Freed to Speak
Witness to Innocence puts a face on the death penalty debate
by Janell Anema
Photography by Sofia Moro
Every six months an exclusive group of people gathers in a different US city where members can fellowship, celebrate, and support each other. To enter this group one must endure a cruel hazing and an induction process perpetrated by the American criminal justice system. Inclusion in this group requires that one must be arrested, falsely convicted, sentenced to die…and then set free. This is the fellowship of the exonerated.
Capital punishment has long existed in America but was temporarily suspended on a national scale between 1972 and 1976 after the US Supreme Court declared executions to be unlawful violations of the Eighth Amendment (protection from cruel and unusual punishment) and the Fourteenth Amendment (granting the right to due process). Individual states quickly enacted revised legislations, adapted to address constitutional questions concerning capital punishment, and the first execution in the modern era occurred in 1976. Since then a total of 1,392 people have been executed in the US. Today over 3,000 people await execution on death row, but as of November 2014, a total of 148 men and one women have been exonerated. Exoneration occurs when a person is proven, through a trial of appeal, to be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. For a multitude of reasons, ranging from the discovery of jury tampering, lawyer ineptitude, false testimony of incentivized witnesses, and DNA evidence, these men and women have been acquitted, exonerated, and released from prison.
Many American citizens remain oblivious to the political issues that don’t directly affect them. Those who have never been the victim of a crime, never served on a jury, and never set foot inside a prison are not likely to spend much time thinking about the nation’s criminal justice system. But the fellowship of the exonerated, served by Witness to Innocence, one of their most active advocating agencies, wants to change all that.
Witness to Innocence
Based in Philadelphia, Witness to Innocence (WTI) is the only organization of its kind in the United States—created by, comprised of, and working for exonerated death row survivors. Since being established in 2005, WTI has had as its primary goal to “empower death row survivors and their loved ones to be effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.” For the first time in the history of the abolition movement there is a body designed to empower the exonerees.
WTI does this, in part, by placing them in classrooms and on stages, in professional organizations and on city hall steps to champion the cause of abolition. Kathy Spillman is WTI’s director of programs and outreach, dedicated to acquiring platforms for the exonerated.
“I’ve seen them change minds,” enthuses Spillman. “People who come into a talk pro-death penalty come out, after hearing our guys, against the death penalty or, at the very least, supporting a moratorium. It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the most expressive activist would not have the effect that they have on people in changing their minds on this issue.”
But Spillman is quick to point out that, while they are effective, the exonerees continue to be the most disadvantaged in this movement. “Exonerees don’t have the privilege of activism—to them it is their duty. It is their responsibility.”
Witness to action
The semi-annual gathering that WTI sponsors for the exonerees is composed of peer support counseling among the (mostly) men and their families as well as a public action coordinated with numerous state agencies—from a press conference in Chicago with the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, to a news conference in the Texas capital, to a proclamation of innocence dramatically signed by dozens of exonerees across the street from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. This fall, exonerees fanned out to 13 major church congregations in Philadelphia on September 21, International Day of Peace, to tell their stories of being wrongfully convicted and sent to death row to over 2,200 people.
The tactical activism of the exonerees includes public demonstrations, work with alternative spring break projects, community marches, media campaigns, and speaking events. WTI members have also testified before legislatures on behalf of innocence and abolition. Both Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois cited the exonerated while signing laws against the death penalty in their home states. Connecticut and Maryland voted to abolish the death penalty in 2012 and 2013, respectively, becoming the fifth and sixth states to do so. In his prepared remarks, Richardson said he would “never forget the story of Juan Meléndez, who spent 18 years on Florida’s death row before being exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit.” Meléndez is an active member of the WTI national speakers bureau.
Each division of Witness to Innocence is interconnected as part of its strategy to educate and raise awareness, but the speakers bureau is the most thought-provoking and motivational agent of the organization. Exonerees have been described as “alternative rock stars” as they travel to colleges, churches, and professional organizations across the nation. The poignant and charismatic storytellers are the conciliators of transformation in the hearts and minds of the public when considering their stance on the abolition of the death penalty.
