The Downs brothers didn’t have much in common, until they each committed very different murders and ended up together on death row.
By Ned Zeman
Bobby Lee Downs
Ernest Charles Downs
On a brilliantly sunny spring day in 1978, a skinny 14-year-old misfit named Bobby Lee Downs saw Florida State Prison for the first time. It was midaftemoon, the time of day when the relentless subtropical sun bakes the drab lime-green building, along with everyone inside it. Bobby, squinting and shading his eyes, trembled slightly as he stood at the front gate. The whole miserable place gave him the creeps. And no wonder: Located outside the aptly named town of Starke, in the no-man's-land between Jacksonville and Gainesville, this is no Disney World. I don't wanna do this, man, Bobby kept thinking to himself. I want out.
Bobby, his mother and his sister had made the silent hour's drive from their trailer in the run-down Oceanway section of Jacksonville to visit his older brother. Twenty-nine-year-old Ernest Charles Downs had just been sentenced to die in the electric chair for what was almost certainly Jacksonville's most infamous crime in years: the contract murder of one Forrest J. "Jerry" Harris, a shady figure in the Jacksonville business community. It was a crime so notorious -yet so altogether boneheaded; Ernest stood to make only $2,500 for the cold-blooded murder- that Bobby thought about it every day.
When the family was reunited in the bleak visiting yard, Bobby cried. There was Ernest, tall and muscular, dressed in the peach T-shirt and blue pants worn by death-row inmates. Pictures were taken. Tears were shed. There were heartfelt, if awkward, embraces. Bobby, feeling a little woozy from the heat, looked around and took a long, deep breath. This is a nightmare, he thought. But, hell, at least the family's together.
Family was something of a foreign concept to Bobby, who hardly knew his brother. Ernest, with his rugged good looks and booming baritone, bears a slight resemblance to Peter Fonda. He is well-spoken and bright, with a 115 IQ; despite a lack of formal education, he has handled many nettlesome legal matters himself, writing expansive legal documents filled with all the requisite "wheretofore"s and "herewith"s. Ernest can also be quite brusque, even intimidating. Since his arrest, he's had run-ins with virtually every one of his attorneys, often over picayune strategy angles. By contrast, Bobby has always been diffident, slow, eager to please, a scrawny guy with a weak chin and dead eyes; always saying "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." His IQ is 75.
As the years after Ernest's conviction slid by, Bobby visited Ernest every month or two. But in the mid-Eighties, Ernest began to notice that Bobby was slipping -drinking, missing work, wading into beery brawls. Worse, Bobby's recent marriage to his pretty young wife, Nicole, was in trouble, and, everyone agreed, if anything could push Bobby over the edge, that was surely it.
It happened around noon on Wednesday, April 20, l988 -a scant eight months after the couple's wedding and ten years after Ernest's death sentence was handed down. Before anyone knew it, Bob had fired three point-blank shots at Nicole, splattering their children -2-year-old Rebecca and 8-month-old Barry (not their real names)- with their mother's blood.
As murder trials go, this one didn't last long. Bobby Lee Downs was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair-at Florida State Prison, where he would join inmate No. 063143, Ernest Charles Downs. The Downs brothers, separated for so many years, were together at last.
This American-gothic nightmare is unique; in fact, Ernest and Bobby Downs are the only brothers in America on death row for separate crimes. Though the motives for their crimes were entirely different, the reasons that the Downs boys have ended up where they have are nearly identical.
Ernest was born in 1948, the first of five kids. After Ernest, there was Danny, who died a few days after he was born, in 1950; Darlene, who has spent much of her life away from the family; Michael; and Bobby, the baby. Bill Downs, the father, worked construction. When work dried up in one town, the family would move on to the next. The kids were raised in a succession of low-rent hamlets such as Sauna, Kansas, and Titusville, Florida -sorry places consisting mainly of dilapidated trailer homes and ugly strip malls. The Downses finally settled in Oceanway, Florida, in the Seventies, because construction work was booming around nearby Jacksonville.
The elder Downs drank heavily and savagely beat his wife, Jacqueline, when he wasn't running around with other women. (He married eight times before he died, in 1989.) He also beat the kids, once hitting Ernest so hard with a wood plank that the boy was lifted off the ground. Although Jackie Downs never beat her children, she too was a big drinker, who, after one particularly raucous bender, tore up a leg in a car crash. To this day, she walks with a cane or a walker and cannot drive.
Ernest was an unusually smart kid whose intelligence and nomadic family life made him a bit of a loner. He brooded about his father, craving his acceptance; he never got it and was repeatedly told he was a disappointment.
