Sunday, 4 November 2007

Ex-death row inmates seek pause in executions

Pauline Matthews, left, and Darby Tillis were among those who called for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. Matthews' son Ryan Matthews spent more than six years on Louisiana's death row. Tillis was on death row in Illinois after a wrongful conviction in a double slaying.
Staff Photo by Chuck Liddy

Published: Nov 03, 2007 12:30 AM
Modified: Nov 03, 2007 05:49 AM

Wrongly convicted men tell their stories, urge state legislators to take action
Titan Barksdale, Staff Writer

RALEIGH - Former death row inmates who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned called on state legislators Friday to pass a moratorium on executions in North Carolina.
One by one, 18 exonerated men walked up to a microphone in front of the Legislative Building and shared their stories. They told a group of onlookers how they were almost executed for crimes the didn't commit.

Though the details of their stories vary, they share the same belief that the death penalty should be halted and studied by legislators.

Two North Carolina legislators, Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, and Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat, were in attendance and spoke in favor of a moratorium. Harrison said after her remarks that she doubts legislators will pass one in the coming session.

Former inmates such as Shujaa Graham, who spent years on California's death row, emphatically declared a moratorium is needed.

Graham and the other former death row inmates are part of a Philadelphia-based group called Witness to Innocence. It supports an end to the death penalty across the country.

The group was invited to Raleigh by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a nonprofit group in Carrboro that seeks to abolish the death penalty.

Graham is no stranger to advocacy or North Carolina.

In December 2005, Graham was arrested in Raleigh at a protest of the execution of Kenneth Boyd. Boyd was the 1,000th person executed in the U.S. since 1977, the end of a 10-year unofficial moratorium on executions that coincided with challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Graham, who recalled the protest in detail, said the experience was "beautiful." He said he was outside Central Prison with Alan Gell, a former death row inmate exonerated in North Carolina, and the families of victims who opposed the death penalty.

"We told the police, 'We heard it's going to be a murder here tonight,' " Graham said. "They told us to get back, but we kept moving forward, hand in hand. And then they arrested us."

He said he was released the next day and went to South Carolina to protest another execution.

It was in a California state prison where Graham said his fiery spirit was cultivated, and his life could have ended.

While in prison for robbery, Graham was accused of killing a correction officer in 1973. His first trial on the murder charge ended in a mistrial. He was sentenced to death in his second trial three years later.

Graham, who is black, won a new trial because the California Supreme Court ruled that potential jurors who were black were improperly excluded from the jury. In 1981, a new jury found him innocent.

Graham said he was framed.

After his release from prison, Graham said, he devoted his life to activism.

When he talks, he often quotes civil rights leaders and labels himself a "revolutionary survivor" instead of a victim of an imperfect justice system.

Despite Graham's defiant tone, tears welled in his eyes when he recalled the years he spent on death row as an innocent man.

It's a painful memory that all of the former death row inmates can't escape and are trying to cope with each day, he said.

"I've been out more than 20 years, and I still suffer today," Graham said. "I saw a lot of my friends executed. As I regained my humanity ... I learned to start forgiving."

Graham and the former death row inmates will speak at 6 p.m. today at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church in Raleigh. or (919) 829-4802

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