Two men who spent a combined total of nearly 35 years on death row for crimes they didn't commit are now campaigning to help others who may be facing similar fates.
Working directly with Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CADP), Derrick Jamison and Shabaka WaQlimi said in an interview interviewed this week with David Sirota on Colorado’s Progressive Radio AM 760 that they are hoping to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and the likelihood that states across the country may be preparing to execute innocent people. The exonerees are staunch critics of the death penalty in general -- with good reason -- are currently on a nationwide tour to draw attention to their cases.
Derrick Jamison spent 20 years on death row in the state of Ohio before being cleared of all original charges in 2005. His case in 1985 had all the features of a typical wrongful conviction: unreliable eyewitness testimony, withheld evidence and a codefendant who testified against Jamison in exchange for a sweet plea deal. In initial photo lineups, one witness to the robbery and murder that Jamison was ultimately convicted of didn’t choose Jamison out of a photo lineup. Instead, he chose two other men.
Shabaka WaQlimi, formerly known as Joseph Green Brown, came within 14 hours of being executed before a stay was issued. He had spent 13 years on death row in Florida, the state currently leading the nation in wrongful convictions. What he believed to be his final three weeks were spent just 30 feet from the execution chamber in what’s known as the “death watch cell." He had been measured for the suit he would be buried in, though he refused to order the “final meal."
Mr. WaQlimi was accused of robbing, raping, and murdering the co owner of a Tampa clothing store, Earlene Barksdale, a woman who also happened to be the wife of a prominent area attorney. Again, like Jamison’s case, WaQlimi’s hinged on unreliable testimony and withheld evidence. The prosecution’s star witness had a personal vendetta against WaQlimi for a former robbery case and the jury never did hear expert testimony that would have shown the suspected murder weapon could not have been used in the commission of the crime. Despite the witness later admitting his lie, appellate courts offered WaQlimi no relief. It wasn’t until an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecution had purposefully allowed false testimony at trial that the stay of execution was signed—less than a day before his execution.
The men aren’t bitter—only motivated. They also aren’t blind to the things which put them on death row and make some observations that even some legal experts, lawmakers, and politicians still refuse to see. When asked whether the real problem is the death penalty or how it is being administered, WaQlimi noted capital punishment isn’t just a system of executing people for horrendous crimes with a few mistakes—he called it a system of “elitism."
About the other men WaQlimi shared death row with, he recognized a few things they all had in common--“not one had the money to buy an attorney." He noted that the vast majority of death row inmates he knew personally were poor -- whether black, white or Hispanic. He also addressed the issue of race, observing the majority of victims in death row cases are white while questioning how people can really believe that a country founded on “300-plus years” of slavery can dole out true, fair justice, saying racism is deeply ingrained in the system.
After spending years incarcerated for offenses they didn’t commit, you would think Derrick Jamison and Shabaka WaQlini would be content to spend their remaining years with family, relaxing outdoors, or enjoying life’s simple pleasures. While they could be enjoying their freedom by living as many other Americans do, they instead choose to spend their time on the road, giving a voice to the men and women awaiting execution across the country, and speaking out against something that so nearly took their lives