Today, Jacqueline Downs, a weathered 61-year-old right out of Flannery O'Connor, is sitting in the corner of her trailer. Her gray hair is pulled back in a bun, and she tugs on her powder-blue sweatshirt as she speaks. It's expensive to keep the lights on, so she's sitting in near darkness, surrounded by an array of ceramic cats. "Ernest Charles had very few what you would call close buddies," she says. "His father, he moved us from place to place to place, and Ernest hated that. He hated him too. So Ernest never really got to meet no one but some girls."
To assuage his loneliness, and to nurture his expanding mind, Ernest took up hobbies. He was a natural with a pen and by the time he was 12 was drawing a comic strip, featuring a character called Oscar, for the Titusville Star Advocate. He later studied art in school. Mostly, though, Ernest was obsessed with magic, a talent that became so pronounced over the years that he was dubbed Wizard, a moniker he still uses.
For a while, everything looked rosy for Ernest -he was a solid B student- until Jacqueline left Bill and moved the kids to Sauna (only to return to him later, as usual), a military town that didn't exactly warm to long-haired yahoos like the Downs boys. His new school insisted that all boys wear brush cuts, so Ernest reluctantly got a haircut. Still not short enough, said the principal. To which Ernest replied, "Well, luck that," and, at 15, he left school for good. "When I found out you could quit school anytime, well, I split," Ernest says, sitting ramrod-straight in a windowless prison interview room. "That, looking back, was when things got all turned around. Man, I was dumber than a hound."
"No woman in the world deserves what we done to our mother," says Ernest of Jacqueline Downs. "We have to live with that every day of our lives."
After dropping out, Ernest headed back to Florida to see his father. "I hated the man," Ernest recalls, "but I needed him." He made it as far as Tufton, Georgia, before going broke and selling his car. Ernest met a girl there and joined the circus.
He remembers that period fondly, as if it were the last time he truly enjoyed life. The most striking thing about Ernest is his voice: Rich and deep, it's a preacher's voice. Then his hair, jet-black and slicked back, Wall Street-style. Then the gold -a necklace, a gaudy ring, wire-rimmed glasses. Ernest rarely smiles, and when he does, it looks weird, forced. "We traveled for about six months. I did the stuff where you throw darts at balloons and throw rings onto pop bottles. And they was always running me out of the trapeze net -where I slept- saying I made the net sag. So, instead, I would sleep on the teddy bears."
At 16, Ernest lied about his age and joined the army, boasting, "I'm gonna do a man's work." He made it through basic training but, facing the prospect of dying in some Khe Sanh rice paddy, got himself discharged and hightailed it to Salina. One afternoon, Ernest walked into a steak house, pulled out a plastic gun and told the cashier to hand over the money. He was nabbed one block away. He was given three years probation and, owing to his lack of familial guidance, was plunked into a series of foster families, the last of which was headed by a John Bircher, who, Ernest says, used him as a "showpiece" for other potentially wayward kids.
So Ernest took off again, which violated his parole and landed him in the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory -his first taste of prison life. Ernest spent eighteen months there; after saving a guard during a riot, he was transferred to an honor camp. It was there, in 1966, that he met a wild-eyed but childlike Texan named Larry Johnson. Johnson was a squat, boyishly handsome five-time loser and an amateur bodybuilder. He had been convicted of an armed robbery in which the victim was shot to death. Johnson was never tried for murder, but friends say he bragged about it whenever possible.
Larry and Ernest hit it off instantly. Though Johnson had just six months left to serve, he persuaded Ernest to escape with him and flee to Mexico. They got as far as El Reno, Oklahoma, where they were found cowering under a car.
"He was like a brother," Ernest says of Larry. "It was like he and I were in this together and you gotta take care of each other. He and I bonded. He didn't have no family, so he'd write my family. He became part of it. Friends forever."
Or at least for a while. At 21, Ernest was paroled and went to live with his mother, who had moved to Oceanway to live with her family. A few months later, when Johnson was freed, he followed his buddy to Florida. Nearly everyone loathed Larry. "We had written letters back and forth for years, and we became real close," says Ernest's aunt Dale Johnson, who lives in the trailer next door to Jacqueline's. "But later on, you could tell the Larry Johnson in his letters was not the Larry Johnson in real life." He was a hellacious drinker who couldn't hold down a job and who loved nothing more than to get into fights and to shoot his guns, of which he had many: pump-action rifles, handguns, semiautomatics. Ernest, a teetotaler, promised to give Larry his prized Corvette if he'd go on the wagon. He also made him his partner in his small construction firm.
As business picked up, Ernest began dealing with John Barfield, a smarmy, thuggish mushmouth who ran his own paving-and-construction enterprise in Jacksonville. It was a fairly successful business, but what Barfield really wanted was to own a place called Sonny's Lake Forrest Lounge, a seedy little dump. Problem was, Barfield couldn't come up with the financing and so, through his connections with some of Jacksonville's more unsavory businessmen, struck a deal with insurance-company executive Ron Garelick. Garelick said he would give Barfield the money, but first he wanted Barfield to do him a little favor. He wanted him to arrange a murder.
