On September 14, 1979, Michael William Daniels’ sentencing order directed that he be executed “in a manner prescribed by law, before sunrise on March 28, 1980.” Within an hour he was triple-shackled and in a van on his way to death row at Michigan City, Indiana. He was 21 years old. He had 196 days left to live.
Thirty-three years later I asked him what he thought when that sentence was read in court.
“I didn’t get why they had to say before sunrise,” he said. “What if the sun didn’t rise that day? What if it was cloudy all day? How do they know when the sun rises? Before sunrise? Why even say that? But what I was really stressin’ on, ya-feel-me, was they violated my fundamental due process rights; it was a fundamental — fundamental, yadig? – fundamental miscarriage of justice, and I shoulda been outahere four years ago, yafeelme? Four years ago. Out, Before sunrise, four years ago. And off he went on another rant.
Like every other conversation we had in G-Cellhouse at Pendleton, Daniels didn’t stand at his cell door to talk. He remained in bed, facing the wall, a sheet held tightly around his head, face exposed to the yellow wall, his loquaciousness dependent upon how recently he’d taken his psych meds.
My job as a law library clerk was to help him with his pro se legal efforts to file papers in court, a task made difficult by Daniels’ scatterbrained ‘legal’ writings, and by the fact that roughly twenty attorneys had already picked through and exhausted every available claim in three decades of litigation. If Daniels were to stack his paperwork against Pendleton’s 30-foot wall, he could climb over and out into freedom.
But now, any hope for relief was microscopically thin. In a contest between finding life on Mars and finding a release date for Michael Daniels, Mars wins.
Yet convicts survive on hope.
Throughout the years since his arrest on January 27, 1978, Daniels’ hopes had been raised, then dashed, over and over, as he alternately won release dates, lost them, and endured new execution dates. His future was constantly being reshaped by forces outside of his control.
His hopes first rose on November 8, 1978, when the Marion County Prosecutor agreed to allow Daniels to plead guilty in exchange for a 60-year sentence. That plea bargain would have released Daniels in 30 years, in 2008, at age 49. Even the widow of the murder victim agreed to the terms. But five weeks later the judge refused to accept the deal, forcing the parties to go to trial.
At trial, witnesses recounted Daniels’ role as the gunman in a mid-blizzard robbery spree. Over a foot of snow fell on Indianapolis on the night of January 16, 1978, and as residents shoveled their driveways, Daniels, Kevin Edmonds and Donald Cox cruised the neighborhoods, looking for victims. Daniels would later be described in court as a “slow learner” and “easily led,” factors that Donald Cox surely recognized when he put the pistol in Daniels’ hand, drove the car, and selected the victims.
At 8:00 p.m. Daniels and Edmonds forced Steve McCloskey to hand over his wallet; McCloskey’s mother attacked Daniels with a broom and got punched in the face in return. At 9:30 15-year-old Timothy Streett gave up his wallet, and when Timothy’s father, Allen, had no wallet, Daniels shot him. Allen Streett died.
Undeterred, forty minutes later, they relieved Jack Beem of his wallet and Mary Ann Beem of her purse. At about 11:00 they happened upon Dr. Robert Barnett, who refused to be robbed. Daniels shot him three times. Dr. Barnett survived and was a particularly convincing witness.
Sentencing Judge Patricia Gifford made note of Daniels’ “horrible, chaotic, abusive, violent life,” but went on to say that this only explained Daniels’ behavior – it didn’t excuse it. Daniels got 20 years on each of four counts of robbery, 50 years for shooting Dr. Barnett, and the death penalty for killing Allen Streett. All of it was consecutive – death plus 130 years.
As is done in death penalty cases, a legion of court-appointed lawyers stayed the execution and commenced the appellate and post-conviction process. The direct appeal raised Daniels’ hopes – five potential jurors had been excluded because it was questionable whether they could apply the death penalty. The appeal failed in 1983 and Daniels’ spirits sagged again. A post-conviction petition was filed in 1984, raising issues of ineffective assistance of counsel, but the county court rejected the claims, and an appeal failed in 1988. But the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the denial in 1989 and remanded it back to the county court. Such a rare occurrence raised Daniels’ hopes again, but those hopes came crashing back down when the county found a new reason for denial and another appeal lost in 1990.
