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On Death Row
Ana's Story -- of a Trial She Couldn't Understand and a Life She Never Imagined

by Kathleen A. O'Shea

On November 26, 1998, Ana Cardona, a Cuban immigrant from Miami, was thirty-eight years old. This birthday, like her past six birthdays, was celebrated with three women she’s not allowed to speak to. Her address is “DR X/8”. Translated, that means “Death Row/ for Execution/ Cell 8.” Ana lives bajo la pena de muerte in a tiny cell on death row at Florida’s Broward County Correctional Center for women in Pembroke Pines.
Ana describes her daily life:

Everything scares me. I live in constant fear. I’ve been harmed a lot. The person who has no one to help her here is lost. I have so many needs, even hunger, because I don’t have money to buy things. They have humiliated me, they have treated me as if I were an animal, they’ve used me and played with me, with my feelings and my pain. I am so hurt, psychologically and physically... Day after day I cry tears of despair, tears of pain, tears of torture. Only by suffering as I do can anyone know what it really feels like to go through this.

Judy Buenoaño, another Latina and one of Ana’s past neighbors on Florida’s death row, wasn’t around for this year’s birthday. She was executed earlier this year. Perhaps nothing affects women on death row at a deeper level than the execution of another woman. Ana recalled Judy:

Judy, may she rest in peace, will always be in my heart. I miss her and each time I look at her cell, my heart falls apart. Her death has affected me so much. She was like a mother to me. I feel her loss. Death is no solution for anyone. The state is more criminal than those of us who it calls criminals. Because the only difference is that they’re authorized to kill or execute.

Ana’s story of immigration is not that unusual. She came to the United States when she was 19 years old. She said she didn’t really want to leave Cuba or her mother because she was an only child and didn’t know anyone here. But her mother insisted she come, telling her she could get a job and get settled and then she would join her someday. With this in mind, Ana came, but her mother never did. To this day, neither Ana’s mother nor her children know she is on death row.

By 1990, Ana had four children. When she was convicted of killing her three-year-old son, Lázaro Figueroa, she was in an abusive relationship with another woman and was addicted to cocaine. Lázaro’s body was found in Miami Beach but was not identified until several weeks later. He had been beaten and dumped in the bushes. Before he was identified the local press started calling him “baby lollipops” because of the shirt he was wearing when his body was found. The cause of his death was listed as repeated blows to the head. Ana Cardona has always denied abusing her child.

I didn’t even know what they were saying at my trial. The interpreter told me that what they were saying wasn’t important — and the lawyers didn’t speak Spanish. The judge never allowed evidence in my favor to be presented. To top it off, the judge told me that if he saw me crying, he would throw me out of the courtroom.

According to Ana, her lover, Olivia González, abused her and her children, and Ana did not have the courage to stop her. She said she took cocaine to escape the horror of the abuse that was happening in her life, and she became addicted. Olivia testified for four hours against Ana in exchange for a forty-year sentence for second-degree murder and child abuse.

Although Olivia admitted beating Lázaro and dumping his body in Miami Beach, she placed the primary blame for the homicide on Ana. Of Olivia’s testimony, Ana said:

Olivia had a private lawyer. Although she confessed that she did kill my son Lázaro, her lawyer made a deal with mine that she would testify against me, and that’s what she wanted. Unfortunately, in this country money is everything and her whole family could afford a private lawyer. But I don’t have a cent. I have no family in this country and I have no contact with my family. I am alone now.

Ana has never granted an interview since she has been on death row, although she has been offered large sums of money to do so. She trusts no one, saying:

During my trial, the press made me feel like the worst. They humiliated me, and I hadn’t said a word yet. Everything they said about me was horrible. These people who work in the media don’t care about people’s feelings. They just look for sensationalism. I mean, they could show the public something and further their profession. [But] reporters don’t care if a person suffers or if someone is telling the truth or a lie. They play with the pain and despair a person feels.

At this point Ana feels powerless and relies totally on her court-appointed lawyers, who have told her she is not allowed to speak to anyone about her case. She explains:

I don’t understand anything of how the legal system works. The lawyer can just tell me whatever he wants. I hope he helps me. I have no alternative but to hope. The only help I have is from my lawyers; no one else can help me. I feel bad because I don’t know what to do. I see how other women search in the library and the legal books about their cases. And they confront their lawyers if they tell them something that isn’t true. But I don’t speak English and I don’t understand anything in these books that are only in English. Hopefully, I will get justice. All I want is justice, only justice.

Ana Cardona is one of three Latina women on death row in the United States today. Like most of the women on death row, these women are poor and their defense has been the responsibility of court-appointed lawyers who have neither the time, money, or in some cases, the interest to investigate their cases.

Kathleen A. O’Shea’s new book, “Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998” is due out from Praeger.

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