Meanwhile, Ernest's cool demeanor had begun to change. He had come across some photographs of his estranged wife, Dorothy, performing sexual acts with another woman, and he became obsessed with them. Even though friends say the couple, who had been married for seven years, had an open relationship, Ernest was seething. When John Barfield came calling with a "business proposition" involving the for-hire murder of a local businessman, Ernest listened good.
Barfield had hired two other men, Gerry Sapp and Huey Austin Palmer, to make the hit, but things hadn't worked out: Planning to shoot Jerry Harris, they went to the wrong house; later, a homemade bomb exploded in their own car.
So Barfield approached Ernest one afternoon down by the little creek that ran past the three-story home that Ernest was sharing with his then-girlfriend Debbie Griffin and Johnson. Barfield said he would pay Ernest and Larry $5,000 to kill a man. He offered no additional details.
"When Barfield approached me with this other thing, I don't know, my life was screwed up. Normally, if somebody comes and talks to you about killing someone, at best you say 'You gotta be kidding.' But I said 'Yeah'-I'm trying to play the big shot-'I'll talk to Johnson. I'll get him to do it for you.' " (By all accounts, Ernest did not, as he now maintains, agree to get Johnson to do the murder; he agreed to do it with Johnson.)
Larry said he'd do it, and so the three principals-Barfield, Ernest and Larry-met at the Foxfire Inn, a dive near I-95, to plan the murder. Barfield, saying Harris had "messed over some people bad in business," told the two that a third party wanted Harris killed so that the third party could collect the life insurance. Ernest and Larry didn't inquire further. So it was decided that Larry, using an alias, would phone Harris, an amateur pilot, and ask if he'd be willing to fly some "contraband" for him. Harris would then be lured to a lonely dirt road, shot and left in the open so that his death could be confirmed and the insurance would be paid.
Larry made the call at 8 P.M. on April 23, 1977, and Harris agreed to meet him at the Foxfire. Ernest and Larry tossed a rifle, a .25-caliber pistol and a shovel into Ernest's '77 Ford pickup, drove to the bar and waited for Harris.
The key question is, What happened next? If the official story -the one that put Ernest Downs on death row- is to be believed, the crime proceeded this way: At the Foxfire, Larry, despite his long history of unprovoked violence, tried to back out, saying "I'm going into the lounge to get drunk." But because he feared Ernest might kill him if he left, he agreed to go along while Ernest did the murder. They quickly persuaded Harris to drive with them to the lonely dirt road, and then, when the time was right, Ernest shot him.
"Ernest kind of jumped up in the air and come down backwards a few feet and almost stumbled and fell," Larry would later testify. "He righted himself and fired three more times, still stumbling backwards… Jerry Harris staggered back and fell down in front of the truck... then Ernest stuck the gun up to the right side of his head and fired again, point-blank." Then Harris's wallet was taken, the pistol (the murder weapon) and the rifle disposed of, and the victim's bullet-riddled body was dumped in a palmetto thicket.
Ernest tells it differently. "I was supposed to go down to the end of the dirt road and wait," says Ernest, echoing his court testimony. "But I more or less chickened out, and I left and went to my grandmother's house. When Johnson got Harris down to the dirt road and I wasn't there, I assumed he'd killed him."
The post-murder celebration was short-lived. It wasn't three days before they picked up a newspaper and realized they were in big trouble. The story of Harris's disappearance was front-page news, splashed all over the papers and local TV news for weeks. "We freaked out," Ernest says, his eyes rolling. He and Larry went to Barfield for an explanation. "Look what you've gotten us into, pal," Larry told Barfield, who was having a hard time coming up with the $5,000. At that point, Barfield told Ernest and Larry the whole story.
The FBI, Barfield explained, had been following Harris, who had lost his cushy job as a bank vice-president after being convicted of accepting illegal fees to arrange loans. The FBI was trying to make a deal with Harris to roll over on some of Jacksonville's most prominent business figures, most notably Ron Garelick and a well-known local pol. (FBI files on Harris, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, are extensive, but most of the sensitive areas have been blacked out.) Garelick had been a partner with Harris in an ill-fated $400,000 land-development venture and, as part of their association, had two life-insurance policies, totaling $500,000, on Harris. When the venture bottomed out, the two partners, each facing financial ruin, became bitter enemies. That's when Garelick asked Barfield to arrange Harris's murder.
Panicked, Ernest and Larry took off, going diving in Key Largo and Acapulco, then staying briefly with Larry's sister, in Conroe, Texas. "But every time we came back to Jacksonville," Ernest says, "this thing was still going in the papers. It ain't like it just died off; it was like it happened yesterday. We're thinking, Gee, nobody ever told me this sumbitch was messing people around."
Instead, they headed to Bay Minette, Alabama, with Debbie Griffin in tow. They shared a trailer, took part-time jobs and, for good measure, stole a Corvette. But on August 2, Ernest and Larry got into a nasty fight. Larry had been drinking again and was ranting that the police were on their trail. Ernest had had enough and said so. Larry became violent. Ernest told him to pack his bags, he was moving out. Larry headed for a dumpy motel, cursing all the way.
It was the last time Ernest and Larry would ever have contact. When Ernest and Debbie went to check on Larry, a day later, he was gone. Then, on August 4, as Ernest drove the hot Corvette down a causeway between Bay Minette and Mobile, he was pulled over by a state trooper. "I knew right then that Johnson had turned me in," Ernest recalls.
He was right. In domino fashion, Ernest, Barfield, Sapp and Palmer were arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Jerry Harris, whose barely recognizable remains had been found by the police a day earlier. They had been led to the remains by Larry Johnson, who had called them hours after leaving Ernest's trailer. I know about the murder of Jerry Harris, he'd told police, and I want to talk.
The next day, Ron Garelick's private plane crashed, and he died soon after.
Meanwhile, Larry was looking for a little payback -as in complete immunity in exchange for his testimony against the other conspirators. This is when Ernest's fate and Larry's fortune were sealed. Larry was told he could receive immunity only if, among other things, he testified truthfully against the others and he was not the triggerman (the premise being that the triggerman is the most culpable). This deal, it should be noted, was offered before Larry was ever asked who the triggerman was. Given these ground rules, just guess who Larry Johnson fingered.
Johnson was granted immunity, was placed in the Federal Witness-Protection Program and testified against Ernest, who was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy. Sapp received four and a half years for conspiracy, Palmer was granted immunity for his testimony, and Barfield was initially sentenced to death but later the sentence was commuted to twenty-five years to life. Because there was very little physical evidence and no witnesses, it was essentially Johnson's testimony that sent Ernest to death row.
But aside from this one point, there were other twists to the case that at least underscore the capriciousness of death sentences.
John Barfield, a virtual font of courtroom dissembling, has offered authorities several versions of what happened in order to save himself. But perhaps Barfield's most believable version of events was offered when he was speaking privately and, it would seem, candidly. Unbeknownst to Barfield, detectives had placed a wired informant in his cell. While offering a detailed description of the crime, Barfield told him that, during the murder, "Harris jumped back, said 'What the hell is going on?' and then Johnson shot him." The tape was never admitted into evidence because of poor audio quality, but a detective on the case was nevertheless able to transcribe it almost verbatim. "Hey, it don't matter to my case who done it," Bartield says today from prison, where he talked in exchange for a Coke. "Alls I know is, Johnson said he done it."
In Florida, as in all thirty-six states that have capital punishment, a death-penalty trial is bifurcated, which means it has two distinct parts: Phase one determines guilt or innocence; phase two determines if the defendant receives the death sentence. The point of the phase-two hearing is to explore whether mitigating factors such as alcoholism should be taken into account during sentencing. It's a crucial process.
For some reason, Ernest's original trial counsel, a journeyman defense lawyer named Richard Lovett Brown, called no defense witnesses at all in phase one and just three in phase two: not the relatives who were prepared to testify to Ernest's alibi, not the friends and colleagues who could testify about Ernest's state of mind, not anyone who could discuss Ernest's troubled childhood. Ernest eventually won a second phase-two proceeding but elected, foolishly, to represent himself. He lost. And because he was his own counsel, this cost him the opportunity to appeal the handling of any matter of the hearing.
Brown admitted at the second phase-two hearing that, during the phase-one trial, he had erred in not calling any defense witnesses and that he had instructed Ernest's grandmother, Bobbie Jo Michael -who was going to testify that Ernest was with her when Harris was murdered- not to cooperate with police so he could spring her testimony during the trial, which he never did. Both the grandmother and Brown are dead now, but Ernest's subsequent lawyers have speculated that Brown figured he had a life sentence in the bag and saw no reason to complicate the issue.
"You could safely say Ernest's legal representation was far from satisfactory," says noted New York City attorney Maurice Nessen, who handled Ernest's appeals from 1981 to 1987. "Think about it: Ernest gets no defense to speak of, and, worse, all the other guys -the planner, the triggerman- are either free or will be free. But only Ernest gets the chair. This nonsense happens all the time. It's a tragedy, a real nightmare. The man should have been off death row years ago."
