Death Row Exoneree Comes to Milton
by Gina Starfield on Friday, April 20th, 2012
On Tuesday April 17th, death row exoneree Shujaa Graham inspired Milton students when he spoke for a Class II Social Awareness assembly. Each time Shujaa opened his mouth, he spoke with such intensity that his words left lasting impact. Unafraid to be honest and open with students, Shujaa moved many with his story of strength in the face of adversity.
Born in 1952, Shujaa grew up in rural Louisiana under segregation. Part of a family of sharecroppers on a cotton farm, Shujaa had never heard of a gang. A respectful “yes sir” was forever present in his vocabulary.
When he was very young, his mother took several of his siblings and left Louisiana for Los Angeles in search of a “better life.” At age 11, Shujaa joined his mother in L.A. and slowly became involved in gang violence.
Caught up in a community where violence was the only outlet for hatred and anger, Shujaa was constantly in and out of jail. When speaking with Milton students, Shujaa did not shy away from his criminal past. Rather, he boldly accepted it. “I wasn’t a good person all the time,” Shujaa said.
At the age of 18, Shujaa was imprisoned in Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton, California for a 35 dollar theft. Once in prison, Shujaa redefined himself. He learnt how to read and write from his cell mate. The Biography of Malcolm X, one of the first books Shujaa was able to receive in prison, shaped him. Reading Malcolm’s biography, a book about a self educated man who left a world of violence to lead a people, was a turning point for Shujaa- “It was like I had been in darkness in all my days, and then the light came,”Shujaa explained.
Shujaa soon joined a social justice movement and encouraged prisoners to stand up for their rights. In 1973, Shujaa and a fellow inmate were unjustly accused for the murder of a prison guard during a prison uprising. Shujaa was tried four times before systematically selected all white juries. He explained that the system “demonized” him before the jury. The setup of the court, with Shujaa in chains behind bullet-proof glass, security at every corner, and the prosecutor in a bullet-proof vest, almost automatically convinced the jury of the defendant’s guilt.
Shujaa was put on death row at age 21, beaten, tortured, and sentenced to a gas chamber at San Juan. As tears dribbled down his cheeks, Shujaa told TMM how terrible his days were, especially when he was sent to solitary confinement. He often went to bed longing not to wake up. “I wasn’t giving up on life, I was just tired of suffering,” he shared. In prison, emotionally speaking “if you get too low it’s really terrible, and if you get too high…it’s a long fall,” Shujaa said. “I had a lot of anger and hate. It took a lot for me to work on it. I’m still working.”
While he was on death row, two white schoolchildren , who were convinced of his and his friend’s innocence, led a school movement to free them. 8th and 9th graders Cindy and Brian read about Shujaa in the paper after his first trial and became captivated by his story. They visited Shujaa and began selling cookies and telling people his story to raise money for a decent defense. Cindy and Brian kept him updated on society, kept him sane, checked his anger, and told him he was better than the cycle of violence. With their help, Shujaa was finally exonerated at age 31 after a fourth trial.
Cindy and Brian gave Shujaa a renewed hope in humanity. Since, he has looked to young people to insight change. Shujaa stressed, “I’m here today because you made the system work for me.” Shujaa has never received compensation, but only wants one thing: ” justice.”
He feels that there are many issues in the criminal justice system. Firstly, he insists that the death penalty be abolished. “We don’t punish robbery by robbery or rape by rape, so why do we kill to show killing is wrong?” Shujaa explained.
Shujaa also expressed that racism is still present in the system. As an example, he stated that 85% of people killed in Maryland are African American, yet every person on death row is there for killing a white person. Shujaa asserted, “I’m not asking for equal killing, just equal justice.”
He feels that the system itself is corrupt as well. He witnessed countless people leaving prison without changing their way of life, without fully understanding what it means to be a human being. “The system doesn’t assure that you’ve changed.”
Shujaa’s freedom has given him “a responsibility to be a voice.” He gives formal talks to adults and children through the organization Witness to Innocence and spends much of his time trying to inspire and connect with others. Shujaa declared, “I want one human rights. I am concerned about humanity. Black, white, or brown, you’re a human being.”
His life experiences give Shujaa unique insight into the world. He has seen hatred and anger manifest itself in gang members and prison guards, but he has also witnessed human compassion, determination, and dedication embodied in Cindy and Brian.
Shujaa inspires all to make an impact and do something meaningful. He advised, “When you’re born, you’re crying and everyone around you is smiling. Live your life so that when you die, everyone around you is crying and you’re smiling.”
As he left the TMM, Shujaa said “don’t seek revenge, seek correction.”
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