It was around then that Daniels’ mind snapped. There was a long period of mental corrosion that finally culminated with Daniels sitting on the floor against the wall, wrapped in a blanket, incoherent and unresponsive. “Mikey was always kind of a goofy, silly kid,” said Stuart Kennedy, a former death row prisoner who witnessed the meltdown. “Not too bright, easily influenced. But one day he just withdrew, and he never really came back.”
Perry Miller arrived on the row in 1991, and by then Daniels was fully “gone.” Managed by meds. No counseling, no programs. It was a chore to even get Daniels to bathe. Observed Miller, “The State didn’t care, because they were going to execute him anyway. Why waste resources on a dead man?”
In 1993 another post-conviction petition argued that the judge abused his discretion when he rejected the plea bargain in 1978. In 1994, Marion County Judge James Detamore agreed, and imposed the 60-year sentence. Daniels finally had his 2008 release date, and he was moved to B-Block in Michigan City’s general population.
But not for long. The State wasn’t done with Daniels.
Having invested in 16 years of litigation, the State was no longer agreeable to Daniels having the plea bargain that was originally offered. The Attorney General appealed, the new sentence was stayed, and Daniels was returned to death row. In 1997 the State won the appeal, and the death penalty was back in place, more firmly than ever.
Daniels lost another petition in 1998, appealed, and lost the appeal on a narrow 3-2 decision. His attorneys then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court. All this time, execution dates came and went.
While the habeas petition was pending, Daniels got, in his opinion, some very bad news. On January 7, 2005, outgoing Governor Kernan commuted Daniels’ death sentence to LWOP ~ life without parole. But Daniels didn’t want LWOP, he wanted the 60-year sentence. In one of my last conversations with Daniels, I asked him why he was filing paperwork arguing that the governor lacked authority to commute his sentence.
“He just can’t make up a sentence to screw my case up,” he said. “He didn’t give me nuthin.’ He just made it so nobody would help me no more, and so I could die in prison. They still killin’ me either way, don’t you see that? LWOP is a death sentence. A hunnid and thutty years is a death sentence. Any time you can’t live to see the end of it, it’s a death sentence.”
Given all the defects in his mental processes, he had a surprisingly strong point.
The State is killing thousands of people, not just the ones on death row. Anyone with a life sentence, or with a release date too far away to reach, can be said to be sentenced to death as well. That death won’t come by lethal injection, electrocution or firing squad – it’ll come by age, isolation, inactivity and medical neglect.
These quasi-death-row prisoners won’t get attorneys to argue their cases like real death row prisoners get. When Daniels’ death sentence was commuted, his statutory right to free court-appointed attorneys dried up, and he was left to fight his case on his own, like so many thousands of other prisoners.
Daniels left death row for good in 2005 and was transferred to Pendleton’s population, where I first encountered him in 2006. He stole my bath towel one day, and I had to track him down, wet, and demand it back. He played it off like he took it by accident. Mine was large and yellow, his was small and white; yeah, I can see the mistake. I next met him in 2011 when he was on administrative segregation in G-Cell house. He was in segregation simply because he was too dysfunctional to get along in general population.
I do wonder what his story would have been had the judge accepted the plea in 1978. He’d have gone off to prison, completed programs and gotten some education. He’d have been released seven years ago. He probably wouldn’t be the mentally ill – no, that’s not the word for it – mentally devastated person now burdening the State. Thousands of attorney man-hours would never have been spent on him, and fifteen courts wouldn’t have had to make additional rulings on his case.
Michael Daniels now resides at New Castle Correctional Facility, in the mental health unit. He still files court documents that are barely readable. He has no release date. As far as he’s concerned, his death penalty remains in place.
Scientists are certain that Mars once had surface water. On that planet, the search for life goes on.
You can contact this writer directly:
Ty Evans #15829
INDIANA C. F.
One Park Row
Michigan City, IN