"Some of you hope to be lawyers, doctors, teachers . . . if I could give you one piece of advice it would be to take up a cause, take up an issue, and fight for it, fight for it, fight for it. When you fight for it, you will be a better person, lawyer, teacher and you will make a better society, a better America. . . struggle, fight.”
Those were the words of exonerated death row inmate Shujaa Graham, who told a captivated audience at the law school on April 11 the series of events that led to his death row sentence in 1976.
Graham grew up in the segregated south on a plantation in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He described the palpable effects of segregation and how it eventually drove his mother out of Louisiana to South Central, Los Angeles. He soon followed, and in what Graham referred to as one of the most regrettable choices in his life, joined a number of South Central gangs, many of which earned him an adolescent life in juvenile institutions.
Graham went to prison when he turned 18 and, in 1973, despite his best efforts to reform his life while in jail, Graham was arrested for the murder of a prison guard at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Stockton, California.
Graham spoke of the 24 hour interrogations and beatings after his arrest. “They would take shifts on you,” with officers taking turns so the beatings could continue. The trials were equally demeaning, Graham said. He remembered being shackled behind bullet proof glass with police officers lined up inside and outside the courtroom, all for a “crime I did not commit.” As if it were yesterday, Graham reenacted the judge’s first address to the jurors pointing out the shackles, the police and the reporters while derisively claiming that they “were not evidence” of his guilt.
It was not until 1976 that his first trial concluded and Graham was sentenced to death row in San Quentin. “Think of every day of your life as the worst day you have ever experienced – that’s every day on death row,” Graham said. He fought for his freedom each day from the time he was arrested in 1973 until his release in 1981 after a fourth trial, Graham claimed.
Graham was thankful for the capable appeals attorneys who fought to secure his freedom but, most of all, Graham singled out two young middle school children who sat in on his first trial promising to fight for his innocence. Graham recalled how they never stopped fighting for him - selling cookies, knocking on doors and organizing people to support Graham.
Graham said he struggles with his incarceration every day, constantly questioning what would have happened if people did not stand in his defense. He attributes his freedom to his strength and to those who chose to believe in a cause. For this reason, Graham claimed, he is currently a member of Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia organization fighting to end the death penalty in America.
Graham was also joined by Marc Bookman, Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bookman pointed out that that false arrests and death sentencing due to racial bias and subpar criminal defense work, like that which Graham suffered, remains prevalent in Philadelphia today. Recently, a young Philadelphia man was sentenced to death after what Bookman referred to as terrible defense work on the part of inexperienced public defenders who failed to file a single motion in defense of their client. Bookman, like Graham, urged the students to fight for accountability in the criminal justice system so that innocent people never suffer the same ordeal as Graham and others like him.