Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Exonerated death-row inmate to speak

Exonerated death-row inmate to speak

Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2007
By Adam Silverman
Free Press Staff Writer

Shabaka Sundiata WaQlimi's name in Swahili means "uncompromising teacher," and that's the approach this exonerated death-row inmate carries with him as he travels the country and speaks against capital punishment.

A dedicated abolitionist, WaQlimi wields a ready explanation for why he opposes the death penalty.

"I am that central point," he said. "Society tried, convicted and came within 15 hours of killing me for a crime I did not commit. I came within 15 hours of being murdered. I don't use the term 'executed' because it would have been a murder, because I committed no crime."

WaQlimi is scheduled to give a public talk tonight at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. Through his personal example of life, near-death and ultimate survival on prison's bleakest ward, he plans to make a case for ending what he considers state-sanctioned killing.

Born 57 years ago in Charleston, S.C., as Joseph Green Brown -- which remains his legal name in honor of his mother, who died recently just shy of her 110th birthday, he said -- WaQlimi is speaking on behalf of Witness to Innocence, an anti-death-penalty organization.

""What happened in my case is not unique. What happened to me is still being done today," WaQlimi said. "Why are we killing people? What is the need?"

His case began in 1974 in Tampa, Fla., when he was convicted of robbing a clothing store and raping and killing co-owner Earlene Barksdale, according to court papers summarizing the allegations. Authorities shipped him to a tiny cell on Florida's death row.

WaQlimi knew state prosecutors had elicited false testimony, misled the jury and hid exculpatory facts. Among the details: evidence casting doubt on the honesty of the state's key witness and the impossibility that WaQlimi's gun was the murder weapon, a panel of federal judges said years later.

Appeals through state courts provided no relief, and WaQlimi's execution date inched closer. While he waited, the state strapped 16 others to its electric chair.

"Every day is a psychological, emotional and sometimes physical challenge. Your spirituality is questioned. Your mind is questioned. Your emotions are questioned. And that carries over to your body," WaQlimi said. "Everyone on death row, we all have one commonality. We all live less than 100 yards from instant death. You try not to develop any type of friendship, because you know sooner or later one of you is going to take a walk."

Three weeks before his Sept. 18, 1983, execution, prison staff moved WaQlimi to the "death watch cell" just 30 feet from the chair. A tailor measured him for his burial suit. He refused a last meal, telling guards he was sure he wouldn't die in prison, and he wasn't through eating yet.

He heard electricity coursing through the chair twice a day as executioners rehearsed.

"It's maddening, man," he said. "How I retained my sanity, only the Heavenly Father can answer that. He probably saw some good in me."

Finally, half a day before the early morning execution, a federal judge issued a stay. WaQlimi left death watch and returned to the row. The case progressed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges there reversed WaQlimi's conviction in 1986.

The state decided against a retrial, and in March 1987, WaQlimi was released. He visited his mother a week later, an emotional encounter he still can't describe. "It was beautiful," he managed to say. He moved to Washington, D.C., bounced through a number of odd jobs and finally found work in a homeless shelter. Now he's employed as facilities coordinator for Covenant House, a citywide program for at-risk kids.

The prosecutor, now a Florida judge, has maintained in media interviews that WaQlimi is guilty, but the former inmate and Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor and one-time defense lawyer on capital cases, said the reversal amounted to total vindication.

Mello, with whom WaQlimi lived for his first few weeks in Washington, said he hopes people will learn the debate about the death penalty goes beyond dry facts and figures.

"Capital punishment isn't a collection of arguments," Mello said. "It's a collection of stories and fully dimensional human beings."

Public speaking is cathartic, too, WaQlimi said.

"It's almost like therapy," he said. "When I got out and even still today, there's no books or no school of thought on how to deal with people like me, because we should either be dead or spending the rest of our lives incarcerated."

If you go

WHAT: Speech by Shabaka WaQlimi, an exonerated former inmate on Florida's death row, and Michael Mello, a law professor and one-time defense lawyer on capital cases.

WHEN: 7-9 p.m. today.

WHERE: Chase Community Center, Vermont Law School, South Royalton.

COST: Free. Source: Vermont Law School

Contact Adam Silverman at 660-1854 or asilverm@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

No comments: