The Case of Shaka Sankofa: A Great Injustice

Revolutionary Worker #1060, June 25, 2000

"The Governor has stated that on his watch that no innocent person has been executed....We don’t know if that’s true but we’re saying to the Governor that there’s an innocent person who is facing execution on the 22nd of June. We want him to do what is right. We want him to use his power to do what is right and allow Gary Graham to be heard...This is not television. This is not movies. This is real life....When you talk about convicting someone and sentencing them to death, you should be talking about it without reasonable doubt....We have not gotten to the point where Gary has had his day in court. The question is: what are we afraid of?"

— From a statement by actor Danny Glover at aJune 14th press conference
called by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty held in Washington, DC

"Responsible citizens, including death penalty advocates, should shudder at the thought of an execution based solely on a two-second view of a stranger’s face in the dark."

— Richard Barr, attorney for Shaka Sankofa

"Shaka’s story is a sharp example of the intense cruelty of the criminal justice system in Texas, the injustice of the death penalty in this country and the intolerable inequalities that weigh on the lives of Black people. Sankofa is on death row slated to die on June 22 because he’s a poor Black man the state decided to pin a murder on 19 years ago. And because he was denied inadequate counsel. And because the authorities have taken steps to cut off appeals of such outrageous convictions in federal court."

— Carl Dix, National Spokesperson for the RCP, US


On June 22 the state plans to commit the "legal" murder of an innocent Black man. Shaka Sankofa, formerly known as Gary Graham, is scheduled to be executed for killing Bobby Lambert — in spite of overwhelming evidence that he is innocent.

Shaka Sankofa was convicted in a trial that lasted less than two days based only on the testimony of one eyewitness who saw the shooter for just a few seconds! His court-appointed attorney presented no evidence on his behalf. No physical evidence linked him to the shooting.

Yet in May, the United States Supreme Court denied Shaka’s final appeal based on the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (EDPA). Governor George W. Bush swiftly signed a new death warrant for Shaka. Shaka has been within hours of execution five times before this. As we go to press it is only a few days before his scheduled execution date.

Many people have spoken out on Shaka’s behalf, including actors Mike Farrell and Danny Glover, Bianca Jagger, Chuck D., Kenny Rogers, Attorney Barry Scheck, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Pam Africa and Rev. Al Sharpton. At a June 14 press conference in Washington, DC called by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, John Artis, the man who was falsely convicted with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter joined Shabaka WaQlimi, who came within 13 hours of execution when a federal appeals court in Florida ruled false testimony had been used to obtain his conviction, to call for a stop to the execution.

On June16 a full-page ad appeared in The New York Times calling on Governor George Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop the execution of Gary Graham. The ad was signed by six former death row prisoners who were found innocent and released.

The International Secretariat of Amnesty International issued "An Appeal to Decency" on June 15 which said in part: "[Shaka Sankofa] was denied the right to adequate legal representation at his trial, and was convicted on the basis of a sole, disputed, eyewitness account. Extensive evidence was not heard in court because of his lawyers’ failings. His guilt in the 1981 killing of Bobby Lambert remains in serious doubt. Gary Graham’s execution looms at a time when the error-prone nature of death sentencing in the USA has become abundantly clear. His case is a textbook example of the fatal flaws that riddle the U.S. capital justice system."

On June 14, Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions in Illinois held a press conference that included statements from 10 men who were wrongfully convicted of serious crimes because of bad eyewitness identifications and one woman who identified the wrong man as a rapist. On June 16, members of the New Black Panther Party held an armed march through the streets of Houston in support of Shaka Sankofa.

Growing outrage at the state’s plans to execute Shaka, despite the fact that he never received a fair trial, has prompted widespread media coverage, including a front page article in The New York Times — which revealed the incompetence of Shaka’s original lawyer — as well as stories by Time, Newsweek, CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.

Framed Up and Railroaded

"I think in Texas, perhaps, it’s best to be rich and guilty as opposed to being poor and innocent. That’s what we’re dealing with here."

