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The prisoner ...

A man's death sentence is a life sentence for a boy who desperately wants to believe his father is innocent.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


EUSTIS -- Shawn Jason Derrick, the dreamer, never lets his mind wander into the little room where they kill boys' fathers.

He knows there is such a place, there in one of the houses of brick and razor wire that have been his weekend home since he learned to crawl, the place where guards used to search his diapers for drugs and blades.

When his imagination starts skittering down those dull gray corridors toward the glassed-in rectangle of bright light, Shawn stares hard at the ceiling above his bed to make the nausea pass, to make his mind empty again.

He prefers the other dream, the one in which the courts tell his father, "You can go home now." He pictures bringing his dad to school, showing him off, a strapping 6 feet, 207 pounds, big like his son, a free man in a free man's clothes. He pictures the two of them under the hood of a '57 Chevy, their hands filthy with grease, his dad teaching him how to fix something, maybe an alternator. The two working quietly into the night.

But then he wakes, on the bunk he shares with his kid brother, amid his Hot Wheels and Florida Marlins pennants, under walls pinned with prison Polaroids and the sketch his dad sent home of their dream Chevy with flames licking the sides.

He wakes and he's back, a lonely 13-year-old facing a protracted version of every kid's direst dread -- the prospect of a parent's death -- with this special torture: He knows who will do it, and how.

Capital punishment, right or wrong, is meant for the worst of the worst. As a child of death row, Shawn Derrick is one of its unintended, invisible and innocent casualties.

* * *

Shawn works the console of his Sony PlayStation, running cops off the road, the best part of the game Driver, in which he gets to be an underworld wheelman. "I hate them," he says, pixeled police cruisers screeching and crashing on the screen.

He lives in a sleepy town called Eustis, near Leesburg, and until recently sang in the Sunday kids' choir at the Sorrento Christian Center. He wants to be a rapper, or a cartoonist, or maybe a Christian rock star, depending on which month you ask.

At school, they call him Big Tank, a nickname Shawn loves because it refers to how fiercely he charges on the football field, where a 220-pound eighth-grader is awesome and fear-inspiring. In the halls, it just means getting called fat, though that's only the second meanest nickname he hears.

He loves his mom, Cherie, who is raising him alone on her Wal-Mart salary. He loves his 7-year-old half brother, Kyle. And he loves his dad, Samuel Jason Derrick, who lives three hours north in Raiford, in a cage at Union Correctional Institution. Shawn lists his idols as Michael Jordan, Jeff Gordon, God and Prisoner No. 097494.

When he spots his dad's initials on the letters that come from prison, his heart moves a little with pride. S.J.D. They're his initials, too. He inherited them, the same way he inherited his size, and what to think of cops.

Shawn's bedroom is a shrine to his father. It's also a private dreamscape. In the posters of ballplayers, he sees the games they'll go to together. In the Hot Wheels he arranges and rearranges lovingly on his dresser, he sees the speedsters and hot rods and antiques they'll tinker on together. Maybe when they open that NASCAR shop they've talked about.

Shawn used to take it for granted that all those things would be possible, someday. For as long as he can remember, his parents told him what he ached to hear: It's only temporary; there's been an awful mistake; we'll be a family again soon.

They were his parents; he believed them. Believed them too, as a youngster, when they told him "Daddy's at work" to explain why they piled into the Corolla before dawn and drove and drove, then passed under coils of razor wire just to see him for a few hours.

Continued to believe, a few years later, when they told him why Daddy couldn't leave this place: He's in trouble for running into a telephone pole.

He was 9 when he learned the truth. Rummaging through a cabinet, looking for something or other, he found Mom's hidden stash of news clippings. He started reading. It was a murder story.

The setting was Moon Lake, then a backwater of pitted dirt roads and sagging mobile homes in Pasco County, where Shawn's parents used to live. The victim was a man named Rama Sharma.

