Free at last: Death row exonerees share their stories with Vail Valley audience
Deputy DA hosts panel discussion with exonerees from national organization, Witness to Innocence
- 59%: Perjury or false accusations
- 52%: Official misconduct by police or prosecutors
- 30%: Mistaken identification by witnesses
- 23%: False or misleading forensic evidence
- 12%: False confessions
EAGLE — Kwame Ajamu was just 18 when he was locked in an Ohio prison, sentenced to die for a robbery and murder he did not commit.
Twenty-eight years later he walked out of that of prison because, as the parole board told him, “We’re going to let you go because we think you’re a good one.”
“The truth is that I was innocent,” Ajamu told an audience Monday night in Eagle. “The guilty suffer, but if you’re not guilty … you cannot imagine the depth that their brains and hearts go to.”
Along with everything else, Ajamu suffered humiliation — going to the bathroom with 34 others, showering with 200 and “my 18-year-old butt.” After 28 years in prison, it took him another 11 years to be exonerated.
Sabrina Butler-Smith was 19 when she was sentenced to die in prison, convicted of killing her infant son. He died of heart and kidney problems, not at his mother’s hand.
Gary Drinkard was sentenced to die in an Alabama prison for a robbery and murder he did not commit. He was barely in the same area code when it happened, but because he’d had regular scrapes with the law, the investigation focused on him and didn’t end until he was wrongly sentenced to death.
“They were going to kill me for something I didn’t do,” Drinkard said.
All three were part of a panel discussion brought to Eagle Monday evening by Witness to Innocence, the only national organization composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their families.
‘Their stories are important’
They were here because Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum invited them. During a training session last year she met three other exonerees from Witness to Innocence.
“I thought their stories were important to be told and that’s why I invited them to Colorado,” McCollum said.
Enlightenment was her goal.
“We were looking to help educate our community on this typically unseen part of the criminal justice system,” McCollum said.
Coloradans are better off than many, McCollum said. This state’s prosecutors’ No. 1 charge is to “do justice,” she said.
The state has a robust public defender system that provides criminal defendants with competent attorneys. In fact, entry-level public defenders are paid more than entry-level prosecutors, McCollum said. The state’s rules of evidence make it tough for police and prosecutors to withhold evidence from defense attorneys. If they do, they’re branded for life.
No judge in the 5th Judicial District — Eagle, Lake, Summit and Clear Creek counties — has ever handed down a death sentence in a capital murder case.
Generally, there is not a move to investigate a case after an exoneration.
“For me and others in this room, that doesn’t sit right,” McCollum said.
How it happened to them
Most prisoners are behind bars because they’re guilty, Ajamu said. Some are not. Some are the victims of misconduct by police, prosecutors and inexperienced or incompetent defense attorneys.
If anything changes, it will probably start with prosecutors, Elizabeth Zitrin, of Witness to Innocence said.
There are no rich people on death row, they all agreed.
“If I’d had good lawyers to begin with this would not have happened,” Butler-Smith said.
She says her attorney in her first trial constantly ate candy all the time to cover his constant drinking.
“I was black, poor and in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Butler-Smith said.
Drinkard said his attorneys were 25 years old and had never handled a case of this importance. The prosecutor was trying to get convictions and had political ambitions.
“He let the killers walk to get one conviction,” Drinkard said.
Drinkard admits he had not been an angel and had a criminal record. Decatur, Alabama, police decided he murdered an automobile junk dealer. A bad back, pain killers and muscle relaxers had him on the couch during the killing. His conviction rested primarily on testimony by his half-sister and her common-law husband, who both faced charges for unrelated crimes. In exchange for testifying, the charges against Drinkard’s half-sister were dismissed.
In 2000, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct. With the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Drinkard won an acquittal in 2001.
Drinkard said Alabama will not pursue the real killers.
Butler-Smith was a 17-year-old mother of two. She had a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son. Her daughter was with her grandparents. She put her 9-month-old son to sleep and went jogging. When she returned, he wasn’t breathing. She picked him up and ran outside banging on doors. Following someone’s instructions, she did adult CPR on her infant son.