Shaka Sankofa, speaking from death row in an interview with CNN’s Greta Van Susteren,June 7, 2000

"The people of Texas can be assured that Gary Graham is guilty of capital murder and that he has received the due process our American system guarantees."

— Texas Attorney General John Cornyn,May, 2000

"This is the kind of thing that makes people think that this system is utterly corrupt. No judge has heard any of these witnesses testify. No judge has looked at the bullet, looked at the gun or heard from an expert talking about that bullet and that gun."

— Attorney Burr, one ofShaka Sankofa’s attorneys

Shaka Sankofa was framed for a crime he did not commit because he was a poor Black youth. He was convicted in a trial that lasted only a day and a half and was sentenced to death on the basis of the testimony of one eyewitness named Bernadine Skillern who identified him as the shooter. Shaka’s court-appointed attorney did almost no pre-trial investigation and presented no defense on his behalf.

Shaka’s attorney at his trial, Ron Mock, was appointed by an elected judge. In most Texas counties at the time, there were no public defender’s offices. Judges appointed attorneys to try death penalty cases when defendants couldn’t afford them. The New York Times wrote: "Defense lawyers and former judges say that many judges routinely appointed lawyers who moved cases quickly, and that there was pressure on lawyers to contribute to the judges’ campaigns."

When Mock was appointed to represent Shaka Sankofa he had only three years’ experience as an attorney. Several clients filed complaints against Mock, alleging that they smelled alcohol on his breath. He told the Times: "I drank a lot of whiskey. I drank whiskey with judges. I drank whiskey in the best bars. But it never affected my ability. It never affected my performance." According to the Times, in the 1980s Mock was one of the highest paid court-appointed attorneys and made over $120,000 a year. He told them he stopped handling death penalty cases 10 years ago because the pay wasn’t good enough.

Prisoners and attorneys in Texas call one section of death row in the state prison at Huntsville—where Shaka is being held—"The Mock Wing" because so many of Mock’s clients were sentenced to death. Mock has had a total of 19 death penalty cases—he lost 16 of them and 6 of his clients have been executed. Mock’s record includes jail time for failing to file court papers on time in one death penalty case (his client, Anthony Ray Westley, was executed in 1997). Mock has been disciplined four times for professional misconduct. He told the Times he believes he’s had more clients sentenced to death than any other lawyer in the country and boasted "that he had flunked criminal law at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law."

Having Mock for an attorney was like having an attorney who worked for the prosecution. Mock’s team did almost no investigation of the case before the trial. The investigator who "worked" on the case, Mervyn West, has said he "had a couple of quick talks with eyewitnesses and went over the police report." In a 1993 affidavit filed by West as part of Shaka’s appeal, he wrote: "Ron Mock was extremely busy during the period of time that Gary’s case was pending. Since we both assumed Gary was guilty, I decided not to waste time trying to substantiate his alibi. I really didn’t think Gary had much hope so I just went through the motions."

Chester Thornton, Mock’s co-counsel in the original trial, wrote in his affidavit: "I was shocked when I learned that the investigation that I believed had been done had not. I have serious concerns as to whether or not Gary Graham received effective assistance of counsel. As a member of the defense team, I consider myself partially responsible."

Mock did not challenge Skillern’s testimony that identified Shaka as the one who murdered Bobby Lambert. Skillern testified she saw the shooter from 30 to 40 feet away at night through the windshield of her car for "maybe a second." Mock did not bring up the fact that Skillern originally did not identify Shaka as the killer when shown a photo array by the police or that her original description of the shooter did not match Shaka. He did not bring up the fact that she told police the shooter had short hair and no facial hair, and that of the pictures in the photo array, only Shaka’s had short hair and no facial hair. Attorney Burr said: "[Skillern] was drawn to his photo, she hesitated, according to the police report, said this kind of looks like the guy, but the fellow I saw had a thinner face and a darker complexion. She did not make an identification from the photo." The next day when she viewed a lineup, Skillern picked Sankofa — who was the only person in the lineup whose photo she had seen the day before.

