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WEB POSTED 07-4-2000

 
 

 

Death of the innocent
Execution of Shaka Sankofa sparks national outrage

by Stacey L. Muhammad

HOUSTON—As Lenora Graham and supporters prepared to bury her son June 29, it appears certain that the execution of a Texas death row inmate born Gary Graham who died having taken the African name Shaka Sankofa has forever left its imprint on the state of Texas and the world.

And as his family and supporters dealt with the task of raising money to pay for his funeral, international leaders, politicians, religious leaders, human rights advocates and grassroots activists joined the chorus that condemned his June 22 execution by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.

"Gary Graham’s (Shaka Sankofa’s) life and struggle for life has touched people all over the world, and it is one more step toward ending the death penalty," said the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, shortly after Mr. Sankofa was pronounced dead at 8:49 p.m. CST. Min. Farrakhan wrote Gov. George W. Bush asking for clemency in the case.

"The blood of the innocent cries out from the earth for justice, and, the God of Justice will answer in the State of Texas. I feel sorry for what He will bring on the State of Texas. The death penalty and the way it is executed on Blacks and poor people in particular must be reviewed," said Min. Farrakhan.

The 36-year-old Black man’s struggle for life ended with a struggle against guards who took him to the death chamber, a declaration of innocence, expressions of gratitude and a passionate statement urging an unwavering campaign against capital punishment, and a commitment to Black liberation. (See related article on pages 20-21.)

Mr. Sankofa was executed for the murder of Bobby Lambert and had served 19 years on death row. He was 17 at the time of his conviction. While he admitted to a crime spree before he was charged with the Lambert murder, he had always said he did not kill the 53-year-old white male in a supermarket parking lot. No physical evidence tied him to the crime, his inept, initial defense lawyer did no investigation and an attorney of average incompetence could have beaten the charge, observers have said.

Though Mr. Sankofa was charged with murder and robbery, Mr. Lambert was found with $6,000 in cash.

In the end, a single eyewitness, who was convinced he was the murderer, failed appeals, Gov. Bush’s confidence that he had received due process, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole’s refusal to say the execution should stop, sealed Mr. Sankofa’s fate.

International condemnation came quickly and forcefully, with the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robins, saying the execution "ran counter to widely accepted international principles and the international community’s expressed desire for the abolition of the death penalty."

The United States is one of a few countries which allows executions of those who committed crimes while under age 18, a violation of UN standards.

France and Cuba spoke against the "state sanctioned murder," with French officials vowing to make ending capital punishment a major issue when France assumes the rotating European Union presidency on July 1.

"It was generally believed in the United States and throughout the world that he was sentenced to death and executed for being Black," declared President Fidel Castro in Granma, a daily Communist Party newspaper.

"Shaka Sankofa has shown the world the bitter fruit of a social system where differences between the richest and the poorest are infinite ... ," Mr. Castro said.

South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking June 24 at the University of Nevada at Reno, said it was time to abolish the death penalty, not impose a moratorium. "I can’t understand why a country that’s so committed to human rights doesn’t find the death penalty an obscenity," he said.

Amnesty International said the Sankofa execution violated nearly every international rule, from prohibitions on using the death penalty against children to "prohibition of execution where the prisoner’s guilt is in question."

Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU all appealed to Gov. Bush and the Texas parole board to step in—to no avail.

Outside Huntsville Prison the night of the execution, Texas Rangers, police officers and corrections staff presided over tightly controlled areas.

A diverse crowd of 800 people ranging from Graham supporters—the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Nation of Islam, Amnesty, Houston’s Shape Community Center, the Rainbow Coalition, the National Black United Front, Death Penalty Abolition Movement, New Black Panther Party, New Muslim Movement, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other organizations—was separated from a small contingent of Klansmen and other death penalty supporters.

One Klan sign read, "Kill the Nigger."

The painful episode was a binding agent and seed for a campaign to abolish capital punishment in the United States, according to death penalty opponents.

"It certainly is very sad we’ve come to this," said Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who was at the execution to show support for Mr. Sankofa and his family.

"I don’t think there has ever been proof that the death penalty deters crime. I lost a father and grandmother to assassins, my father by a white person and my grandmother by a Black person. But I would not have advocated the death penalty for any of those," Mr. King said.

Sankofa supporters are working to change laws that could possibly help others who have been wrongfully convicted.

Since his conviction in 1981, the case was brought to more than 15 stages in federal and state courts, including two appearances before the Supreme Court. But not one of those court appearances ever looked at the new evidence in the case, they were all court appearances to see if proper procedure had been followed in the original court case, lawyers explained.

The case helped set precedent in this area in a 1993 civil suit against the clemency process. The law at that time only allowed anyone convicted of a crime 30 days after the conviction to move for a new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals heard the lawsuit and reversed the ruling, thereby doing away with the 30-day rule and initiating an avenue for a person of innocence to make a claim for innocence.

"What we must do is make sure that the indigent have proper representation. Gary Graham’s death can be traced back to poor representation by his first attorney in 1981," said Attorney Warren Muhammad, of Houston.

Richard Burr, Mr. Sankofa’s final attorney, explained the federal courts do not have in place an avenue for hearing evidence based solely on claims of innocence. Appeals for innocence are only heard on evidence that could not have been previously discovered, he said. There was information in the police reports, not investigated by Ronald Mock (Mr. Sankofa’s first attorney), which could have cleared him, supporters say.

Min. Robert Muhammad, Mr. Sankofa’s spiritual advisor for the last seven years, said, one lesson shown is that the poor have no voice. "It is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent," said Min. Muhammad, who with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Bianca Jagger were among witnesses to the execution.

The Sankofa death is further proof that disunity kills, Min. Robert said, referring to the absence among the protesters of many churches, fraternities, sororities and other organizations.

Still, he noted that an array of groups did pull together to try to save a life. Min. Robert also recalled Mr. Sankofa’s last words called for unity and a demand for a moratorium on all executions.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D–Texas) called for a 3-5 year moratorium on executions in the state to allow more time to review capital cases. NAACP president Kweisi Mfume also called for a moratorium and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has authored federal legislation calling for a federal moratorium on capital punishment.

Rev. Jackson, who called Mr. Sankofa a martyr, also expressed disappointment that more preachers, fraternities and sororities did not join protests. Among Mr. Sankofa’s most ardent defenders were the Nation of Islam, National Black United Front, Shape Community Center, local activists like DeLloyd Parker and Ada Edwards, Latino activist Travis Morales, and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Meanwhile, the political fall-out for Mr. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Democrat Al Gore is yet to happen.

"George Bush has aided and abetted in the murder of yet another Black man," said Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney, who likened the decision to execute to Gov. Bush’s father’s infamous Willie Horton ad that critics charged was used to demonize Black men. "The organized extermination of Black men has the stench of a new holocaust," she said.

(Shondra Muhammad, Memorie Knox, Saeed Shabazz and Michael Muhammad contributed to this report.)

 


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