Sunday, April 27, 2008

High court ruling doesn’t ease pain of murder victim’s family

By Bob Mayes

As of Thursday, 386 men and one woman sat on Death Row in Florida.

Inmate 061360, Floyd William Damren, who will be 57 years old in May, is at Union Correctional Institute in Raiford. He was sentenced to death on June 4, 1995, for the beating death of Donald Miller of East Palatka 13 months earlier.

Two hundred and twenty-three people have been on Florida’s Death Row longer. Since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Florida has executed a grand total of 64.


Is it any wonder then that Terri Miller Williams was so taken aback when the Supreme Court declared an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty seven months ago while it grappled with the issue of whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment?

Terri, like her dad a motorcycling enthusiast, is the daughter of Sparky Miller, a hard-working, fun-loving family man whose life was snuffed out while interrupting a robbery at age 46.

“I’m almost afraid that this was going to open the door for more appeals,” Williams said Wednesday, eight days after the high court, in a decision involving a Kentucky case, gave the green light for executions to resume.

“It’s just so unfair. I don’t see how they feel lethal injection is cruel and unusual. If he was going to kill my dad, I wish he would have given him a lethal injection.

“It would have been a heck of a lot better than what he got.”

Testimony in Circuit Judge Robert Foster’s courtroom in Green Cove Springs in 1995 showed that Donald Miller had been beaten to death with a 5-pound metal pipe even as he begged for his life.

Her husband, Keith, at her side, Terri recounted some of the highlights of the trial, the most horrible week of their lives.

“He was very cold, showed no emotion,” she said. “I’ve never heard him say a word. He wouldn’t look at me when I testified at the trial.

“I stared him down and he still wouldn’t look at me.”

Sparky had been called in to work at RGC Mineral Sands that night and he was supposed to go on vacation the next day. As he opened the door to a shed to retrieve his tools, Damren approached Miller from behind.

He never saw Damren until he was on the ground. Exhibits introduced into court proved Miller had been conscious during the attack because of the defense wounds on his arms and torso.

An accomplice fled to Putnam County from the scene and described what had happened to a few women friends —- just hours before Damren hatcheted him to death because he was a witness.

“They testified that (the accomplice told them) my dad had begged for his life,” Terri said. “He told him, ‘Please don’t hurt me; I’m taking my grandson fishing tomorrow.’”

Miller’s pleas fell on deaf ears and the bludgeoning continued.

“The crime is especially heinous, atrocious and cruel,” the judge said when sentencing Damren to death in the electric chair.

Thirteen years later, the family has moved on.

But the pain still gnaws, the bile still flows inside and hatred is still there.

“I hate him more than I can describe,” Terri Williams said softly. “It’s an awful feeling to be so full of hate. I get so angry sometimes and I don’t understand why. Then it will hit me.

“It gets so bad that I shake and I have to throw something. It’s not as bad as it used to be and it doesn’t happen as often, but I still do.

“I have nightmares sometime and I cry. Usually, I cry in the shower so the water can wash away my tears.”

Keith Williams met his future father-in-law when both lived in Mobley, Mo. He had a friend who had a shed where they worked on motorcycles, and Miller often hung out there.

Although Miller was about 15 years older, they became fast friends because of how much they had in common, especially their affinity for riding motorcycles.

Two years later, Miller introduced Williams to his daughter, who was visiting from Indiana.

“Keith was handpicked,” Terri said with a laugh. “He didn’t like my choices when it came to boys, so he picked one out for me. He did good.”

Williams’ pain runs equally deep. He —- along with several other of Miller’s friends —- got a tattoo of a flying wheel, that reads, “In Memory of Sparky,” on his chest.

“It was a great loss,” Keith said. “He was a great friend, a mentor, just a good person all the way around. There isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you. That’s the way he was with his family and all of his friends.”

Family and friends thought it was appropriate Damren had been sentenced to die in the electric chair n “its nickname was Old Sparky, he was an electrician, and his nickname was Sparky” —- and were disappointed when the method was changed.

“I asked the governor’s office if I could throw the switch,” Terri said bitterly. “After they did away with the electric chair, I asked the attorney general’s office if I could inject him.

“They said I couldn’t, but I’d do it in a second if they’d let me.”

Keith takes a more pragmatic view.

“It’s a hard question,” he said. “Do you really hate him, or hate that he took away somebody’s life who deserved to live?”

Terri said her mother has remarried to a very understanding man, and still lives in Putnam County. She said she and her mother try to stay strong for each other, but there are times when they still break down and cry together.

Her father’s Harley FLH 76 now belongs to Nicholas, the grandson he was going to take fishing, and it is his pride and joy. Along with Nicholas, the Williamses have another child, a daughter, and Terri’s younger brother recently became a father for the first time.

“He lived to become a grandfather,” Keith said, “but he really didn’t get to see them blossom. That’s a real shame, because he really loved his grandchildren, and they loved him.”

As the years have passed, there has been one excruciating appeal after another, too many for the family to count. The last appeal was heard in Jacksonville in February because of a technicality, and it could be another four months before a decision is handed down.

Next, Damren would be able to appeal to a federal court in Atlanta. Terri said it could take up to two years just to have a hearing date set, then another six months after that before a decision is made in that case.

“They’ve told us that it would be another 18 months to two years after that before he would be executed,” she said. “Looking at a best-case scenario, we’re probably talking about 4 1/2 to 5 years.”

But the statistics seem overwhelmingly against it.

Two hundred and twenty-three on death row longer than Damren. Only 64 executed since 1976. Since last week, the attorney general’s office has activated death warrants for three inmates —- none of them Damren.

She dares to think the unthinkable.

“I sometimes don’t think it will ever happen,” Terri said, “but I don’t give up the faith. I continue to press the issues … but he will probably die in prison before he is executed.”

But if it ever does happen?

“I think I’m going to feel he got what was coming to him,” she said. “I am still going to feel angry and still feel sad.

“It won’t take those feelings away. I don’t think anything ever will.”

Bob Mayes is the news editor of the Palatka Daily News.

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