“We are victims. ... We have pain,” said death-row exoneree Shabaka WaQlimi, also known as Joseph Green Brown, prior to speaking at an event at Beebe Memorial CME Church on Tuesday night.
“Society don’t want to hear that,” he added.
Washingtonians listened as WaQlimi shared his story of suppression by — and his anger with — the American justice system. It’s a system that placed him on death row for 13 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
He was joined onstage by fellow death-row exoneree Randal Padgett, who spent five years on death row in Alabama.
WaQlimi and Padgett are two of 138 death-row exonorees nationally. Since being released from prison, each has traveled the country, speaking out against the death penalty.
WaQlimi has been particularly critical of the state of Florida, where he was sentenced to death and came within 15 hours of execution before receiving a stay from a federal judge. Florida leads the nation with 23 death-row exonorees, followed by Illinois with 20. North Carolina has had eight exonorees.
“I’m a firm believer that the state of Florida killed four innocent people while I was (on death row),” WaQlimi said, adding that 16 people were executed in Florida while he was in prison.
“I was 15 hours from being the 17th,” he said.
WaQlimi said he never thought he would die in prison, even hours from execution. As he sat in his dingy, dimly lit cell, WaQlimi said, his thoughts were focused squarely on his mother, who suffered a stroke and heart attack on the day the governor of Florida signed his order for execution.
“I knew down here,” WaQlimi said, pointing at his heart, “that Shabaka was not going to die in nobody’s prison.”
WaQlimi, who now lives with his wife in Charlotte, was convicted of raping and murdering Earlene Treva Barksdale, a Tampa, Fla., clothing store owner, in the early 1970s. He was found guilty by a Hillsborough County jury after the state’s star witness, Ronald Floyd, testified against him. Floyd allegedly held a grudge against WaQlimi for turning him in for robbery.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually overturned WaQlimi’s conviction, ruling that the prosecution knowingly allowed false testimony from Floyd.
Growing up in Charleston, S.C., during the time of segregation, WaQlimi said he had “no miscomings” about the American justice system, which he called the country’s own apartheid system.
Padgett, who grew up in northern Alabama, did have miscomings.
He said that before he was convicted for the rape and murder of his estranged wife, he was “naive” about the country’s judicial system.
“I thought they didn’t sentence innocent people to die,” Padgett said, adding that he had never been arrested before going to death row.
He was convicted of murder in 1992 after his wife was found stabbed 46 times at her home in Marshall County, Ala. At the time, Padgett was in Destin, Fla., with his neighbor and mistress, Judy Bagwell, according to testimony.
Asked why he has devoted so much of his life — since being released from prison in 1997 — to speaking out against the death penalty, Padgett said, “I’m just trying to warn other people that what happened to me can happen to them.”
Padgett said that through his travels, he has met many fellow death-row exonorees.
“There are so many other people like me who are innocent,” he said, adding that speaking with them and sharing stories has made him realize how “broken” the judicial system is.
WaQlimi and Padgett said that, although exonerated, they are outcasts in a society that expected them to be dead or in prison.
“There’s no book written on how to deal with us,” WaQlimi said.
So, they go town to town, educating those who will listen about the horrors they experienced in prison and why they believe the death penalty should be abolished.
Their current speaking tour, sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a nonprofit organization based in Carrboro, Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, the Pitt and Perquimans county branches of the NAACP and the Pitt County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrapped up Tuesday night.
The second leg of the tour, which features the same sponsors but different death-row exonorees, begins today in Wilmington. The tour will make an appearance at Sheppard Memorial Library in Greenville on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
“This tour will give people the chance to hear incredibly powerful stories and compelling testimony from individuals just like them, but who were sentenced to death and lived to tell about it,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of PFADP, in a written statement.
By Greg Katski in The Washington Daily News