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For Freed Inmate, Painful Memories of Life on Death Row

  • Tala Hadavi

TAKOMA PARK, MD — The execution in Texas of a man alleged to have been mentally disabled has once again brought attention to the issue of capital punishment in the United States.

Nearly 1,300 people have been executed in the U.S. over the past 36 years. But during that same time period, more than 130 have been exonerated, freed because of lack of evidence, or found innocent after being re-tried.

One man still bears the psychological scars of life on Death Row: Shujaa Graham. He lives an ordinary life. His favorite Sunday activity is to take his grandsons to the creek where he took his own children.

Circle of violence

But Graham has struggled for most of his 62 years. He spent the first eleven years of his life in Louisiana’s cotton fields. The next seven he spent in and out of juvenile detention facilities.

Then, a robbery conviction at age 18 put him in adult prison - for life. He learned to read and write in prison, and denounced his earlier criminal activities. But it was a time of vast prison overcrowding and rioting. Things went terribly wrong.

"They opened up a new exercise yard in Soledad state prison," he said. "W.L. Nolan and two other blacks were killed - murdered… pow pow pow. And that’s what started the movement. People looked at the situation and said 'We dying.' They said, ‘Let’s organize ourselves and die together.'"

Graham was later blamed for the murder of a prison guard. He tried to prove his innocence for the next eight years. But after the third trial on the charge, he was sentenced to die.

"Did I want to go to death row? No. But if I had to go to death row for my conviction, you damn right I’m going. All I wanted to do was to be political and expose what was going on in prison," he said.


Finally, after a fourth trial, he was acquitted of the murder - and his robbery conviction was also overturned. Since then - for 35 years - his mission in life has been to raise awareness about wrongful conviction.

"What has happened to me is over with and done," he said. "No one can bring those years back and no one can bring the psychological scars. No one can remove the physical scars. But Shujaa Graham can go on and make sure what happened to him never happens to anyone else."

Today, he does not look like a man who has faced execution. But his wife Phyllis says the experience still weighs on him.

"It’s been a long time now that we’ve been together and he still suffers and I think there’s still really ways that he holds on to what that formative years of your 20s, is your life, of how you look at the world. His were in prison and death row and being tortured," she said.

"Each and every day that I wake up, death row is the first thing on my mind. I can look at my children and look at my wife and say what if California would’ve had their way, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Shujaa Graham.

Bearing witness

Graham is an active member of “Witness to Innocence,” an organization that fights for total abolition of the death penalty.

Last year, 43 prisoners were executed in the United States. Graham says he could have been one of them. And he says there’s not a day that passes that he’s not reminded of what could have been.