what if it was murder, with two such alleged eyewitnesses? (As it turned out, the accusing eyewitness customer didn't exist, and the young lady behind the counter recanted and said she only "thought I was acting suspiciously.")

And what if I didn't know Bill Sheppard, who knew which judge to call at dinnertime?

And what if I was black?

Food for uneasy thought, and for a novel about Florida, set partly in the cocoon-like demi-paradise of Sarasota and partly in the harsher concrete world of Jacksonville. I drove back to Sarasota and my brother-in-law's comfortable house on Siesta Key.

"You were arrested? I don't believe it!"

I told him the sordid story.

"You were right," said John, my brother-in-law. "You should never have left home."

He meant Sarasota and his Siesta Key: a world of pelicans and blue herons, good seafood restaurants, golf courses curving around Cuban laurels and water hazards--the epitome of the good life, where, as I've heard say, you're probably in the greatest danger when stopping for a red light or driving through a green light.

I began packing.

"Where are you going?" John asked.

"Back home to Mexico," I said, "where I've never been fingerprinted or handcuffed, where I'm in comparatively little danger of being run over by an octogenarian, and where they don't kill you except for grievously insulting someone in public or making a pass at a general's wife. I have to write a book. I think I have enough material."

And, having finished this tale, I'll now begin.

Clifford Irving lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His latest novel, "Trial," was published in October by Summit Books and will be an NBC-TV mini-series.
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Author:Irving, Clifford
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:Judi Winn: Employment Search Inc.
Next Article:Sarasota deal maker Ron Shenkin.

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