Florida's Death Row Defender Stands Between 89 Condemned Men and the Electric Chair

updated 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The thick beige walls of the Florida State Prison rise like monoliths from the plains bordering the snake-infested Okefenokee Swamp, 50 miles from Jacksonville, the nearest city. Behind those forbidding walls, the prison warehouses 1,642 convicts, including 204 men filed away in separate wings who make up the single largest Death Row community among the 1,202 prisoners now under sentence of death in the U.S. One member of that Florida group is James "Doug" McCray, 32, who has, in his nine years on Death Row, twice undergone the macabre pre-execution ritual of being stripped of his personal property, dressed in all-white garments, and moved to a cell less than 10 feet from the electric chair. McCray, like dozens of other Q Wing inmates, has thus far escaped his state-imposed date with death largely through the efforts of a tenacious legal activist named Scharlette Holdman. "The men here, they have grown to love her," says McCray. "She is the key figure in what will happen to us. I cannot think of a struggle without her involvement. She is our link to the outside world."

One hundred and fifty miles away, in Tallahassee, the state capital, Florida's Attorney General, Jim Smith, does not speak so kindly about Scharlette Holdman. In fact, he chooses not to mention her at all. "I'm not going to dignify her by saying anything about her," Smith has stated.

So who Is Scharlette Holdman? "Describe me as a well-dressed Christian with an abiding faith in the criminal justice system of this country," she says with a laugh. Actually, Holdman, 36, is a sloppily dressed, chain-smoking workaholic with frizzy dirty-blond hair, boundless energy and a self-imposed mission to end capital punishment in Florida. Although she has no law degree and operates her Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice on a" shoestring budget of just $50,000 a year—much of it donated by religious groups—she has an extraordinary record of success in stopping executions. "If we didn't have Scharlette Holdman in Florida," says Eugene Patterson, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, "a moral society would have to invent her." In the last five years the woman whom Florida newspapers have dubbed "the mistress of delay" has helped prevent some 50 scheduled executions while losing only one client—John Spenkelink, who went to the electric chair in May 1979 for murdering a fellow drifter. "And that's not going to happen again," she vows. "Not in my state. We'll see to it."

To that end, Holdman spends her days in a shabby office in a cinder block building in Tallahassee, coordinating the legal defense of 89 Death Row prisoners. She sits in a swivel chair, her bare feet twitching nervously as she ingests endless supplies of cigarettes and coffee and employs her most potent weapon—the telephone. From Florida's 25,000 lawyers, Holdman has recruited 200 volunteers, who show varying degrees of enthusiasm. Their names are in her index file, each with a handwritten notation—"A street fighter," "Only into dollars," "Will help us but only in a crunch." Whenever the State Supreme Court upholds a death sentence, she is on the phone begging and cajoling lawyers to take on the expensive, time-consuming task of representing the condemned man. Holdman jumps into the void because in Florida most public defender offices are not budgeted to handle Death Row clemency appeals. "The only lawyers we can recruit are the ones who have a heart," she says. "When they accept a case, they know that they are, literally, the convict's last chance. On average, it costs a lawyer at least $50,000 in lost earnings and two to five years of his or her life."

Holdman's job doesn't end with lining up a lawyer; she assists her recruits by sharing her hard-earned experience on capital punishment cases. "I know you're not supposed to be arguing the facts before the court," she advised an attorney on the phone one recent day. "But put them in anyway. The details are what pique the justices' interest. That's what makes them perk up."

During the long process of appeal, Holdman comes to know her Death Row clients personally and she fights for them like a friend—even, in the case of Spenkelink, after execution. On the second anniversary of his death, she arranged for the delivery of a "deathday cake" garnished with black candles to Attorney General Jim Smith. When Florida Governor Bob Graham—who signed Spenkelink's death warrant—spoke at the 1980 Democratic Convention, Holdman arranged for Spenkelink's mother to sit in front with a banner that read "Bob Graham Killed My Son." Such guerrilla theater is not subtle, but then, Holdman observes, neither is the electric chair. "I work hard because life is a higher standard than death," she says. "One is the positive side and the other"—here she laughs—"is pretty negative."

