Urgent Actions to Save the Live of Shaka Sankofa

Stop June 22 Execution

Revolutionary Worker #1057, June 4, 2000

"As my 36th birthday approaches...I find myself sitting in this desolate prison cell on death row in Texas reflecting on the 18 years of my imprisonment. It has been a nightmarish ordeal endured under horrendous circumstances. I think about my son and my daughter who have had to endure many hardships without me. And with the passage of time my beautiful children have grown up into young adults and my lovely daughter recently brought into the world my first precious grandchild. I think about the passing of my beloved mother in 1989 and the tragic death of my father in 1996. And I think of how prison officials would not allow me to attend the funerals of my parents, and I find that there are no words to describe my grief. I think about the many unfortunate victims of senseless violence in our society and I think about their widows and orphans, their families and their friends, their fathers and their mothers who have grieved and wept for them. I think about the people who have died while fighting for freedom and liberation and those who have struggled and sacrificed for justice. I think about the worldwide attention that my own suffering has helped to bring to the genocidal plight and the oppressive conditions of millions of my oppressed sisters and brothers. And I think about how my own case has come to symbolize the racism and brutality inflicted on poor people and minorities in America.

"But my spirit of resistance will never be crushed by this racist injustice and political repression. Never will I cease to struggle and fight for freedom and national liberation of my oppressed people..."

Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham),
from a 1999 letter

Shaka Sankofa has spent more than half of his 36 years on death row. At age seventeen, Shaka (then known as Gary Graham) was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white man in Houston. Now, after the U.S. Supreme Court's May 1 refusal to hear his case, Shaka faces a June 22 execution date. And his supporters are urgently stepping up the fight for his life.

On May 26, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. spoke on the Capitol steps in Washington, DC to demand a new trial for Shaka Sankofa. Carter himself was imprisoned for 19 years after he was railroaded on a murder charge; his story was told in the movie Hurricane starring Denzel Washington. Carter said that Shaka Sankofa "has clear evidence of his innocence" and declared: "We must not let him die."

On the evening of May 26, Carter spoke about Shaka Sankofa at an anti-death penalty program at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. The program was sponsored by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in conjunction with Amnesty International, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Gary Graham/Shaka Sankofa Coalition for Justice, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers-DC Chapter.

Amnesty International USA released an "emergency bulletin" dated May 5 on the Shaka Sankofa case. Amnesty's position is that Shaka's death sentence "is illegal under international law, which bans the death penalty for crimes committed by under-18-year-olds." The bulletin also mentions evidence pointing to Shaka's innocence.

Shaka's lawyers are filing for clemency. The Gary Graham/Shaka Sankofa Coalition for Justice is calling on people to flood Texas Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles with e-mails, phone calls, letters, and faxes demanding clemency. (Information about this and other protest actions for Shaka Sankofa can be found online at http://members.xoom.com/ccadp/garygraham.htm)

A Nation of Islam minister in Houston has called for a hunger strike in support of Shaka. The International Action Center is organizing for "Emergency Days of Resistance" from June 16-19. There are plans to protest at the June 15-17 Texas State Republican Convention in Houston.

Framed by a Racist System

Shaka Sankofa has spent more than half his life in the hell known as Texas Death Row. Richard Burr, one of Shaka's attorneys, wrote, "Gary Graham's journey to death row is typical of the experiences of many black male youths who have grown up in poverty-stricken Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas and other black urban ghettos."

Shaka's story says a lot about the oppression of Black people and the injustice of the death penalty in the U.S. And his fight for justice has received widespread support here and worldwide.

Actor Danny Glover, one of Shaka's outspoken supporters, told the newspaper USA Today: "It is the business of everyone in this country that African American males are criminalized from birth. It is the business of every American that we skimp on educational programs and job programs for young Black men but not on jail terms or death sentences. Why are 73 percent of all the people who were sentenced to death for crimes committed as teenagers in Harris County, Texas, African American or Latino? Why did a nearly all-white jury hear Graham's case? Why is the United States the only Western industrialized nation that has executed juveniles in the last decade? What does this mean about the fundamental principles governing this land and our people when there is such a fervor to kill.... I do not excuse Graham's armed robberies and other acts of violence in 1981.... But, at the same time, I cannot excuse a society from perpetuating racism. And make no mistake, Gary Graham is a victim of racism."

As a teenager, Gary Graham was caught up in a life of robberies. He grew up in difficult family circumstances, and he could not read or write when he dropped out of seventh grade. But the only reason the police and prosecutors focused on Graham as a "suspect" in the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert was that they thought it would be easy to carry out a frame-up of this Black youth.

Lambert was a long-time narcotics trafficker, and his murder was suspicious--but the police carried out no investigation about a drug connection to the killing. Gary Graham did not fit the description of the gunman distributed by the police themselves. The sole prosecution "eyewitness" at the trial had earlier said that Graham was not the shooter and gave a description of the killer that did not match Graham's physical characteristics. Graham's court-appointed lawyer made no attempt to investigate or put on a defense--because he assumed that the young man was guilty.

On death row, Gary Graham learned to read and write, and he got a GED. He became politically conscious and aware of the many injustices in society. He took on the name Shaka Sankofa to reflect his African heritage. And he founded the Endeavor Project, a prison activist group and newspaper.

In 1993, a new legal team began uncovering a wealth of evidence proving Shaka's innocence. Police reports on the Lambert shooting listed at least six eyewitnesses who now say that Shaka was not the killer. And at least four people say they can provide an alibi for Shaka for the night of the killing. Loretta Lambert, the widow of Bobby Lambert, wrote to then-Texas Governor Richards, "It has been brought to my attention that there is evidence that creates a possibility of reasonable doubt as to whether or not Gary Graham did in fact commit this crime.... I do not want the execution of a possibly innocent man on my conscience." Richards acknowledged that Shaka Sankofa's case warranted further consideration, but she left office before taking further action.

Shaka has never had a chance to present his compelling evidence in court. In 1994, Shaka's lawyers argued before the federal appeals court for a new trial. Two years later, the court ruled that there was substantial evidence that should be heard--but sent the case back to the Texas courts. The state courts refused to hold a hearing. Shaka's attorneys went back to the federal court. But the federal court ruled that the Effective Death Penalty Act--signed into law by President Clinton in 1996--blocked Shaka's evidence from being heard.

Stop the Execution!

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear Shaka's case--and he faces his sixth execution date. Shaka is refusing any cooperation with the prison authorities, and he is being targeted for brutal and vengeful punishment. Prison guards have pepper-sprayed Shaka to move him to another cell and taken away his typewriter, clothes, and mail.

Mumia Abu-Jamal recently wrote: "If there is a crime for which Bloody Texas seeks [Shaka Sankofa's] death it is this: it is a crime in a racist nation for a black youth to be conscious and thinking in political and collective terms." Shaka Sankofa was railroaded and sentenced to death by this criminal system--a system which now threatens to carry out a deeply unjust execution.

In a message last year, Shaka Sankofa wrote: "A strong people's movement supported and mobilized by our youth and students is the only hope to prevent my legal lynching and to stop my execution. I place my life and fate not in the hands of the racist white men on the Supreme Court but in the united and powerful hands of our youth and students and our sisters and brothers and the people. Stop the violence --Stop the executions!"

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)