He was 55, the owner of the Moon Lake General Store, an immigrant from India with no local family. He had closed up the night of June 24, 1987, and headed home with $360 in store receipts. A passer-by found him the next morning, with stab wounds covering his face, neck and body, 33 cuts in all, 20 of them in his back. The money was gone.

There, in the clips, was a photo of the man the cops identified as the killer, a fresh-faced 20-year-old described as an unemployed high school dropout who had been in and out of trouble for years.

Shawn read that a friend as well as a jail house snitch had implicated the suspect. Under interrogation, he confessed how he lay in wait in the bushes to rob the store owner, but Sharma recognized him and started screaming . . . so he stabbed him and stabbed him to shut him up, then sank the double-edged knife and his own bloody shirt in a lake. The jury gave him death.

When Shawn finished reading, he was quiet for a long time. The killer had Shawn's initials, a younger version of his dad's face . . . except the boy couldn't connect the man crouched in the bushes with a knife to the man he knew, the one with the big smile who scooped him up in his arms every weekend.

Shawn's mom was angry that he had found the newspaper clippings. You're still too young, Cherie Derrick said, you shouldn't have read them.

It's my right, Shawn insisted.

His dad settled it: Our son should know.

Shawn learned that he was 29 days old when his dad was arrested. He learned that Pasco sheriff's detectives never got his dad's confession on tape, never found the submerged knife or the bloody shirt -- gaps in the evidence that didn't seriously trouble prosecutors, judges and jurors, gaps that Shawn embraced as proof positive of a frame-up.

There were details Shawn didn't learn. That his father rode with detectives to the murder scene and showed them where he lay in wait for Sharma, that he led them through the woods in search of the discarded items. That he wept when he confessed and told detectives: "I'm an animal."

For a sixth-grade English assignment, Shawn made a 10-page colored picture book titled "Innocent Man on Death Row." The cover shows the scales of justice, defaced by a diagonal slash. One drawing shows the Moon Lake General Store, crossed with crime scene tape; another shows a shadowy, martyred figure trapped behind bars.

"So please, when you talk about how much you hate your father, remember that not everyone can play catch, or ask their dad for advice," Shawn read from the book to the class. "I hope you will take this story seriously and not taunt me, because of where my father is."

It mostly worked, this plea. Classmates showed respectful curiosity, even solidarity. But there also came the nickname that cut so much deeper than being called fat: The killer's kid. Don't get on Shawn Derrick's bad side -- his dad might get out and murder you.

He's careful now whom he confides in. Even friends aren't safe, because he never knows when they'll turn the knowledge into a weapon. An argument gets bad enough and they poke at the one subject guaranteed to wound him.

"I tell them my dad shouldn't be there, and they better keep quiet," Shawn says, balling his hand into a fist. "The kids know not to go as far as my father. Because when they go as far as my father, I get really mad.

"They don't know how wrong they are."

* * *

A father on death row has to choose between two bad options. One is to distance himself from his kids, sparing them pain later. The other is to stay involved in their lives, knowing a death warrant awaits. Is it better to have a father whose extinction hovers on the horizon, or to have no father at all?

If Samuel Jason Derrick has wrestled with this question, he doesn't show it. Nor did he worry that his son would turn on him when he learned the real reason he was in prison. "I never even gave it no thought," Derrick says in his rough drawl. "Because before that, he would know that Daddy is a good guy."

Now 33, Derrick is tall and powerfully built, his face harder and thicker than it was 14 years ago.

"I ain't never been to school," he says. "Things I know how to do I learned myself. I ain't had nobody teach me how to do things. That's what troubles me with my son -- he ain't got nobody to teach him how to do things."

In the death row visiting room, on a cheap plastic board, Derrick teaches his son chess. "He gets mad at me. I think he expects me to let him win," Derrick says. "If I just hand it to him, then he's going to expect that in life, and I don't want him to expect things like that in life."

