by Sue Ann Rybak
Shujaa Graham, 64, will discuss his journey from death row to freedom on Wednesday, April 8, 7 p.m., at Chestnut Hill College’s Third Annual Forgiveness Day, sponsored by the college’s Institute of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
Since 1973, 151 people in 26 states have been exonerated from death row. Six were exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row. “I am not here today because the system works,” said Graham in a telephone interview. “I am here today in spite of the system.”
Graham’s story is compelling and sheds light on a judicial system fraught with error and inequities. Born in Lake Providence, Louisiana, he grew up on a plantation in the segregated South. His parents worked as sharecroppers, who were paid meager wages and often forced to work from dawn to dusk. In an attempt to find a better life, his mother and step-father and older siblings moved to South Central Los Angles. “I had to stay behind with my grandmother and that was a hard thing,” he said. “In sixth grade, I joined my family in California, and that’s when my trouble started.”
Graham, who experienced the Watts riot and police occupation of his community, said he joined a gang and was “in and out of juvenile detention. In 1969 (at age 18) I was convicted of a $35 robbery and sent to prison. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I denounced my past.”
Mentored by members in the Black Prison movement, he taught himself to read and write and studied history and world affairs in Soledad Prison. Later, he became a leader of the Black Panther Party within the California prison system. In November, 1973, Graham was wrongly accused of murdering white prison guard Jerry Sanders at the Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton, California.
“I was accused because of my involvement in political uprising. In my first trial the jury couldn’t determine whether I was guilty or innocent,” said Graham, a board member of the Witness to Innocence non-profit organization that campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty. “In my second trial in 1976, I was convicted and sentenced to die.”
Graham and his co-defendant, Eugene Allen, were convicted of first-degree murder and sent to San Quentin’s death row in 1976. During his second trial, the district attorney systematically excluded all African American jurors. In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence.
Graham recalled how the community rallied and helped raise money for a new lawyer. “When I was convicted and sentenced to death row, they were among the first people who came to see,” said Graham, referring to young people who worked on his defense committee. “They said ‘Shujaa, we’re going to get you out of here.’ I told them ‘Shit, my life is finished. What are you kids going to do against the state of California?’”
A third trial resulted in a hung jury. “In the beginning, I was really positive, but by my fourth trial I had spent 12 years of my life in prison,” he said. “It takes a toll. People often ask me how it was on death row. Today, I can’t find the words to describe the depth of the pain. All I can say is just think about each and every day of your life that as long as you live that each unborn tomorrow promises to be worse.”
He said he will never forget his fourth trial. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Graham said. “They had me stand up, and when I heard them say ‘Not guilty,’ I sat down and put my hands over my head. I said to myself, ‘After eight long years, this nightmare has finally come to an end.’ I have been out over 20 years now, and every day when I wake up I think about capital punishment and those folks who were put down. What if the state of California had their way? I wouldn’t be here today. So, I try to do anything I can do to help other people.”
Now, Graham spends most of his time speaking about his experiences and advocating to end the death penalty. “It’s not just about the death penalty for me,” Graham said. “It’s about human rights and social justice for all human beings. That is my fight, and that is what I am doing with my time now. What happened to me is done with.”
In 1981, after his release from prison, Graham said he was very angry. “I am not gonna lie. It took me a long time to overcome it. But after I studied Dr. King, I was able to deal with a lot of issues that happened in my life.”
Graham, who has three children and four grandchildren, talked about the need to end the cycle of violence. He cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote about forgiveness. “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love … I believe communication and education is the key to our solution.”
When he speaks at colleges and universities, he challenges students to find a cause or social justice issue and add that to their vocation. “When you add a social justice aspect to your vocation and your education, then you make the world a better place and become servants of humanity,” he said.
Before ending our conversation, Graham quoted the words of an executed man written in a letter to his sister. “The most happiest of us may not have the best of things, they just make the best of what comes their way. Happiness comes to those who fight, those who struggle and surely to those who have served for only they can appreciate the importance of those who have touched their lives … My beloved sister, when you were born, everyone around was probably smiling, and you were crying. Go on out and live your life so that when you die, you will be the one that is smiling, and everyone around you will be crying.”
For more information about Witness to Innocence call 267-519-4584 or go to witnesstoinnocence.org.