During Ernest's first phase-two hearing, the prosecution informed presiding judge Dorothy Pate that Larry Johnson had taken four polygraph tests and passed all of them. This despite the fact that polygraph results, considered unreliable, are inadmissible in court; the mere mention of them can be prejudicial. When the defense asked to see the test transcripts, no one could find them; they had "disappeared." Ernest has never been given a polygraph test, although he has repeatedly requested one.
While in deliberation after Ernest's second sentencing hearing, in 1988, the jury asked judge Pate if the ten years Ernest had already served would count toward a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It's not hard to imagine the jury's debate: Well, I'll let him live if he does twenty-five, but I'm not letting him out in fifteen years. By all accounts, a judge's answer to such a question should be "That's irrelevant. Your only duty is to determine life or death. Time already served cannot be held against a defendant." Yet Judge Pate told the jury that "the defendant would receive credit for time served." The jury, from whom only six votes were needed to spare Ernest's life, voted eight to four for death.
So, should Ernest Downs be electrocuted?
"Ernest Downs is a vicious, smart, manipulative, dangerous, cold-blooded murderer," according to Ed Austin, the state's attorney who prosecuted Ernest's case. "All of Larry Johnson's testimony jibed with the evidence. Downs helped plan the murder and helped commit the murder. Do I like the fact that Larry Johnson got off? Of course not, but immunity is a necessary tool. Without Johnson, we had nothing. Now, at least we got one of them." When asked how anyone can be sure that Ernest, and not Larry, was the triggerman, Austin says that it really doesn't matter: "Even supposing Johnson pulled the trigger, Ernest still legally deserves death because he was a willing participant." Technically, this is accurate -non-triggermen do occasionally get the chair- but it also flies in the face of the very conceit for which Johnson was granted immunity: We'll give you a deal, Johnson, but only if you're not the triggerman; the triggerman gets the chair.
It has also been pointed out that, while Ernest had never before shown a tendency toward violence, he did try to grab a cop's gun and escape while in custody.
Then there are the words of Tom Young, a Jacksonville pastor and an old acquaintance, who has periodically visited Ernest in prison. "He talked about how he didn't have much of a taste for God," Young says sadly. "And his story, well, it changed. Yes, he said the other man did it. But first he said he wasn't there during the murder. Then, later, in tears, he said he was there. It changed."
That's Ernest's case -confusing, sad and a little suspect. Is he as shrewd and manipulative as some people think? Maybe. In the end, though, the only point that really matters is this: No one other than Larry and Ernest will ever really know who actually killed Jerry Harris that April night in 1977. It's quite possible, maybe even likely, that they were both there, as planned. And it's quite possible that, had Ernest confessed to the police first, Larry Johnson would now be on death row. Ernest knows that. "I ain't saying I'm innocent," he says. "I'm guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and of being dumb enough to want to kill a man. I deserve to pay for what I done. A man is dead, and I was involved. But I ain't done what they said, and they know it. I don't deserve to die for what another man done."
Bobby Downs, ashen and weary, is staring at the prison ceiling, drumming his willowy fingers, searching for an explanation of how he felt when Ernest was sentenced to death. "In my heart, I still don't believe it," he finally splutters, still tapping his fingers. "But he's here; it's just as real as this table"-he raps on the table in front of him, his handcuffs knocking against the wood. "I still don't believe he done it, and I still don't believe he's gonna die for it."
Bobby's drawl is decidedly thicker than Ernest's. He has a faint tear tattooed just under his left eye. He did it himself to mourn the wife he murdered in front of his children. He also has a tattoo on his sinewy right arm, a construction worker's arm, that features his wife's initials, N.D. The irony is lost on Bobby, who thinks Nicole "would be proud of me now."
From early on, it seemed that Bobby was headed for trouble. "He was sort of a mousy kid, with dirty old clothes and -what do you call 'em?- high-water pants," says Nancy Gill, who was the head of the PTA when Bobby was in junior high. "Plus, he had a brother on death row. Well, you can imagine how the kids treated him." The situation was made worse by the fact that Bobby was an excruciatingly slow student who needed special-education classes (which he rarely got). He didn't learn to read until he was 12, and his frustration was obvious.
"Bobby, now he gave me some problems," Jacqueline Downs recalls. "He was altogether different from Ernest. He didn't want to go to school. I'd drop him off, and when I'd come back home, he'd be home ahead of me."
The problem was, nobody -not his classmates, not even his relatives- ever let Bobby forget who his older brother was. They were constantly goading him. And, of course, Daddy was always there to kick Bobby's ass for no good reason. "I never hated my father like Ernest did," Bobby says. "I hated what he did, and I feared him somethin' awful, but I loved him -sure did." With his father out raising hell and Ernest headed there, the only male Bobby really grew up with was his older brother Michael, now 30, who looks like a cross between Ernest and Bobby. And he was hardly a role model. Michael has had troubles of his own with booze and violence, though his only criminal conviction is for drunk driving. "This," Michael says evenly, "was never the easiest family to grow up with."
