Alvin Ford, a 32-year-old black man who has spent 11 years here on death row awaiting execution, announced solemnly that he had recently sent his mother, brothers and sisters to another planet on one of his space ships to ensure their safety.
Twice, as the visiting room plunged into total darkness for about 10 seconds because prison officials were testing the electric chair for an upcoming electrocution, he fell silent.
Continuing, Ford said he stays at the Florida State Prison voluntarily because he plans to "change things."
"I'm not going to die. I'm the one who's in charge here. I make them put people in jail. I'm going to decide who gets killed," he said. "I can kill anyone I want to, even you." He said he will soon leave to solve the problems of the world including "fixing up all the people with leprosy."
Ford spent the rest of a 90-minute interview mumbling with his mouth and eyes closed, occasionally laughing uncontrollably. Outside the visiting room, he was surrounded by row after row of locked, barred doors, wire fences and coils of concertina wire.
Ford showed emotion only once: when he was asked whether he thinks about the day in 1974 when he killed Fort Lauderdale policeman Walter Ilyankoff during the robbery of a Red Lobster restaurant. Appearing on the verge of tears, Ford began to tremble and continued to mumble frantically with his mouth shut.
Ford's is a most unusual capital punishment case. No one denies that he committed the murder or that he was sane when he pulled the trigger. But his lawyers claim that 11 years on death row, during which he has seen fellow inmates executed and twice come within hours of execution himself, have driven Ford insane.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which has never ruled on the issue, has been asked to decide whether Florida has the right to execute a man in Ford's mental condition.
Common law historically has forbidden execution of persons so mentally ill that they don't understand their impending death or the reasons for it.
The rationale has been that a condemned inmate should be able to make final peace with his god and to participate in final legal appeals. Also, some argue that the death penalty loses its punishment value when the prisoner is too crazy to know what's going on.
In late 1983, Ford's lawyer, public defender Richard Burr, obtained opinions from two psychiatrists that Ford was a paranoid schizophrenic and incompetent for execution. He petitioned Gov. Robert Graham (D), who sent three state-appointed psychiatrists to examine Ford.
According to the court record, Ford, in a half-hour interview with the three, spoke only in code. Asked, "Are you aware they can electrocute you?" Ford responded, "Nine one, C one, hot one, die one . . . . Die one, gone one." Asked, "What happens when you die?" Ford said, "Hell, one, Heaven, one . . . . If I die, no more fat cats, no more homicide, no more racism. In heaven with God."
Asked by the psychiatrists, "Are you crazy?" Ford answered, "Are you crazy?"
Two of the psychiatrists diagnosed Ford as psychotic, the third found Ford's disorder to be "contrived and recently learned." All three found him competent for execution.
Ford's lawyers argued that his state psychiatric examination was insufficient, and his execution has been postponed by the state until the U.S. Supreme Court acts.
Almost everyone who has worked with Ford says that he is an oddity on Florida's death row, where 225 of the nation's 1,500 condemned criminals reside. Most death row inmates come from childhoods of extreme poverty, deprivation and horrible physical abuse.
Ford grew up in a pleasant black suburb near St. Petersburg. His major difficulties seem to have revolved about his father, a chronic alcoholic who died in 1971 and who often failed to bring paychecks home to his wife and six children.
Ford -- the oldest boy -- and his older sister worked as they were growing up to help support the family. Their mother, Connie Ford, worked as many as three jobs -- as a maid, a night-shift nurse and a tomato packer. The family tended a large vegetable garden, and Connie Ford canned the produce.
A tall, elegant, articulate woman, Connie Ford, now 52, describes her children as overachievers who were encouraged to pursue the American dream. All six finished high school. Two daughters are nurses, another is a secretary and her two remaining sons are in the service. Alvin Ford played high school football, participated in Future Farmers of America and won an honorable mention at the state science fair.
After high school graduation in 1972, he moved to Gainesville to earn money for college. Working in a restaurant, he quickly became assistant manager, supervising other workers, earning nearly $200 per week and sending money to his family each week.
Florida State University Professor Laurin Wollan, one of the lawyers who has pieced together Ford's history, said Ford began to feel pressured because a problem with dyslexia made it difficult for him to balance the restaurant books. Feeling that he was not performing adequately, he quit.
Ford soon registered for criminology courses at a nearby junior college and got a job as a prison guard at the Union Correctional Institution, across the river from his cell on death row.
He was fired several months later after reporting late to work. His lawyers say Ford sank into depression and started using cocaine, PCP and marijuana. He never told his family he was fired and began to sell drugs to support his habit and to send money home.
In July 1974, he and several friends headed for Fort Lauderdale to buy cocaine. There, on a Sunday morning, they decided to rob a Red Lobster. As things began to go wrong, Ford's three accomplices fled in a getaway car.
Ford, trying to escape, rounded a corner in the restaurant, gun in hand, and came face to face with Ilyankoff. He shot the policeman twice, then came back to get the keys to the police cruiser. Florida prosecutors said Ford then shot Ilyankoff in the head, execution style. Ford said he fired when the injured officer reached for his gun.
He sped away in the cruiser, then drove in his own car to his mother's house. Ford's sister Norma, who was there when he arrived, said all that he would say was, "Tell Mama I ain't do it; tell Mama I ain't do it," again and again. He then drove home to Gainesville where police were waiting.
In the years since the murder, Ford has exhausted most of his appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this year whether to take the case.
In their petition to the court, Ford's lawyers say, "It offends the most basic notions of fairness and decency to execute human beings in such a helpless condition -- unable to understand what is happening to them, to defend themselves as the law might still allow, to prepare for imminent death or to make peace with their God.
"For at least 700 years, the common law has forbidden execution of the presently incompetent as a savage and inhuman act and a miserable spectacle of extreme inhumanity and cruelty . . . , " the petition says.
But Florida, which bans execution of the mentally incompetent, argues that Ford has been found to be competent for execution.
Ironically, if the U.S. Supreme Court finds Ford incompetent for execution, Florida would provide mental health treatment. If he could be cured of his mental illness, Ford could then be executed.
Michael Radelet, a University of Florida sociology professor who has assisted Ford, said the issue creates a major ethical dilemma for psychiatric personnel who are asked to evaluate or treat death row inmates. Mental health professional associations are debating whether members should be urged not to participate in death row work.
Ford has never admitted to his family that he pulled the trigger.
His mother says that she was horrified by the crime. "When this thing happened with Alvin, I wanted to be dead myself. I was suicidal," she said. She said she grieved for the policeman's family and wanted to go to them. "But I didn't know what I could say."
It has been more than a year since Connie Ford saw her son; she made the five-hour drive, but he refused to move out of his cell. He later told his lawyers that his mother was being raped in an alley behind the prison.
"It's not my Alvin any more," she said. "He talks way out and thinks you should understand, but it's not real. It seems like something clicked in his mind."
If the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to take the case, Connie Ford said she is prepared for the consequences. At the time of his second death warrant in 1984, she went to the undertaker to pick out a coffin, flower arrangements and a burial suit for her son.
"Alvin's already in a spirit world. He's not really here," she said. "However the Lord sees fit to do things, I accept. God's will is my will. When the time comes, I plan to do the eulogy. The Lord has prepared me."