Witness to an audience
Kathy Spillman has always been an opponent of the death penalty. Drawn to issues of social inequality and motivated to help educate the American public about the disenfranchised in our society, Spillman sees the death penalty debate as part of a larger conversation about punishment, justice, vengeance, and retribution. These words are not interchangeable, but in the death penalty debate they are used interchangeably, and, according to Spillman, “if we are going to be a society that values our citizens, then we need to walk the fine line between justice and vengeance and not cross it.”
WTI is always looking for an audience willing to engage with a unique and powerful story. The hope is that if listeners change their hearts and minds, they will change their policies.
“We’ve never had anyone regret having one of our speakers,” insists Spillman. “For most people it’s the most powerful program they ever do, but it’s hard to convince them to do it…because it’s uncomfortable to listen to people who are directly impacted by the oppression in our society.” The exonerees have not simply been impacted by oppression; they have been traumatized and, in many cases, tortured. The men and women who have survived death row in this country have lived the American Nightmare writ large, and, like others who have experienced trauma, they often relive the nightmare while sharing their stories. This is a powerful experience for both the speaker and the audience.
“It is not only about converting people to the cause of abolition,” Spillman explains. “It is about inspiration. It is about transformation.”
Supporters, staff members, and exonerees agree that the real strength of Witness to Innocence is its ability to put a human face on this issue—149 faces, to be exact. People often think about the death penalty in abstract terms rather than as individual lives caught up in the system.
Gary Drinkard served seven years, eight months, and 27 days in prison, spending over five years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Drinkard was sentenced to death in 1995 for the robbery and murder of a junkyard dealer in Alabama, a state with more death sentences per capita than any other. The conviction rested primarily on the testimony of Drinkard’s own half sister, who was at the time facing charges in an unrelated crime. Her testimony, along with that of her corroborating common-law husband, was exchanged for their immunity.
Adding insult to injury, Drinkard was represented by two ill-equipped lawyers whose experience was limited to debt collection and foreclosures. Failing to present the testimony of two physicians—who would have spoken to a recent back injury that made it physically impossible for Drinkard to commit the crime he was accused of—cost Drinkard his case.
It would have cost him his life, but while imprisoned Drinkard wrote letters to every attorney he could get an address for, and he eventually caught the attention, in 2000, of an attorney in Birmingham. Through the coordinated efforts of local attorneys and the Southern Center for Human Rights, Drinkard was acquitted in 2001. The center has since presented Drinkard to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee as evidence of the pressing need for experienced lawyers in capital cases.
Upon his release Drinkard pursued the things in life that had been put on hold during his incarceration—career and family. But hurdles awaited. His two children, 6 and 9 at the time of his sentencing, had been deeply traumatized, and his marriage was over. “My wife and I are good friends now, but we never got back together. There was just too much water under the bridge at that point.”
Drinkard can testify to the waves of injustice that continue to wash over the exonerated after their release. He had been in construction but due to his injury had enrolled in school before his arrest. “After I got out, I went back to college for respiratory therapy. When I was about six months from completing the course—and I was doing very well—they said no one would hire me due to the capital conviction. If they’d told me that beforehand, I would have gone into horticulture.”
The consequences of a wrongful conviction are deep and wide, affecting the lives, the liberties, and the pursuit
of happiness of the exonorees.
Drinkard now serves on the board of Witness to Innocence, traveling and speaking out against the death penalty. As he speaks he extends an invitation for people to “join the bandwagon of abolishing the death penalty. And if you can’t actually get out to speak out against it, fund us so we can.”
Juan Meléndez spent 17 years, eight months, and one day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit. His story draws attention to the many problems that plague the death penalty system.
