Two innocent men almost killed by the law
Death penalty not without flaws, or tampering
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
"Your beloved state has not had the death penalty for over 153 years, and as a former condemned man, you have done wonderful," said Shujaa Graham. "You have been a shining light for the rest of our nation and you can continue to be a shining light if you stand up and take a stand against an idea called capital punishment."
Last week, Graham and Ron Keine, exonerated death row inmates, were at UW-Green Bay's Ecumenical Center to share their stories and speak against the Nov. 7 death penalty referendum in Wisconsin. Their visit was sponsored by No Death Penalty Wisconsin.
"The laws of capital punishment, laws of revenge, solve no social problems," said Graham. "When someone kills, why do we have to kill to prove that killing is wrong?"
Graham, a native of Lake Providence, La., was on death row in California. His family moved from Louisiana to South Central Los Angeles in search of a better life, but Graham, a young boy at the time, struggled to adapt. At age 18, he was sentenced to life in prison for a $35 robbery."
Grew up in prison
"At 18 years old, I was off to prison and I couldn't read or write," he said. "That's where my humanity began to develop. I grew up in prison."
Graham became involved in the Black Prison movement, taught himself to read and write, and studied history and world affairs. He became a leader in seeking better conditions in the prison. His leadership role would prove costly.
In 1973, a prison guard was killed at Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton, Calif., where Graham was serving time. Graham and co-defendant Eugene Allen were framed for the murder. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second resulted in the two men being sentenced to San Quentin's death row.
The district attorney had systematically excluded African American jurors, allowing a third trial for Graham. It resulted in a hung jury. They were found innocent by a fourth jury.
Aged 20 years
"I remember that I didn't want to go down that day to hear the verdict," he said. "I was in my 30s, but after all my years in prison it was like I had aged 50 years. Yet, when I woke up that day, I was like a little boy who just wanted to go home. When I heard 'not guilty' I thought my nightmare was over."
Graham, who was released from prison in 1981, said he won his freedom in spite of the system, and not a day goes by when he doesn't think about his death row experience.
"The first thing I think about when I wake up is capital punishment," he said. "Capital punishment destroyed my emotions. I cannot hold a conversation without breaking down, but I have to put my shame aside to stand up for what is right."
Keine, a Michigan native, also relocated to California, but found himself on death row in New Mexico. Keine joined a motorcycle club in California. During the winter of 1974, a party of five men from the club decided to take a road trip to Michigan in a van. They were stopped in Albuquerque.
"There had been a murder and here were five nasty bikers," he said. "We did what any group of young guys would have done back then. We bought a loaf of bread, a pound of bologna, a jar of mustard and five cases of beer. We were young, rowdy, hell raisers, but certainly not murderers, not robbers."
A drug enforcement agent had killed a college student in what was described as a "drug bust that went bad." The agent disposed of the body in the mountains. He confessed to the sheriff and turned in his gun, but the sheriff told him to keep quiet, and assured him that situation would be handled.
"It was professional courtesy," said Keine. "They manufactured a witness who was a prostitute. The attorneys told you to show no emotion. The press said, 'They showed no remorse.' I had a public defender, two weeks out of law school. He did his best, but we got convicted and sent to death row."
While on death row, Keine witnessed other inmates finding religion, which he said was good for them.
"I was innocent," he said. "I refused to turn to religion. I had a little talk with God and said 'I'll deal with you when I get out.' I was raised a Catholic. I always went to Catholic schools. I was an altar boy. I knew who Jesus was."
Ten days before Keine was scheduled to be executed, the narcotics officer walked into a church in North Carolina and confessed to the pastor.
"The pastor told him, I cannot absolve your sin, but you can do the right thing," said Keine. "He came forward, but the prosecutor refused. The prosecutor didn't want to hear what he had to say, so he went to the press."
"There are 123 people in this country who were exonerated after being on death row," he added. "These aren't guys who beat the case at a trial or on a technicality. These are guys that were proven innocent."
The death penalty referendum in Wisconsin, which the Wisconsin Catholic Bishops oppose, calls for the possibility of the death penalty when DNA proves a defendant is guilty of murder.
"They are trying to disguise it," said Keine. "It's a scam. They say that all they are doing is taking the temperature of the public. There are very few murder cases where there is DNA. DNA has only helped 15% of those exonerated. What is going to happen if this passes is you are going to end up with full blown capital punishment in Wisconsin."
Keine added that those people who think the death penalty will help the state's economy are being misled.
"It costs roughly $3.2 million to send a man to death row," he said. "It costs $500,000 to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.
Keine struggled after his release from prison, but eventually was able to start a successful rock salt business in Michigan and raise a family. He also returned to the church years after his release.
"People say it's (U.S.) the best justice system in the world," he said. "Any system that kills its own people, its own citizens, has something wrong with it."
"If Americans know the truth, they will make the right decision," said Graham. "I'm depending on you with profound optimism. I live for a day when some young kid walks up to me and says, 'Mr. Shujaa, what was capital punishment?' I can look that kid in the eye and say, 'We have evolved as a society. Capital punishment is no longer used in our nation.'"
For more information about No Death Penalty Wisconsin, visit www.NoDeathPenaltyWI.com.