Death row exonerees speak out at Breckenridge panel
BRECKENRIDGE — Community members came together at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge on Tuesday evening for a visceral discussion diving into the dark side of the American justice system.
The event included a panel discussion featuring three former death row inmates, who were falsely accused and convicted of their crimes before being exonerated. All three are members of a group called Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based organization of death row exonerees, who share their personal stories, try to raise awareness of the causes of wrongful convictions and work as community leaders in a movement to abolish the death penalty.
The group spoke in Breckenridge as part of the Accuracy and Justice project, meant to facilitate conversations between death row exonerees and individuals working in the criminal justice field.
The first of the exonerees to speak was Gary Drinkard, an Alabama native who was sentenced to death for robbery and murder in 1995 and spent more than five years on death row.
Drinkard was the victim of a false accusation in the crime but was given little chance at trial due to what he called an incompetent legal team that he spoke to only once in the two years he spent in jail leading up to the trial.
“Finally, at trial, I saw what kind of lawyers they gave me,” said Drinkard, who noted that his lawyers called only one witness in the case, despite others who could have attested that he was home at the time of the murder. “Their cap was $1,000, and that’s what they did. They did $1,000 worth of work and said, ‘see ya.’ And I was convicted to death row.”
Drinkard said he continued his fight from inside a cell, writing to journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union and other lawyers before finally finding someone willing to take on his case. He received a new trial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate legal defense, and he was exonerated in 2001.
Another exoneree, Kwame Ajamu was only 17 when he, his 20-year-old brother and 18-year-old friend were arrested for the robbery and murder of a salesman in Ohio in 1975. The prosecution’s sole evidence in the case was what the group referred to as the coerced testimony of a 13-year-old boy who claimed to witness the incident, though it was enough to sentence Ajamu and the two others to death.
In a 1978 United States Supreme Court decision in a case called Lockett v. Ohio, the court held that the courts must consider all mitigating factors for an accused murderer before applying the death penalty, allowing Ajamu to be removed from death row and placed into the general prison population.
Ajamu was released on parole in 2003 but wasn’t exonerated until 2014 on grounds of police misconduct and false eyewitness testimony. He served 28 years in prison. His brother and friend who never received parole served 39 years before their exonerations.
Sabrina Butler-Smith also was arrested at 17 years old in Mississippi. In 1989, Butler-Smith discovered that her 9-month-old son suddenly stopped breathing. With the help of neighbors, she was able to rush him to the hospital, attempting to perform CPR on the way. The child died, and Butler-Smith was charged with murder in part because of bruises left of the child from resuscitation attempts.
“When I got to the police station, they interrogated me for about four hours,” Butler-Smith said. “They told me, ‘You beat him. You stomped him. This is what you did to the baby. You know you did this.’ They didn’t want to hear anything I said. Everything I said they’d ball up and throw in the trash. The lead investigator wrote a statement, and that’s the initial statement they used to charge me with capital murder. They said to sign it. So I signed it. I was scared.”
Butler-Smith was convicted of murder in 1990 and sentenced to death, despite readily available evidence that her child died naturally from a kidney illness. She was exonerated in 1995 after getting a new trial on the grounds of misleading forensic evidence and official misconduct.
Along with being wrongfully imprisoned for years, all three exonerees said their time on death row has continued to create difficulties in their lives.
As a newly free man, Drinkard went back to college and earned a degree in respiratory therapy. But he quickly learned that despite his exoneration, no hospitals would hire him due to his previous conviction.
Butler-Smith said she’s still in a battle with the state of Mississippi to change the cause of death on her child’s death certificate from murder to natural death, and she is working with attorneys to get the state to move her son from the backwoods site where they buried him while she was incarcerated.
But perhaps the most challenging part of life after exoneration is the lifelong psychological scar that has stayed with them, both in the isolation they endured while incarcerated and the anticipation of an unjust death ahead of them.
“The death row part is 100% isolation from other human beings,” Ajamu said. “What that does is turns a human’s brain to mush. The longer you stay in solitary confinement away from any human activities, the more reversed your brain becomes. Everyone who has been a sufferer of this situation suffers also from post-traumatic stress. Every one. In my brother’s case, he has to be medicated two to three times a day.
“While we were in prison, I would hear the screams of some of those men. I was just a kid. We would play chess by numbers. One particular day, a guy moved his rook to square 47. But someone was in cell 47. In his mind, he thought they were coming for his execution. I can still hear his screams. I can still hear the sobs and the whimpering and the pleading to God or whoever would listen. … The death row part of being incarcerated, to any human being, is as such. To people who are innocent, it’s 1,000 times worse.”
Fighting for change
Today, all three exonerees, along with about 30 others, continue to tour the country with Witness to Innocence to help spread awareness of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases and to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
According to The National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 2,480 exonerations since 1989 totaling almost 22,000 years lost to unjust incarceration. There have been 167 death row exonerees in the past 45 years. According to the registry, false accusations and official misconduct are far and away the most common contributing factors to wrongful convictions.
While the death penalty may not be something that Colorado residents often consider — there has been only one execution in the state since 1976, and there are three inmates on death row — it is an issue individuals working in the justice system must wrestle with regularly.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said his office investigates whether a person is eligible for the death penalty under state statute any time there’s a first-degree murder — there are currently two outstanding cases in the district in Eagle and Clear Creek counties. Though Brown noted that in his tenure as district attorney, his office never has perused a capital punishment case. Still, Brown felt the panel was a good opportunity to provide himself and others in his office with another perspective on the issue.
“It’s always good for the community to be educated, but we had prosecutors in attendance because we want them to have a broad foundation of knowledge to make good decisions on individual cases,” Brown said. “While we do everything we can to minimize the possibility of someone getting wrongfully convicted, we acknowledge it’s a possibility. It gave us the possibility to hear about the risk factors that contribute nationally like false confessions and informants who are receiving benefits.”
Earlier this year, a bill to abolish the death penalty in Colorado failed to pass in the state senate. Brown said he expects the issue to come up again in 2020 before the general assembly and that he likely would be in favor of a bill to abolish the death penalty not only for individuals who are yet to be sentenced, but also for individuals currently on Colorado’s death row.
In the meantime, the fight continues for advocacy groups like Witness to Innocence hoping to press the issue of abolition.
“We have to have things in the perspective they’re in,” Ajamu said. “So yeah, I’m angry. But I’m going to use that anger in the right way. I’m going to use this organization, and we’re going to take that anger and turn it into something great. My ideal is a whole community outreach, not just in Ohio or Alabama, but the entire world needs to be reached.”
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