If Shujaa Graham had known how spending three years on death row for a murder he did not commit would affect his life forever, he would have made the police kill him rather than surrender to their arrest, he said in a Monday panel at Yale Law School.
Graham, New Haven defense attorney Peter Tsimbidaros and Connecticut State Representative Roland Lemar spoke about the fight against the death penalty to about 60 students at the Law School Monday night. Slifka Center Rabbi James Ponet ’68 moderated the event, which illustrated the dangers of allowing the death penalty from legal, political and personal perspectives.
Lemar referenced the recent trial of Steven Hayes, who murdered a woman and her two daughters in their home in 2007 and may become the second person to be executed in Connecticut in the last 50 years, as an example of how emotional an issue capitol cases can become.
“[The Hayes case] took center stage and inflamed the passions of everyone involved,” he said, nonetheless insisting that emotions should play no part in decisions about capital punishment. “At our best, a state does not put people to death. I hope we put this issue to rest and take this irrevocable and entirely unnecessary punishment off the table.”
He referenced the time Graham spent wrongfully imprisoned as an example of what can happen when governments have the power to impose the death penalty.
Graham said the moment he was sentenced to death was one of the most painful of his life.
“It was one of the most difficult things to accept, being a human being and perfectly healthy, and within 15 minutes of that sentence I was off to death row,” he said. He urged the audience to imagine life on death row: “Think about what it means for each day to be the longest and most painful day you know, and the next day is even worse, and the day after that.”
Graham, who was in and out of prison from the time he was in his mid-teens, taught himself to read and write in prison at the age of 18. He became involved with the Black Panthers while in jail, and was a leader in a prison movement that sought to expose abject living conditions and police brutality.
“Each time I promised I would never go back, that I had changed and I was different person,” he said. “And I had changed, and I was a different person, but the world was the same.”
In 1973, when he had been in jail for five years already, a prison guard was killed. Graham was accused and, after a trial in which African-Americans were systematically eliminated from the jury, he was sentenced to death. After two and a half years, the Supreme Court of California overturned his trial because of the intentional exclusion of blacks. He was retried in a trial that ended in a hung jury, and then tried again. Finally, after this fourth trial, he was exonerated of all charges.
Still, Graham emphasized that his time on death row took a mental and physical toll that he will never escape.
Tsimbidaros spoke about his work fighting to overturn wrongful convictions like Graham’s and told the stories of his past clients who he knew — and had evidence to prove — were innocent.
The audience gave Graham’s story a standing ovation, and all five students interviewed said they were impressed by the panel.
“[It was] one of the most moving things I’ve seen here,” said Sanket Karuri ’13. “The most, actually. It brings introspection.”
Nick Bleisch ’13 said he wished there had been a voice on the panel or in the audience to speak for the death penalty and encourage debate, but added that he still found the talk interesting.
The panel was sponsored by over 15 organizations, including the Yale College Democrats, Amnesty International and the Arthur P. Liman Public Interest Program.