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