In 1984, in a trial lasting less than a week, a jury convicted Meléndez, then 33, of killing a white man in Auburndale, Fla. Questionable testimony from two convicted felons placed Meléndez at the scene, and without a single piece of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, a jury sentenced him to die.
Meléndez was exonerated from Florida’s death row in January 2002, the 99th man acquitted since the death penalty was reinstated.
“My momma did not raise no killers.” Meléndez’s Puerto Rican accent is thick and his story is gripping. He chooses each word purposefully.
He recalls the week of his arrest and his sentencing vividly. Although he regularly recounts the story for audiences and journalists, he still sounds confused by the haste with which he was sentenced and the gross injustices of the case made against him.
He was a migrant worker, picking apples in a field with a handful of his co-laborers, when police cars roared up and officers jumped out, firing off questions, each one finding its target. Are you Juan Meléndez? Are you missing a tooth? Do you have a tattoo?
The false testimonies—which provided the sole connection between Meléndez and the murder—came from a police informant who had a felony record (including a homicide conviction) and who received $5,000 to testify, and another convicted felon, a friend of Meléndez, who was threatened with the electric chair if he refused to testify against Meléndez. Meléndez was given a public defender who he remembers regularly patting him on the back and assuring him that “everything would be okay.” Everything was not okay. His trial began on a Monday, and Meléndez was found guilty on Thursday and sentenced to death on Friday of that same week.
He spent the next 17+ years in a 6-by-9 foot cell waiting to die.
Meléndez describes it as “horrifying—a terrible experience. I had shackles on my legs, chains on my waist, and handcuffs on my wrists, and the place was infested with rats and roaches. A few times I came close to committing suicide, but what kept me alive were these dreams from God.”
Meléndez often dreamt of his childhood in Puerto Rico, days on the island playing in the surf and sun, looking to the shoreline to see his mother standing there watching him and smiling.
Years into his sentence, Meléndez went so far as to fashion a noose out of a trash bag, but he says that his dreams and his prayers kept him alive. It was not until the discovery, 16 years after his trial, of a taped confession by the real killer that Meléndez was proven innocent. In a shocking miscarriage of justice, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney were aware of this confession at the time of the trial, having learned of it approximately one month earlier. But the defense attorney failed to introduce the taped confession into evidence at trial, and the prosecutor engaged in gross misconduct by deliberately withholding evidence from the defense that corroborated the taped confession of the real killer, which the jury never heard and which the appellate defense attorneys had no knowledge of.
Meléndez now travels and speaks through Witness to Innocence, educating audiences about the death penalty. When asked what he wants people to walk away knowing after they have heard him speak, Meléndez succinctly states, “The death penalty debate is about education. People need to know it does not deter crime. They need to know it is expensive. They need to know it is racist. But most of all they need to know that we can never, and I mean never, release an innocent man from the grave. And that’s a problem.”
Shujaa Graham: convicted in California in 1976, exonerated in 1981
Ernest “Shujaa” Graham was born in Lake Providence, La., and grew up on a plantation in the segregated South. As a teenager, after moving to South Central Los Angeles, Graham lived through the Watts Riots and the consequent police occupation. In and out of trouble, Graham spent much of his young life in juvenile institutions and detention centers.
Behind prison bars, Graham discovered true advocates and educators for the first time in this life. After a childhood of sub-par schools where he was never expected or inspired to learn, here he was discipled and taught to read and write by the leadership of the Black Prison movement. Eventually Graham became a leader within the movement, changing from what he called the “criminal mentality” to the “revolutionary mentality.”
In November 1973, while incarcerated, Graham and codefendant Eugene Allen were framed in the murder of a state correctional officer. Graham’s first trial resulted in a mistrial with a hung jury, but he was sentenced to death in 1976 after his second trial. He was only 21 at the time; his death was to be carried out in the gas chamber at San Quentin.
The Supreme Court of California reversed his conviction and death sentence in 1979, finding that prosecutors improperly used their peremptory challenges, excluding prospective jurors who were black. Graham was retried for his original crime twice more. Finally, in 1981, he was acquitted by the jury in his fourth trial and proved innocent of all charges.
“Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black and Luther King speech that concludes, “I must be measured by my soul; the mind is a standard of the man.”
With his wife of 33 years by his side, Shujaa Graham speaks softly, his conversation lilting like Dr. King’s, seamlessly weaving stories of prison with perspectives on social inequalities into a narrative of hope for the future. In the fraternity of exonerees, Graham’s pledge name would be Pastor.
“Every day on death row, when you get up you have to be ready, because when the daylight comes, same bars gonna be there. You ain’t going nowhere,” Graham recalls in a hoarse whisper. “When you open your eyes you’ve got to be ready to deal with those bars, and you got to be ready to deal with your basic mobility from here to here.” He motions from one side of his body to the other. “You live with optimism and pessimism in there.”
Graham was released three decades ago, but he spent one additional night in jail since then. On December 1, 2005, the eve of the 50th anniversary of Rosa Park’s act of civil disobedience, Graham and a group of 16 others were arrested in North Carolina while protesting the thousandth execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty. He went to the death house and stood in solidarity with abolitionists, with activists, and with murder victims’ family members, protesting the state sanctioned murder carried out that December night. Graham has also slept out on the streets of Washington, DC, to protest homelessness. “I slept out in front of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If they don’t have a bed, I don’t have a bed.” Activism, for Graham, is not limited to the abolition of the death penalty; it extends to any justice issue that affects human beings.
Add your voice
Check out this short list of organizations that fight for the unconditional abolition of the death penalty. Find out what’s happening and where, sign up for their action alerts, and add your voice to the fight!
❶ Amnesty International USA’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty
❷ Center on Wrongful Convictions
❸ Campaign to End the Death Penalty
❹ Death Penalty Information Center
❺ Innocence Network
❻ Death Penalty Focus
❼ Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation
❽ National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
❾ Witness to Innocence
An engaging storyteller whose eyes spill tears as he tells his story, Graham is an active member of WTI’s speakers bureau, but he often cautions new exonerees joining the movement: “It’s not about getting the opportunity to speak. I can go on the corner and speak and talk to anyone, but it’s going to the gatherings and being with the exonerees and helping each other that is the most important thing. It’s been a great source of strength, and it gives you a greater purpose, too. Some days I get up and I say, ‘If I can’t do it for myself, let me do it for the group.’”
The solidarity the exonerated men and woman experience within the Witness to Innocence community is invaluable. Exonorees face considerable barriers when they are released. A $10 bus ticket and ill-fitting clothes are typical of the meager tokens offered by the state as the exonerated are released with next to no material possessions.
Often, those wrongfully convicted of serious crimes are not eligible for the minimal state supports offered to offenders released from prison. Since exonorees will not usually qualify for any of the services offered to parolees, WTI provides a necessary support network.
Their exoneration places them in a “legal no man’s land” unless they seek compensation from the states through civil suits, private bills, or compensation statutes. A study in 2000 by the Innocence Project revealed that only “37 percent of all wrongfully convicted persons (not just death penalty cases) receive compensation.” Most states still don’t have clear methods of compensation for those wrongfully convicted. The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 29 states have some form of compensation statutes, but the other states do not. What is the cost of incarcerating the innocent in America, and who is paying the bill?
Proponents of the death penalty cite the cases of the exonerated as proof that the system works—innocent people are set free—but the exonerees’ stories of discrimination, trumped-up charges, apathetic public defenders, lopsided juries, and years of languishing on death row are proof that the system is, on the contrary, terribly broken.
As Juan Melendez so eloquently reminds us, we can release an innocent man from prison, but we can never release him from the grave.
To learn more and to host a speaking event at your church, university, or other public gathering, go to WitnesstoInnocence.org.
Janell Anema is a freelance writer.