The Death House: The conviction and execution of Lee Clark

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By Mike Simmons

The Bible says that we will reap what we sow. In other words, what goes around comes around. Well…either that concept was never taught to Lee Clark, or he didn’t think it was true. He eventually learned…

On November 10, 1925, 20-year-old Lee stole $7 from the pocket of J. A. Jackson. He was arrested and sat in jail until his trial on January 25, 1926. The judge had mercy on him and let him go on the time he had served.

Four years later, Lee, now 24 years old, assaulted a young girl on November 28, 1930. He slid by again.

Less than three months later, on February 12, 1931, Lee was involved in a traffic crash. The investigator was Special Policeman Andrew Schmitz. While investigating the crash, Schmitz noticed that something was wrong. As he looked into it, he saw that Lee had a bunch of illegal liquor in his car. Illegal because, during that time of Prohibition, all liquor was illegal. He went to jail again. Maybe this time, though, he learned his lesson. Nope.

On January 20, 1933, 27-year-old Lee was arrested for stealing three suits of clothes from D. McDaniels. He was sentenced to 30 days for that.

On April 30, 1934, Lee graduated. When he and Henry Daniels got into an argument at 321 E. Maxwell Street, it turned into a fight. Lee’s stomach was slashed, but, as the saying goes, “You shoulda seen the other guy.” Henry was stabbed so deep that he expired. Lee was charged with Murder. When Lee testified in court, he said that Henry pulled a knife and attacked him. During the struggle, Henry got stabbed by accident. Now Lee walked with a limp. In those days, he was known as a cripple. Maybe the jury believed his story, or maybe they felt sorry for him, but the act was ruled self-defense. Lee was let go.

Lee’s wife was named Lucille. They had some children between them. Eventually, in 1934, Lucille got fed up, took the kids, and left. On October 11, 1934, Lee, now 29 years old, saw Lucille in the front yard of a house around Tarragona and Cross Streets. He came up to her and began stabbing…deep. He was soon caught and arrested for assault with intent to commit murder. His plea? Not guilty.

Then his luck ran out. On October 12, Lucille died of her injuries. She didn’t have a knife, it happened at her house, and Lee had no excuse. It didn’t look good for him.

The Murder Scene

On October 16, 1934, Lee went in front of Justice of the Peace R. L. Kendrick. The Coroner’s jury turned him over to the Grand Jury, who indicted him on First Degree Murder on October 19.

The Judge was the old man himself – L. L. Fabisinski. The state attorney prosecuting the case was Dixie Beggs, and the court-appointed attorney representing Lee Clark was Alston Fisher. The trial date was set for November 8.

It took a day. The trial opened with arguments from both sides, then the state put on its case, followed by the defense. The defense maintained that, during the argument between Lee and Lucille, she fell on the knife. However, the state proved through witnesses that, not only did Lee stab her intentionally, but he had previously sharpened the knife for just that reason. The jury came back after a short deliberation with the verdict – Guilty, without mercy. Judge Fabisinski wasted no time. He immediately sentenced Lee to die in the electric chair. Of course, the defense said it would appeal.

The last person from Escambia County that was executed was in 1920 and the sentence was carried out by hanging in the Sheriff’s Office building. Fourteen years later, the chair, “Old Sparky,” was the method used. Lee Clark now was facing that possibility.

Florida’s Electric Chair, “Old Sparky”

In those days, the person charged with throwing the switch was the sheriff of the county. The colorful Hamp Gandy was serving as the Escambia County Sheriff at the time. Either he or one of his deputies would have to do the deed. Hamp said he wouldn’t force one of his employees to start the lightning – he would do it. He said he was not reluctant nor would he have any conscientious scruples about pressing the button.

He said, “I’m only a link in the chain which has done its duty in bringing a murderer to justice. The district attorney, the jurors, and the judge have completed their duty. Mine is not finished yet. I certainly would never want to have any part in the killing of an innocent person and should I ever feel there is any doubt about the guilt of a convicted person I would resign my office before legally taking his life. This is my duty and I promised the people I would perform it.”

The appeals process began and continued without success for a year and a half. Finally, on August 8, 1936, Governor Dave Sholtz set the execution for the week of August 17 – nine days away.

On August 10, 1936, Lee woke up at the county jail. He had previously said that he was ready to meet his maker, but he wanted some peaches first. Before leaving the jail that morning, Sheriff Gandy asked Lee what he wanted to eat. Lee said he wanted some ice cream. Probably not the healthiest breakfast, but I guess it didn’t really matter. He ate his ice cream and was taken from his home town to Raiford, Florida where the “death house” was located.

On August 17, two executions were scheduled. L. D. Padgett was first. He was to be executed at 11 AM for murdering his wife in Santa Rosa County. Lee Clark was scheduled immediately thereafter.

The clock was ticking, and there is nothing more irritating than a clock ticking in front of a man on his death chair. At 10:47 AM – 13 minutes before the execution was to take place, the phone rang. Prison Superintendent L. F. Chapman answered. It was Governor Sholtz. He ordered the postponement of Padgett’s execution for 30 days so the Board of Clemency could look at the case. Lee Clark was next. His date with death would have to wait also. Both men breathed easier.

Both men had ready-made defenses. Lee Clark was now claiming insanity. Thing had worked for him before. Maybe he would experience success this time also.

But it was not to be. The Clemency Board not only didn’t rule in favor of Lee or Padgett, but they also scheduled two more for the same day – October 19, 1936. It was a record – four men scheduled to die on the same day.

The first one gave a speech to the audience to “get right with God.” The second said goodbye to the officers. The third, Padgett, prayed the whole time. The fourth was Lee, who smiled at the audience and said to the officers, “Strap me in tight, now.” Sheriff Gandy turned the current on at 11:18 AM. Nine minutes later, Lee was declared dead.

All four were complete in an hour. The bodies were taken by inmates and buried in the prison cemetery, because no one claimed any of the bodies. Sad.


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