Never Forgive, Never Forget

Shaka Sankofa and the System of No Justice

Long Live the Revolutionary Spirit of Shaka Sankofa!

Revolutionary Worker #1061, July 2, 2000

On June 22 at 8:49 p.m. Shaka Sankofa drew his last breath in the death chamber at Huntsville Prison in Texas. This system of NO JUSTICE carried out a cold-blooded legal lynching of a revolutionary Black man.

Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) had vowed to resist and to refuse any cooperation with the death machine. To the very end, he was true to his word.

In May, Shaka was pepper-sprayed by guards when he refused to move to another cell at the Terrell Supermax Unit after the execution date was set. He put up a struggle when the guards moved him to Huntsville on the eve of the execution. He gave a series of interviews to the media as the clock ticked toward the hour of death. With intense focus in his eyes and determination in his voice, he spoke out against the racism and injustice of the system.

Shaka would not participate in the death-row ritual of a "last meal" before execution. It took a five-man "extraction team" to force Shaka out of his cell and bring him to the execution chamber. Witnesses said Shaka's hands were
shackled and his head was strapped to the gurney. They saw bruises on his upper arms, but most of his body was covered with a sheet-clearly, the authorities wanted to hide evidence of beatings.

But if Shaka's enemies had hoped to make him show "remorse," or ask "god's forgiveness," or simply remain silent in the end, they were mistaken. He was resolute - and utterly fearless. As the poison of lethal injection began to spread through his body, Shaka Sankofa made a powerful and impassioned statement.

The oppressors finally succeeded in taking his life. But they could not break his revolutionary spirit. And this is something that inspires and strengthens the cause of the people, even as his execution deeply pains our hearts.

Shaka's resolute and courageous fight helped clarify issues of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, for millions around this country and around the world. The true nature of the bloody-jawed beast that rules over the people came sharply into focus.

On one side was a Black man who was convicted and sentenced to death in a trial so grossly unfair that it shocks even many people who have faith in U.S. democracy. A trial that condemned a man to death on the basis of the flawed testimony of one witness and without any physical evidence. A trial where the court-appointed lawyer was so incompetent that he failed to call to the stand two witnesses who told the police that Shaka was not the one who shot Lambert.

On the other side stood the government and the courts which refused to concede even a temporary delay in the execution-so that all the evidence and witnesses in Shaka's case could be heard for the first time.

From a Desperado to a
Fighter Against the System

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 the poverty-stricken Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas and other black urban ghettos." Shaka could not read or write when he dropped out of school in the seventh grade. In his own words, Shaka was an "out of control" youth-angry at the world but blind to the real causes of the poverty and racism that surrounded him.

At the time of the Lambert shooting, Shaka was in the midst of a series of armed robberies. But the only reason the police and prosecutors focused on Shaka as the "suspect" in the murder was that they thought it would be easy to frame up this young Black man.

The only prosecution witness said she saw the shooting at night, through a car windshield, from 40 feet away. Her original description of the shooter did not match Shaka's physical characteristics. But the prosecution brought her up on the stand at the trial-as the only witness against Shaka. In the days before the execution, this witness was brought before the media to declare that she stands by her testimony. And the supporters of Shaka's execution pointed to her certainty to argue that Shaka's "guilt" was proven conclusively.

But many lawyers and trial experts point out that witnesses can be mistaken even if they say they are sure of what they saw. One woman who spoke out on behalf of Shaka related her own experience: She was certain that the man she accused of raping her was her attacker. Based on her testimony, the man was convicted and jailed. It was only years later that DNA evidence proved she had accused the wrong man.

In Shaka's case, there was also clear evidence that the prosecution witness was wrong. In their own reports, the police included two other witnesses who said Shaka was NOT the shooter. The police and prosecutors also knew that the gun confiscated from Shaka was NOT the weapon used in the Lambert killing.

But none of this crucial evidence of Shaka's innocence was brought into court. The court-appointed lawyer, who assumed Shaka was guilty, carried out no investigation and put on no defense. Shaka was convicted on the basis of a single witness' testimony. And subsequent appeals courts have never heard the witnesses' testify for Shaka and never examined other evidence of his innocence.