That Holdman became a champion for the Death Row inmates is not surprising. She is a weird hybrid, a self-described mixture of "old '60s radical" and "poor white trash." She grew up in Memphis, the daughter of impoverished parents who went on to make their fortune in the construction business. In high school she was editor of the yearbook and captain of the cheerleaders. Then at Memphis State University she majored in anthropology and joined the civil rights movement. She moved to Washington to work as a secretary for an insurance company and ended up marrying the first man she met. "He was a real nice little goofy central Pennsylvania Republican and a third-generation college academic," she recalls. "He was upper-class for me. He didn't drink or smoke or hit his women. I said, 'Oh, hell, I'll marry him.' " The marriage produced two children—Tad, now 15, and Summer, 13—and lasted five years. Then late one night, "numb from boredom and frustration," she packed her suitcases, took the kids and fled.

After a brief stint in an organic bakery in Boston, she began working as the American Civil Liberties Union's state director in Honolulu, New Orleans and Miami. In 1978 she left Miami to head the Clearinghouse, a masochistic proposition which entails long hours, excruciating pressure of life-and-death decisions and a subsistence salary of $9,600. Ironically, she was not yet certain of her views on capital punishment when she started the work in Florida. "At the time, I wasn't absolutely against the penalty," she says. "I could see cases where I would endorse it. But after meeting the prisoners and seeing how many errors there were in the trials, how virtually all the prisoners were poor and without lawyers, how unfair the choice of who would die and who wouldn't, I changed my mind. I realized that the men on Death Row were the victims of a political system that had nothing at all to do with true justice."

For the past year much of Holdman's seemingly unlimited energy has been directed toward saving Doug McCray's life. McCray, a black epileptic Army veteran and former all-Florida high school football player, was convicted of murdering an elderly white woman. His complex and controversial case has dragged on for nearly 10 years.

It began in October 1973 when Margaret Mears, a 68-year-old retired nurse, was raped and murdered in Fort Myers, Fla. Police were looking for a black man with a cast on his arm, and McCray, who investigators believe had recently removed a cast from his arm, answered the general description. McCray denied—and continues to deny—any knowledge of the crime, to which he was linked by a bloody palm-print in the victim's home. At his trial, the state's chief witness was a convict who testified, in return for a reduced sentence, that he had seen McCray in the victim's neighborhood at the time of the murder. An all-white jury convicted McCray of felony murder but voted against the death penalty. The trial judge ignored their plea and sentenced McCray to death.

Seven years later the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that sentence. McCray then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and again was denied a reprieve. In December 1981 a state-obtained lawyer, who admitted he never read the trial record, represented McCray at a clemency hearing. Two months later, after his attorney had been suspended on grounds of mental instability and theft, Governor Graham signed his death warrant. "Can you imagine what it is like," says McCray, "to be told that your death warrant has been signed and you don't have a lawyer and no means to contact one?"

Into that seemingly hopeless situation stepped Holdman. Immediately, she began working the phone, calling lawyer after lawyer, seeking someone who would take McCray's case. Finally, after almost 50 calls, she found Robert Dillinger, 31, a St. Petersburg attorney. "She said she had a client who was less than three weeks away from execution and didn't have a lawyer," Dillinger recalls. "She was frantic, almost desperate."

After some initial misgivings, Dillinger agreed to take the case and pored through McCray's 1,528-page record in one marathon session. In the process, he found what he terms "a fundamental error" in the judge's instructions to the jury, and entered a motion for a new trial. Six days before the scheduled execution, the seven-member State Supreme Court agreed with Dillinger, voting 4-3 to stay McCray's execution and order a new trial.

But the ordeal was not yet over. Last September one of the seven justices abruptly changed his mind—without giving any explanation—thereby reinstating McCray's conviction and death sentence. Holdman and Dillinger quickly appealed again to the State Supreme Court, which denied their motion for a rehearing. Following an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Governor Graham signed a second death warrant for McCray on May 27.

On June 13, armed with fresh information, Dillinger took another motion for a new trial and a stay of execution to the Florida Supreme Court. That hearing ended by 11 in the morning and Holdman returned to her office to await the court's decision. "They'll let us know by 5 if they're going to grant a stay," she said. Nervous, she sat, then stood, then paced the room, fueling her worry with nicotine and caffeine.

That is a diet that concerns Hold-man's friends. "She smokes too much and she drinks too much," says one of them, a black psychiatrist named Dr. Jamal Amin. "I've told her, 'Scharlette, you're too important to the members of my tribe to go around destroying yourself like that.' "

Holdman was still chain-smoking, still pacing the office in her bare feet when the phone rang shortly after 2 o'clock. It was Dillinger, relaying the news: The court had not yet decided on the issue of a new trial for McCray, but it had agreed to grant a stay of execution. Her drawn face blossomed into a huge grin. "They stayed it!" she shouted, as she tossed her trusty weapon, the telephone, joyously into the air.

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