First responders could not save him.
Police officers arrested her on capital murder charges and took her to the city jail. She said she did not know for weeks that she was charged with murdering her son.
She said the doctors, nurses and police officers went into a room and decided how their story was going to go. The district attorney was 25 years old and trying to make a name for himself. He took the jury on a picnic during the trial, she said.
She was 19 when she was wrongly convicted and was sentenced to die.
As she was moving from prison intake to death row on her first day in prison, she says a guard told her, “You will die here!” She cried when they put her in a cell the size of a small bathroom.
“There was nothing else to do,” she said.
Rats, ants and depression found her. She did not have her family; she could not grieve for her son.
“I didn’t know where he was buried, even for two years after I was out,” she said.
Finally, she learned as much as she could about the law. She earned her GED and college credits.
She works with Witness to Innocence because she has a bigger purpose: “To get the bad guys off the street.”
In Ajamu’s case, police coerced a purported witness, a 12-year-old boy whose mother was fighting ovarian cancer. They kept that boy locked up for eight months, forcing testimony that was the only evidence in a trial that sent Ajamu, then known as Ronnie Bridgeman, his brother Ricky Bridgeman and friend Ricky Jackson to death row.
The boy tried to recant his statement at the time of the police lineup in 1975 but said that police told him it was too late and forced him to testify, according to Ajamu.
“The boy had parts of four different trials. He gave four different stories. That’s part of how they solidified that it was all lies,” Ajamu said.
When that boy grew into a man, his pastor convinced him to go public.
Ajamu’s brother Ricky and friend Jackson were also exonerated, but are still suffering.
“When human beings are separated from other human beings it creates serious emotional issues,” Ajamu said.
While in prison, Ajamu finished his education. He implemented a program for pre-release counseling and launched a program to teach inmates to read. It’s called Each One Teach One, and it’s still being used.
“I was always a do-gooder, doing things like taking flowers to the old women in the nursing home,” he said.
Even in innocence, trials don’t end
Even free and exonerated, prison leaves a long shadow over their lives.
Butler-Smith walked around from 1995-2005 without a job.
“You have two applicants. One has a prison record and one doesn’t. Who are you going to hire?” she asked.
Her son was buried in the woods. She says she’s fighting with the state of Mississippi to have him moved and buried properly.
Drinkard received no compensation from Alabama. Alabama says he has to bring the real perpetrator to justice to get compensation.
“If you were innocent to begin with, why should you have to bear the burden of proof to try to get compensation?” Drinkard asked.
If you take something from someone, especially against their will, you should pay them for it, he reasoned.
Ajamu said Ohio paid him $51,000 a year for every year he was incarcerated.
“They didn’t have a problem taking their freedom away. They took from her and from him the very same things they took from me,” he said gesturing toward Drinkard and Butler-Smith.
Ajamu, now 61, said to the Monday night crowd in Eagle that he’s “ecstatic to be here.”
He worked through the system and was paroled. He did his own work to clear his name. Kyle Swenson, an investigative reporter with Cleveland Scene magazine, broke the story that helped get Ajamu a new trial. In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle granted new trials for Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and vacated their convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against both of them, and they were released.
A month later, Ajamu’s conviction was vacated, and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him. He was exonerated after 39 years.
He looked at the law enforcement officers gathered from around the region for Monday’s panel discussion and smiled as he admitted he wanted to be a police officer when he was young.
“Hope did not find me in a prison cell. The only race on this earth is the human race. We are all human beings made from the same mold. It didn’t break. Someone just forgot about us,” Ajamu said.
The work goes on
Witness to Innocence says in the modern era of the U.S. death penalty, there has been one exoneration for every nine executions.
In July 1976, false forensic testimony and an eyewitness identification manipulated by police misconduct sent Charles Ray Finch to North Carolina’s death row. In June he became the 166th person released and officially exonerated after 43 years in prison.
He left prison in a wheelchair.