And so it wasn't long before Bobby, fed up with the teasing and the torment, began to fight back. He developed a hair-trigger temper that caused him to, in the words of an old friend, "pop off" at the slightest provocation. "He'd just turn on you," the friend recalls. "And, man, if you brung up Ernest, well, you'd better get ready to throw some fist."
By the time Bobby was 16, things had gotten way out of hand. One day, he found himself arguing with another kid over a bike. The kid eventually tried to take off with it, and rather than slug him or cuss at him, Bobby pulled out a handgun and shot the kid in the leg. "He did it like he was watering the lawn," says one friend who witnessed the shooting. This won Bobby a two-year stay in a reformatory.
Bobby's take on Ernest was confused. He at once revered and detested him; he loathed what Ernest had done to the family, what he had done to him. Despite the insistent claims of the prosecution and the local press during his trial, Bobby did not want to emulate his brother's actions so much as his character, his manner; who, after all, would want to follow someone to death row? Bobby puts it this way: "I've always looked up to him, and I've always respected and admired him because he's always been real smart. When he's put his mind to where he wanted something and he didn't have the money for it, he'd get out and work his ass off to get it-and he got it. I've always respected him for that. He's always had nice cars, pretty women, money."
Like Ernest, Bobby had dropped out of school early. Both he and Michael fell into construction work, starting out by shoveling dirt for Ernest, who paid them under the table. But after Ernest's conviction, Bobby mostly inhaled beer and Jack Daniel's, which became an endless source of aggravation for his older brother. "Boy," Ernest wrote to Bobby from prison, "if you don't straighten up, you're gonna wind up here where I'm at." Bobby just crammed the letter into a drawer and laughed.
"I didn't believe it, because I didn't think it was gonna happen," Bobby says. "But damned if it didn't. Everything happened, and here I sit."
Of course, Bobby had good reason to laugh back then, what with his life suddenly clipping along so nicely. It had been that way ever since the slow, weatherless afternoon when, while hanging outside the Li'l Champ convenience store, 22-year-old Bobby had spotted the girl of his dreams, 14-year-old Nicole Leclerc. The two met and flirted for what seemed like forever -an hour? two hours? What did they talk about? Who knows? All that mattered was that things clicked.
"Nikki was a girl in a woman's body," explains her father, Donald Leclerc, a good-natured bear of a man with massive forearms and a military-style brush cut. "Bobby was immature, and he felt at home only with young girls." Leclerc, a trucking contractor, is sitting in his neat Oceanway apartment with his wife, Judith, and Nicole's younger sister, Michelle. It's a little chilly, so all the stove burners are on full blast. The family, rummaging through the meticulous records they have kept on the legal proceedings, talk about Bobby almost melancholically, as if he were more of a mistake than a monster.
"He could be real sweet, but he was really just a mess," says Michelle. "He should have been in jail long ago."
Why did Nicole -charming, bright Nicole- tolerate a no-account dink like Bob by? Because he willed it. "He worshiped her," says Bobby's old friend Travis Harris. "He made her feel like a goddess."
Unfortunately, things became a little messy when, at 15, Nicole got pregnant. Bobby wanted to marry her, but the Leclercs, who would have had to give their consent for the nuptials, balked. Nikki was too young, they explained, and Bobby was too wild, too irresponsible. Still, the romance continued after their first child, Rebecca, was born.
Then, a year later, Nicole got pregnant again. For a while, the Leclercs successfully fended off Bobby's marital advances, but eventually he wore them down and a modest wedding was held in Oceanway, with the bride looking as if she was about to go into labor. Neither family cared much for the other -the Leclercs thought the Downses were hillbillies; the Downses thought the Leclercs were stuck-up- so there was little fanfare. Two days later, Nicole gave birth to Barry.
Almost immediately, the couple began to have terrible fights. Bobby's drinking had become uncontrollable. By early 1988, he was downing a case of beer a day. He spent too much time carousing with his pals at Bubba's Bar-B-Que and not enough time caring for the wife and kids. But, as Bobby saw it, Nicole seemed to be getting awfully cozy with an old family friend named Kenny Ray Robinson. Bobby and Kenny Ray once had a scrap over some used tires, so they hated each other to begin with. After one vicious fight, in which Bobby was screaming and crying and Nicole responded by trashing their trailer, she said she wanted out of the marriage. Kenny Ray drove her over to pick up some of her things. Bobby simmered.
