JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hours away from being put to death by lethal injection, condemned murderer Mark Asay of Jacksonville is still fighting for his freedom.
An anti-death penalty lawyer is seeking a stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court for Asay, who was sentenced to death in 1988 for killing two men in downtown Jacksonville -- Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell.
Asay was 23 years old when he was convicted. He is now 53.
Besides the 30 years he has been on Florida's death row, Asay previously served time in a Texas prison for auto theft and burglary. He was on parole at the time of the Jacksonville murders.
A year ago, Asay asked News4Jax anchor Tom Wills to come to the prison and interview him, but he postponed the interview when he got a stay. That stay ended when Gov. Rick Scott signed a new death warrant for Asay last month. He is scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Asay's execution would be the first for Florida in 18 months and the first since the Legislature rewrote the death penalty law to now require unanimous jury recommendations for a death sentence. Asay's jury voted 9-3 for the death penalty.
If the execution goes through, Asay would be the first white person put to death in Florida for murdering a black person.
In his first and only interview since he was sentenced for first-degree murder, Asay admitted to Wills that he killed McDowell, a white or Hispanic Jacksonville man known on the street as "Rene," a transvestite, but insisted that he did not kill Booker, who was black.
Booker's body was found in July 1987 under the porch of an abandoned house near downtown Jacksonville not far from 16th and Main, where McDowell was found shot to death. The two murders took place just hours apart and police had a solid lead toward finding the killer: a candy apple red late-model Ford pickup truck with a missing rear bumper was seen leaving the scene.
Asay drove such a vehicle.
His brother, Robby, and another man, Bubba, were with Asay the night of the murders. Neither was ever charged in relation to the killings.
Asay maintains he committed only one murder that night. He told Wills that ballistic evidence used against him at the time to show that both victims were killed with the same gun is now known to be wrong.
Asay was given two death sentences because prosecutors convinced the jury that both murders were racially motivated, because police at the time believed McDowell was a light-skinned black person, a mistake that authorities only recently acknowledged.
Asay said he wishes he could plead guilty to second-degree murder and be released for time served.
Below are excerpts from Wills' death row interview with Asay:
Wills: Why did you ask me to come down here and interview you?
Asay: I just selected you because I'm a resident of Jacksonville and your program has been serving the Jacksonville community, and I said, 'When I get ready to speak I will use you.'”
Wills: Is there something on your mind that you want to say first?
Asay (choking up): Well, really, just that I'm sorry and things just got out of control.
Wills: Do you have regrets?
Asay nods, tears up
Wills: Mr. Asay, are you afraid of dying?
Asay: Not at all. I'm born again.
Wills: Tell me about your faith.
Asay: I'm a Christian, and I'm born again. I'm loved by the Lord. I'm 100 percent confident that if I'm going to get relief here, it's because of the truth. And if I'm not going to get relief here, it's because the Lord knows that my life here on earth will not be productive. Because I pray, and I say, 'I've had all of the prison I want. So I want out of prison -- through the front door or the back.'
Wills: You don't want life in prison in the general population?
Asay: No, I don't want life in prison (even) if they had an institution that had Ramada Inn-style housing. Prison is prison. I have served 36 years of my life in prison. If the purpose of prison is not accomplished now, it's never going to be accomplished. If the purpose is just to protect me from society and protect society from me, OK, I accept that, but I'm saying I'm not a violent person or a threat to society. But if the government is like, 'Well, we can't be sure,' then I'm prepared to submit to the execution Thursday and go on and be at peace with my Lord.
But if society can be benefited from having somebody like me give a testimony that a person should be more concerned about living than appearances, then here I am, but we've got to come to the table. Everybody made mistakes. The government was acting in good faith in the initial stages of this prosecution. They had no reason to doubt the ballistics evidence, because nobody had ever questioned it, but now they know that the ballistics evidence is unreliable. And they know that in the zeal of the prosecution, errors were made that were unfair to me that place me in an untenable position to defend myself or to come forward and admit my culpability in the McDowell case, and now they're holding that against me. … The new ballistics evidence says that it's impossible to make a ballistics comparison determination. There's no criteria for that.
Wills: What can you tell me about the murder of Robert McDowell?
Asay: That just happened as I was having a meltdown apparently. That's all I can say. I knew Robert McDowell as Rene. I had previous encounters with him, and we were sociable, and he did take money from me one time. I had said, in my mind, 'When I see him, I’m going to kick his ass.' But I never intended to murder him. It just happened.
Wills: But you did shoot him?
Asay: I did shoot him.
Wills: How many times did you shoot him?
Asay: It is reported that he was shot six times.
Wills: Were you drunk?
Asay: I was very drunk. In fact, I passed out within minutes after shooting him from that intoxication, so I don't know what happened. I can only look at it in hindsight. But I know that anybody that says I'm not concerned (chokes up), don't know me.
Wills: How did the police find you?
Asay: Through tips. People that knew me and my family was hearing rumors, of course, the news – maybe even you guys might have announced on the news that the police were looking for a red truck with no bumper. And, of course, I had a red truck with no bumper. So people were saying, 'Well, maybe he's involved.' Didn't nobody know for sure, but that led to the police hearing my name and people coming forward. And then some other friends of the family, in an effort to obtain the Crime Watch money that was being offered, went to the police and put the police onto Robby and Bubba. And, of course, when the police come and got them, they were scared to death that they were going to get charged with murder, and they told the police the things that they told them, implicating me in the homicides.
Wills: What can you tell me about your family?
Asay: My sister (Gloria Dean) is a loving sister and supportive. But my family and everyone is on their own and doing their own thing. So I do not really have a close relationship with everyone.
Asay: Well I know we love each other. It is hard, because he carries the guilt.
Wills: Does he come and see you?
Asay (crying): He has come before. It is not his fault. He did not know anything was going to happen. He was just there. No one knew. I didn't know.
Wills: Do you have tattoos that say 'supreme white power'?
Asay: I did, but I got these tattoos when I was incarcerated in Texas. I was 19 years old, forced to survive in a hostile prison environment, and I got these tattoos in that environment so that I could blend in so that I could be safe in that environment. They are not representative at all of who I am, but they are tattoos, and they're not easily removed. They're easy to put on but they're not easy to remove, and so I've had to live with them. I have covered them up. I had a swastika on my elbow; I covered that up. I had an SWP on my arm; I burned it off. I've removed every racial tattoo I had, except for the ones that I can't reach.
Wills: So you are not a white supremacist?
Asay: Never have been. I've had African-American friends all my life. But I've had to live in very hostile environments, and I've had to manage the best I could. While it's a poor choice, it's a choice I made, and I can't undo it.
Wills: Is there anything you'd like to say to the McDowell family?
Asay: I'm very sorry for what happened. Rene was actually a friend of mine, so (choking up) I don't know what happened. I did not go out with intentions of having a problem with anybody. I just got drunk. I suppose, because of my internal emotional problems that I had, the alcohol just served as a catalyst to cause me to lose my mind, to be perfectly honest. I was very disturbed myself. But what can I do? It's done. I didn't run. I could have ran. I live 5 miles from where this happened. People told me, 'You should leave town.' I said, 'You can't run from this.' I was hoping against hope that it would blow away, but it didn't, so what can I do?
Wills: You are not a death penalty opponent?
Asay: No. I don’t weigh in whether it is right or wrong because I understand the grief and agony that families feel. They are angry.