Mock did not call the five other eyewitnesses to the stand who were mentioned in the police report, despite the fact that they all had a better view of the shooter than Skillern and that none identified Shaka as the shooter. Two have since filed affidavits with the appeals court saying they are certain Shaka is not the man they saw shoot Lambert. One of these witnesses, Ronald Hubbard, viewed the same lineup Skillern did and did not pick out Shaka. The prosecution did not call Hubbard to testify. Mock’s "defense" team never even spoke with Hubbard and Sherian Etuk — the other witness who says Shaka didn’t do it — before the trial.

Mock did not meet with two people who came to the trial to testify that Shaka could not be the killer because they were with him at the time of the murder. He told the Times he was too busy to talk to them. The prosecution told the jury Lambert was killed with a .22 like the one Sankofa had when he was arrested. Mock did not challenge this with the fact that the police’s own ballistics report showed the gun Sankofa had when he was arrested was NOT the murder weapon. Mock did not present evidence that someone else might have had a strong motive to shoot Lambert. Lambert was a drug dealer who the government pressured to be a witness against his suppliers. He was murdered a few days after he was given a grand jury subpoena to testify against his suppliers.

Mock says he relied on his closing argument to save Shaka Sankofa — a closing argument in which The New York Times reported "he told the jury [Skillern] deserved a standing ovation for her bravery in testifying." One of Graham’s current attorneys, Jack Zimmerman, said: "He put on no defense. If he didn’t attack the mistaken identification, there was nothing for the jury to do but come back with a finding of guilt."

When the jury was considering whether to give Shaka the death penalty or a lesser sentence, Mock did not argue that the jury should consider age as a factor (Shaka was only 17 at the time). He called only two character witnesses for a man who was fighting for his life. The prosecution used Graham’s admission of guilt to a number of robberies and testimony from the victims to secure a death sentence. Shaka Sankofa has always maintained he did not shoot Lambert.

Despite all this, Shaka’s appeals—that argued that he received ineffective counsel—have been rejected by all the appeals courts. The courts have also denied Shaka’s appeals with the argument that even though Mock didn’t present certain key evidence at the trial, he knew about this evidence. The court’s argument is — too bad, you missed your chance. So the testimony of the eyewitnesses who say Shaka is not the shooter has never been heard in court.

New laws have been passed in Texas and nationally designed to "speed up" death penalty appeals—to send more people to death without a full review of their cases. Attorney Richard Barr told The New York Times: "Gary Graham’s case lies on the fault line of the Texas death penalty system. He had abysmal trial counsel, who failed to present stark evidence of his innocence based on exonerating eyewitnesses and forensics evidence. Thereafter, when this evidence was discovered, the courts all decided that this evidence was presented too late to be heard."

In 1999, a federal court ruled that Shaka’s habeas corpus petition was barred by the EDPA (the Effective Death Penalty Act), despite the fact that his appeal was filed before the EDPA was passed into law. On May 1 of this year the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Shaka’s appeal. In doing so, the Supreme Court let stand the decision of the lower court that the EDPA does apply to Shaka’s case. The court refused to hear new evidence because it was available at the time of the original trial—in spite of the fact that Shakaa’s lawyer never presented it! A few days later, Governor George W. Bush signed a death warrant for June 22.

Shaka Sankofa’s lawyers have petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend Bush delay the execution for 120 days and allow a hearing to examine the evidence. Recently Shaka said this about his case: "In 1981, when I was a 17-year-old juvenile, I became the victim of poor legal representation and a racially biased prosecution system that is more often criminal than just. I was wrongly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by a nearly all white jury in spite of overwhelming and compelling evidence of my innocence. My trial was a travesty of justice and a strong people’s movement is the only hope to prevent my legal lynching and to stop my execution."

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.)