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Report: Fla. death row inmate died of fentanyl overdose

An autopsy concluded that Stephen Todd Booker, 69, who became a published poet while serving on death row, died of acute fentanyl toxicity


By Tony Marrero
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — A man awaiting execution on Florida’s death row for the 1977 murder of a Gainesville woman, and who become a published prison poet, died of a fentanyl overdose, records show.

Stephen Todd Booker, 69, died on Nov. 3 of acute fentanyl toxicity, according to an autopsy report the Tampa Bay Times received through a records request this week.

The autopsy conducted by the Gainesville-based Sixth District Medical Examiner includes a toxicology report showing fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, in Booker’s blood and urine.

The autopsy ruled the death an accident.

The corrections department’s website shows the investigation into Booker’s death is closed. The Times submitted a records request to the Florida Department of Corrections on June 19 asking for a report on Booker’s death but the department has yet to provide it.

The Times on Wednesday again asked the department’s public information office for the report on Booker’s death and for answers to multiple questions about the case. The office by midday Friday had not provided the report or answered questions.

Booker was found slumped over and unresponsive in his cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford during a security check, according to Dr. Thomas M. Coyne, who performed the autopsy. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful and emergency crews pronounced him dead at the scene, Coyne told the Times, citing information provided to his office’s investigator.

Coyne noted that Booker’s lungs were full of fluid, and the toxicology report showed the level of fentanyl in Booker’s system was within the range considered to be potentially fatal.

“I knew in this case, in the absence of any natural findings, the only thing that could explain his death is fentanyl toxicity,” Coyne said.

Coyne said there was no evidence that paramedics had treated Booker with fentanyl, and he noted that the toxicology report showed in Booker’s urine the presence of a substance that is used to produce illicit fentanyl.

There is also no record or indication that Booker had been prescribed fentanyl, Coyne said.

Though key questions remain unanswered, such as how Booker got the drug, Florida’s prison system has grappled with illegal drugs in its facilities.

According to a Miami Herald story published in February, more drugs were seized in Florida prisons in 2020 than in the preceding two years, despite lockdowns that allowed only inmates’ attorneys and prison staff to access the facilities between March and September of 2020. The Herald analyzed contraband seizure data, and the analysis included heroin, cocaine, opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone, methamphetamine, suboxone and synthetic marijuana.

Overall, the Herald reported, the amount of illegal drugs (by weight) seized per 10,000 inmates was more than 40% higher in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018.

Death row is subject to tighter security than other parts of the prison system. Inmates there are counted at least once an hour and are escorted in handcuffs and wear them everywhere except in their cells, the exercise yard and the shower, according to the corrections department’s website. They are in their cells at all times except for medical reasons, exercise, social or legal visits or media interviews.

Booker, who was among the state’s longest-serving prisoners, had said he struggled with drugs as a young man before he was arrested and convicted of the rape and murder of 94-year-old Lorine “Winnie” Demoss Harman.

A heinous crime, poetry and grace

Harman was found in her Gainesville apartment with two large knives embedded in her body. An autopsy determined she died from numerous stab wounds, according to the website of the state’s now-defunct Commission on Capital Cases. Investigators also concluded that Booker raped Harman, and he was also convicted of sexual battery and burglary.

(Harman’s last name has been reported with a different spelling over the years, but her great-niece Page Zyromski told the Times this week that “Harman” is the correct spelling.)

While in prison, Booker became an accomplished poet, writing about incarceration, racism and growing up in Brooklyn, among other themes. His work has appeared in top-level literary publications like The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review and Field, and has been championed by poets like Denise Levertov and Hayden Carruth, according to a 2004 New York Times story.

According to that story, Booker said he left school at 14, eventually joined the Army and was sent to Okinawa, Japan. After the Army, he said, he ended up in Florida. He was arrested for robbery and served three and a half years of a five-year sentence. Shortly after his release, he murdered Harman.

“I won’t be able to write fast enough, long enough, voluminously enough to make up for the stuff I’ve done,” Booker told the New York Times.

The story said that as a young man, heroin had been his drug of choice, but that “alcohol was his real downfall.”

Over the years, as Booker made multiple appeals in an attempt to get off death row, his literary supporters and some of his victims asked that he be allowed to live out his life in prison. Those appeals — including one heard by the Florida Supreme Court in 2022 — all failed.

Among those who spoke in favor of sparing Booker’s life is Zyromski, Harman’s great-niece. In a 1996 letter to an Alachua County state attorney, Zyromski wrote that Harman was like a grandmother to her and her siblings. Zyromski wrote that Harman was a compassionate person, a Sunday school teacher who “lived her religious convictions.”

“She would join us, I’m sure, in opposing the execution of Stephen Booker,” Zyromski wrote.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this week, Zyromski, 81, said she wrote to Booker in prison a year after the murder and told him she forgave him. A religious writer and retired teacher in Ohio, Zyromski said she and Booker connected through poetry. She visited him multiple times in prison and traveled to Florida to speak at a resentencing hearing.

Zyromski said Booker showed remorse from the start and signed over to her the royalties from his first book of poetry as an act of reparation. It was only about $100, but he told her he wanted her to use it for her children’s education.

Zyromski said Booker did not want to be buried in a prison cemetery, and he had no next of kin.

“When he told me that, I told him I would take the responsibility to bury him, and it would probably be a more Catholic funeral that he would choose, and it was,” she said.

Zyromski organized a Christian funeral mass that was held on Jan. 16 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Indianapolis. During the mass, Zyromski’s granddaughter read from the book of Matthew, a passage that urged the faithful to “love your enemies.” One of the songs Zyromski chose for the mass was “Amazing Grace.”

“When you’re on death row there is not much dignity given to you, and I wanted to show him some dignity, and I think we did,” she said.

Booker’s cremated remains were later buried at Our Lady of Peace Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Zyromski said there is no cause of death listed on Booker’s death certificate, and that she wasn’t surprised to hear how he died. She knew people in prison had access to drugs, and she wondered if drugs were a factor in his death because it was so sudden and he was in relatively good health.

Zyromski said that over the last four and a half decades, she has learned what forgiveness is and what it is not.

“You cannot forgive and forget. That means you’ve wasted valuable experience,” she said. “Forgiveness is treating the other with the dignity and respect that you would have for an ordinary human being. It is not taking revenge.”

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

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