Hunched over the board, game after game, they talk about the girls Shawn likes, basketball and football stats, the Bible, cars, the status of Derrick's case -- everything except what happens if his appeals fail. Derrick stokes his hopes with news that his state-appointed lawyers in Tallahassee haven't given up.

In the visiting room, some of the faces Shawn became accustomed to growing up are gone now, and with them some of the kids he used to play paper swords with.

"Can any child really understand, even if you explain it to him, the concept of death row?" Derrick says. "I don't know if he'll be able to accept it or not. He's awfully young. Maybe if he was an adult and didn't need me in the sense of how a young boy would need his father, it might be easier for him."

Derrick is trying to prepare his son for that day, supplying the arsenal of essentials he figures a boy ought to have. Things like: Be good to your mom. A family's just like a baseball team: Everyone needs to do his part. Never hit girls. If someone tries to hit you, hit back: It gains respect.

Of course, it's easy to be a perfect father when you are not a daily father. Derrick has never had to ground his son or endure an hours-long screaming jag. A wild 20-year-old when Shawn was born, Derrick already had convictions for forgery, burglary and theft. "In reality I wasn't ready to be a father."

But now, he says, "I try to teach him how to be a man. To me, I don't consider a man just a male who's an adult. A man is psychological, it's not physical. That's what I'm trying to teach him, how to be a man psychologically."

Then it's time to say goodbye for another week or month or two months. Derrick returns to his 6-foot by 9-foot cage, where he sits on his bunk filling notebook after notebook: more of what his son will need to know to be a man, should he find himself alone later in life. Derrick hasn't told his son about these notebooks, but he intends for him to get them if his death warrant is signed.

Shawn returns to the daylight, to home, to school, his dad's words a drumbeat in his head: They lied about me. Witnesses, cops, prosecutors -- they lied to put me here. But I'll be going home with you one of these days.

Shawn does what he's always done when it comes to his dad, does what he can't help doing. He believes him.

* * *

About 3,700 people are on death rows across the country. The children of the condemned, in some important ways, are like other children. They believe in their parents, something that has little to do with the objective sifting and weighing of evidence.

The case of Anthony Bryan is a lesson in such faith. By the time the state of Florida executed him last year, Bryan had stopped denying that he had marched an elderly night watchman to a creek in Santa Rosa County, stolen his wallet and shot him in the head.

Still, his children couldn't fathom him doing anything so savage. They remembered him as the captain of a big, steel-hulled shrimp boat, with its fish smell and tangle of nets.

"I can't picture that man actually putting a shotgun to a man's face and blowing his head off," says Bryan's son Timothy, who is 20 now. "I never asked him. I pretty much always believed he didn't do it."

Nor did he believe, as he stood on the grassy pasture across from Florida State Prison in Starke praying for a last-minute stay, that his father's sentence would be carried out. "Even up to the last two minutes, I thought it wouldn't happen."

"People want so much to hope," says Margaret Vandiver, a professor at the University of Memphis who studies the family dynamics of death row inmates. "And what's the alternative to hope? "They're going to kill your father one of these days'? How do you bring up a child telling him that?"

Parents don't. Instead, they hammer home this message: Just hang on. Death doesn't necessarily mean death. Over and over -- 21 times since 1972 -- people have come home from Florida's death row, for reasons ranging from outright innocence to severe legal errors. That fuels the belief that however long the odds, anyone can come home.

The children of the condemned are snared between mutually hostile worlds: the world of the parent they need in a thousand simple and complicated ways, and the world of murder, evidence and the official stamp of condemnation by judge and jury.

"How can a child understand his own position in society when his loyalty to his father puts him at odds with society and the state?" Vandiver says. "There are two separate realities here, and there's no way to reconcile them except by saying, "My father is innocent.' But what if the evidence is overwhelming that he is not innocent?"