"Man, that was it. Bobby was over the edge. He was gone," says Terry Tertinek, for whom Bobby was working construction during the breakup. "Bobby, he was a quiet guy, usually. But after the stuff with his wife, he was a madman-drinking, fighting, crying, missing work. No doubt -he was the definition of 'insane.'"
The Leclercs deny that Nicole was having an affair with Kenny Ray, but that spring, she wrote Bobby a letter -never revealed during the trial -that sheds light on where their marriage stood:
“Bobby, please understand I really do love you, but I have grown to have feelings for someone else, but I won't say who…I will never take the children from you and I will bring them to see you and let them stay with you every other weekend… Please understand why I'm doing this. I have my whole life ahead of me.”
Still, they kept getting back together, which served mostly to keep Bobby at fever pitch. He began threatening to kill Nicole, though no one took him seriously.
On April 19, 1988, an unseasonably cool Tuesday, Bobby began drinking early. First beer -maybe two six-packs- then some Southern Comfort and a couple of tabs of blotter acid. As night fell, Bobby grew impossibly stoned and lonely. From a pay phone, he called Nicole at her parents' house, begging her to let him see the kids. He tried to persuade his brother Michael to take him to the Leclercs' to see his children. "Not today, buddy," Michael responded. "Get some rest, and I'll take you tomorrow." Then Bobby tried his aunt Dale, but she said no, too. Then, calling 911, he tried to get the police to drive him over, blathering that Nicole was a kidnapper. He got the same response: Go home, sober up, wait till tomorrow.
At about ten that night, Bobby staggered over to his mother's place, falling on his face on the front porch and, in her words, looking "plumb wobbled-y." He went outside and fell asleep in his car, a beer between his legs, the engine running, Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting on the radio. At dawn the next day, Jacqueline woke Bobby, brought him inside and made him some soup. He swallowed a few spoonfuls, then bolted for the phone. "I said I was comin' over, and I'm comin' over," Bobby told Nicole. Then he left. Jacqueline claims he was still drunk; others who saw Bobby around that time aren't so sure.
Bobby didn't go straight to see Nicole; first he broke into a neighbor's house and stole a pistol and some ammunition. Then he headed for the Leclercs' but ran out of gas. Linda Chewning, an Oceanway local, passed Bobby on the street and helped him get some fuel. "He was crying and hysterical," Chewning recalls. "He was cursing, his eyes were bloodshot, and he absolutely stank of beer. He wasn't so much drunk as he was nuts."
Bobby finally arrived at the Leclercs' at noon, the loaded gun tucked away in his pants because, Bobby claims, he was expecting to "tie up" with Kenny Ray again. But Kenny Ray wasn't there. Nicole, in her bathing suit, was talking to him on the phone, making plans to take the kids to the beach. Michelle Leclerc and two of Bobby and Nicole's friends were also there. "Talk to me, Nikki," Bobby pleaded. "Let me be with my children." Nicole looked disgusted and told Bobby they could talk about it tomorrow. Irate, Bobby pulled out the gun, waving it in the air and ranting. Then, suddenly, he calmed down and put the gun away. Michelle, thinking the situation was under control, left for a few minutes.
"Then Bobby starts acting up again, going all crazy," says one of the friends. "It was unbelievable. He'd go crazy, then calm down, then go crazy again." Finally, when Nicole tried to call the police, Bobby snapped. The first shot knocked the phone out of her hand. Then Bobby waved the gun at the friends and told them to take the kids from Nicole and bring them to him. Nicole was clutching the children, screaming. When it became clear that Nicole wouldn't let them go, Bobby grabbed her hair, twisted her head to the side and fired three shots, hitting her in the cheek, the shoulder and the ear, killing her instantly. He then fired a shot into the air and, says one of the witnesses, "looked all of a sudden like he was in a trance." Calmly, Bobby instructed one of the friends to "call the paramedics" and took off in his car, passing Michelle on the way. He stopped, politely told her there was nothing to worry about and sped away.
"I just started driving on I-95 North toward Georgia," Bobby recalls. "I was speeding fast, and I wanted to die. I wanted to go where she was; if it was hell, I wanted hell." After a high-speed chase, Bobby was pulled over fifteen minutes after he had left the Leclercs'. When the cop approached the car, Bobby muttered something about dying and reached for his gun. The cop wrested it away and pointed his own gun at Bobby's chin. Had he chosen, Bobby could have died right there; instead, he surrendered. Later, at the police station, Bobby was dazed and refused to answer questions, repeatedly mumbling "I wanna call my wife first."
The state of Florida called it first-degree murder, punishable by death. It said the fact that Bobby had stolen the gun first proved he had malice aforethought and had planned the murder. The defense, without much of a case, argued that, in essence, Nicole's confused behavior provoked Bobby's explosion.