Today, there are sworn statements from three members of the jury that convicted Shaka Sankofa who now say they would have decided differently if they knew about all the evidence and eyewitnesses.

Railroaded for a murder he did not commit, Shaka was thrown into death row. These hell holes are designed to brutalize, degrade and break down human beings. During his 19 years in prison, both of Shaka's parents died and he was forbidden to go to their funerals. He was prevented from even touching his two children. He had faced five execution dates before the sixth and final one on June 22.

But through all this, Shaka refused to be defeated. He learned to read and write. He became politically conscious and aware of the many injustices in society. He founded the Endeavor Project, a prison activist group and newspaper.

Shaka especially focused on the injustice of the death penalty in the U.S. In a 1996 interview, he said: "The only way to deal with it in a significant way and in a quantitative way is to deal with it where we begin to attack the whole system. We don't want reforms; we're beyond that. There is no such thing in our minds as a just or humane clemency process which leads to execution. We want the whole process eliminated, we want the whole process stopped."

And millions of people who had the chance to watch his interviews on television could clearly see that Gary Graham, the young desperado in the streets, had transformed into Shaka Sankofa, a fighter for the people.

A System of NO JUSTICE

Most people never would have heard of Shaka Sankofa, but the growing debate over the death penalty and the presidential candidacy of Texas Governor George Bush thrust his case into the national news. And millions of people were suddenly awakened to the reality that a brutal injustice was taking place.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole announced their official refusal to stop the execution just hours before Shaka was scheduled to die. Following their usual practice, the Board did not even meet to make their life-and-death decision. The members sent in their vote-in a process known as "death by fax."

Behind the Board stood Texas Governor George W. Bush, who appointed all the Board members. Everyone knows that a few words from Bush could have changed the Board's decision. But Bush charged ahead with the 135th execution since he became governor.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that Shaka was wrongfully convicted, proponents of his execution pointed to the armed robberies and other crimes he committed as reasons he should be put to death. Bush even used the term "victims" in talking about Shaka-even though the incident that Shaka was accused of and received the death penalty for involved the death of one person. This amounts to an outrageous and dangerous argument that it is okay to execute "a bad person"- even if there is little or no proof that the person actually committed a capital crime and there is not even a semblance of a trial.

Shortly before the execution, Bush emerged from his office to declare, "After considering all the facts, I am confident justice is being done." He claimed that Gary Graham "has had full and fair access to state and federal courts."

In the face of mounting exposure on how death row prisoners have been railroaded in racist trials with incompetent lawyers who sometimes sleep through the proceedings, Bush recently declared that every one of the prisoners executed under his watch was "guilty." But even a mainstream poll released a few days before Shaka's execution reported that a majority of people in Texas believe some innocent people have been executed by Bush. A Columbia Law School study released on June 12 showed that seven in ten death row prisoners in the U.S. have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced in blatantly unfair trials.

While Bush callously denied that wrongfully convicted people are executed under his watch, Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, implied that wrongful convictions and executions were an inevitable part of the system. Gore refused to speak specifically about Shaka's execution or the evidence of his innocence. But on the eve of Shaka's execution, Gore repeated his pro-death penalty position. And while giving lip service to the possibility of moratoriums on the death penalty, Gore came up with his own version of the reactionary slogan "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out": "If you are honest about the debate," Gore said, "You have got to acknowledge that there are always going to be some small number of errors."

Over and over again, those who pushed for and justified Shaka's execution said: this is how the system works. So what does it say about the whole "justice system" when court after court, the parole board and other government institutions, and top political leaders all failed to stop the execution and refused to even consider compelling evidence of Shaka's innocence?

What kind of a system would carry out such a cruel and deeply unjust act as the execution of Shaka Sankofa? This is a system that is totally worthless and needs to be overthrown at the soonest possible moment.

Never Forgive, Never Forget!

Shaka Sankofa was railroaded, sentenced to death, and executed by this capitalist system. This is an intolerable and shameful crime-a crime that the people can never forgive and never forget.

Shaka was strong, firm, and revolutionary till the very end. And in his death, he left a legacy for the people-a challenge to carry on the struggle against the system that he fought so valiantly. "You can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot stop the revolution. The revolution will go on. The people will carry the revolution on," he said.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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