Shawn Derrick goes a little crazy every time the news carries word of another execution. The same month that Florida sent Bryan to the death chamber, Texas did the same to Betty Lou Beets. "I was on a warpath at school that day," Shawn says. "I was mad. I was depressed. I told my teachers to stay off my case, because I'll blow up today."

Another bad day -- one of the worst -- came when Shawn learned the length of the average stay on Florida's death row: just over 11 years. "My dad's been there 13 years," he says. "My dad's time is up."

* * *

Mike Halkitis, the prosecutor who persuaded a judge and jury to send Samuel J. Derrick to death row, has four kids of his own. He sympathizes with Shawn, he says, but what is there to do? As long as people murder, their families will suffer, capital punishment or no capital punishment.

Halkitis doubts that sentencing Derrick to life in prison would make things any easier on his son. "Which is more hell? It's like if you have cancer. Would you rather go down, or spend the next year whittling down, dying?"

What obligation does the state have to the children whose parents it undertakes to execute? Does society owe some kind of help to the innocents who live in the psychological wreckage of the death penalty?

Halkitis considers the question carefully. The state provides psychological help for families of crime victims, he says; maybe it could provide help for families like Derrick's.

"I think it's one flaw in the system. You have no counseling for Derrick's wife or child. If they can't afford it, they can't get it. The problem is, the taxpayers foot the bill."

Clint Vaughn, one of the detectives who coaxed a confession out of Derrick, doesn't blame the system for damaging Shawn. Derrick did it -- first by murder, then by lies. Vaughn believes that Derrick, and only Derrick, can rescue the boy: by looking him in the eye and saying, I did it. This is what I don't want to happen to you.

* * *

Shawn's mind has been taking him to dark places.

There was that dream, not long ago, in which he saw himself and two friends burst into the school bathroom and open fire on classmates. Not that he believes he's capable of anything like that, but it spooked him, so he told his mom. She banned video games involving guns from their house.

So he plays them at Lake Square Mall arcade. In one game, he plays a police sniper; in another, a gunman mowing down wave after wave of zombies. "You've just got to kill 'em all," Shawn says, squinting into a sniper's sight.

His temper frightens him, especially because he knows his size. There was the sixth-grade girl he tried to choke last year when she accidentally bonked him in the head with a plastic ball. He's not proud of that. Dad says not to hit girls. "It scares me that one day I'm going to blow up and hurt somebody really, really bad. I'm real easy to set off. It's like someone pushes my button and, "bang.' "

Cherie Derrick senses the rage building in her son, and it scares her: the after-school suspensions, the hallway scuffles with other kids, the obscene rap lyrics Shawn can rattle off in whole chunks, the way he seems angry at everything, especially her. The 32-year-old mother can't say how much is just adolescence and how much is the legacy of that night in Moon Lake nearly 14 years ago.

"All he ever wanted was for me and his dad to be together again. He's really afraid that I'm going to fall in love with someone else," especially lately, since she started dating a co-worker at Wal-Mart.

"He has this perception of his father being home and everything being normal. That I didn't keep my end of the bargain."

For years, she says, she thought of Derrick as her true love, even as he went to death row, even as she divorced him and moved in temporarily with the man who gave her Kyle. But now there are no more predawn drives with Shawn to prison. Cherie refuses to go. Shawn has to get other rides.

Cherie tells her son, gently, that he shouldn't put his life on hold, that the odds against his father are long.

Should she have encouraged his daydreams for so long? She saw no alternative to hope, but hope, she has learned, can impale you like a stick; she has been feeling much better since giving it up. If she doesn't warn her son now, who will?

"I guess it's something I should have been more open about through the years," she says. "Of course, Jason's not going to tell him he's never coming home."

When Shawn's mother began dating her co-worker, Shawn decided immediately that he loathed him. Grumbled when his name came up. Stalked off when she mentioned him spending the night. Let his mom know in no uncertain terms where he stood on this. Kept asking: What are you going to tell Dad when he gets home?

* * *

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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