It didn't fly. The jury unanimously recommended twenty-five years to life, evidently taking into account some combination of Bobby's youth, low IQ, alcoholism, miserable childhood and state of mind. But in a judicial ruling, considered extreme even by southern standards, judge Lawrence P. Haddock overruled the unanimous recommendation and sentenced Bobby to death, calling the murder "uniquely cruel and wicked."
After Judge Haddock read the sentence, Donald Leclerc smiled for the first time in a long time.
When Jacqueline Downs says "The first time the boys ever played ball together was right beside the electric chair," she speaks the truth. Over the past two years, Ernest and Bobby have become extremely close; each is the other's guardian and confidant, his regent and counselor. Because death-row inmates are allowed out of their individual cells only two hours a week, and because they mix only with other death-row inmates, having good company nearby is crucial. In one of their few strokes of good fortune, the brothers' cells are diagonally across from each other, which means they can see each other by sticking little mirrors through the bars and angling them toward each other. They talk about their mother, sports and, of course, women; indeed, even after his imprisonment, Ernest was able to strike up a serious relationship with a young woman who worked for the prison system. ("He's really a sweetheart," she says. "He's very misunderstood.")
It's a good thing, too, that Ernest and Bobby have each other, because neither is terribly popular. Ernest has ratted on other inmates and cooperated with prison officials in an effort to curry favor -and, hence, leniency somewhere down the road. And some inmates think he was a little too friendly with a former inmate named Ted Bundy. Then there's the fact that Ernest, his intellect still very much intact, has utter disdain for most of those around him.
Typically, Bobby has done little to anger his fellow inmates -little, that is, other than be Ernest's brother, which is enough to make him a pariah among pariahs. "They don't like me much, mostly 'cuz of how they feel about Ernest," Bobby concedes, throwing out his skinny chest. "But, hell, I don't care. He's my brother. I love him, and I'm gonna stand by him no matter what."
Bobby and Nicole's two children now live with the Leclercs. Since the murder, Jacqueline Downs and the Leclercs have been at war over custody of Rebecca, who sometimes refers to Bobby as "Big Daddy," and Barry, who still becomes hysterical every time he hears loud noises that sound like gunshots. Bobby writes to the children every week, sending the letters to his mother's home. The huge stack will be turned over to the kids when, Bobby says, "they are old enough to understand." The custody case is still in the courts, but the chance that Jacqueline Downs will ultimately be permitted much contact with the kids is thought to be remote.
For a while, Bobby tried, pathetically, to correspond with the Leclercs. After Nicole's funeral, he wrote:
“I'm very, very, very sorry for what happened because I don't remember what happened at all. But I just found out that Nicole was put on a table at her funeral home. I don't understand at all about that. I feel like that was poor of both of you for doing something like that. Both of you could have had the Decency to put her in a casket so she could be in pice [sic]!!!”
Bobby even sent Judith Leclerc a Mother's Day card. He stopped writing after Donald Leclerc began sending him mock death certificates.
Ernest, for his part, is running out of time. All of his recent appeals have failed, and his current public defender, David Davis, will soon petition the U.S. Supreme Court, emphasizing the triggerman issue -an issue the Florida Supreme Court dismissed last September. If this latest appeal proves futile, Davis will then petition Florida Governor Lawton Chiles for clemency. And if all of these measures fail, Ernest could likely be executed by 1993.
And Larry Johnson? Ask the prosecutors -who tried, unsuccessfully, to locate Larry before Ernest's second sentencing hearing- and they'll say that they don't know where he is, that they hear maybe he's dead. Ask his old friends and his sister, and they'll tell you he died some eight years ago. Drank himself to death. Was buried in Rolling Woods Cemetery in Conroe, Texas. (The catch is, there is no Rolling Woods Cemetery anywhere in Texas.) Others who know Larry Johnson say he is very much alive, kicking around Texas and Kansas and Louisiana, where he has been jailed at least once for disorderly conduct. He is no longer in the Witness-Protection Program and was recently living under the alias Danny Rogers. "Call him Larry," says one acquaintance, "and he goes nuts."
Meanwhile, Larry's former friend for life sits and waits. "Thank God I have Bobby here is all I can say," Ernest says. And that was the last thing he said in an interview earlier this year. Two weeks later, in an ironic twist, the Florida Supreme Court commuted Bobby Lee Downs's death sentence, granting him a minimum sentence of twenty-five years to life. Which means that any day now Bobby will be transferred to the general prison population, where he will have no access to death-row inmates. And then, in all likelihood, Ernest and Bobby Downs, finally closer than they'd ever been, will never see each other again.
Ned Zeman wrote "The Big Eau," in the December 1990 issue.