When Shujaa Graham tells his story of living on death row, he weeps.
Sent to death row in 1976, he lived there until he was eventually acquitted.
He was in Helena Friday with other former death row inmates and also relatives of those on death row as part of World Day Against the Death Penalty events.
The “Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing” tour, which held 60 events this week in Montana, seeks to end the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.
Graham grew up poor in the South. At 11, he followed his mother to California. Soon he was caught up in gangs and crime.
At 18, he received four years for robbery.
While in prison, he became active in the prison justice movement and learned to read and write.
But then on Nov. 22, 1973, a guard was killed.
Graham was charged with the crime. Perhaps it was because he was outspoken and a leader, he said.
On death row, much of his time was spent in solitary confinement. The cell was so small he could touch all the walls from where he sat on his bed.
Then, he said, there were beatings by guards.
The prison guards yelled “dead man walking” whenever they took him from his cell into the prison yard. The sea of prisoners would part for him to walk — in solitude. The words still echo in his head.
“I fought for my life,” he said, tears pouring down his face as he addressed a group of about 50 at the Lewis and Clark Library.
“I thought I knew prison,” he said. “When I went to death row, it was a whole new reality.”
The California Supreme Court eventually overturned Graham’s conviction, and in 1982, after 14 years in prison, he was acquitted and set free.
Since then, he’s tried to rebuild his life, he said. He has three children, the youngest playing baseball on scholarship at a college in Mississippi.
“I’m thankful to be here,” Graham said, “so I can stand up and fight for human justice.”
Even on his happiest days, watching his son play baseball, he’s haunted by death row memories.
“I don’t want no one to experience what I have, that’s why I fight.”[...]
taken from "Group against death penalty rallies in Helena" by MARGA LINCOLN - Independent Record - 10/11/08