Exonerated Death Row Inmate Speaks to Class II
by Elana Golub on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013
As a part of the Social Awareness curriculum, Milton Academy’s junior class has been studying the role of racism in America’s criminal justice system, as well as the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. Combining these two focuses, on Wednesday, January 30, Shujaa Graham spoke to Class II students regarding his experiences with racial discrimination that landed him on death row.
After seeing Graham speak at a conference last year, Ms. Taylor found his presentation to be both powerful and moving, suggesting to the Social Awareness teachers that bringing him to Milton would fit into the curriculum and provide personal insight into the question of the death penalty. “I think it is important for us to be exposed to others who have vastly different experiences than we have,” said Ms. DeBuhr. “Having a man like Shujaa visit our students, we encounter someone with an experience that is quite foreign to ours.”
Shujaa Graham was born in Louisiana, later moving to California where he became involved in gangs and was constantly in and out of juvenile detention centers. In 1973, Graham was charged with the murder of a white prison guard while in jail for a series of petty crimes, an accusation that landed him on death row, where he was subsequently tortured and beaten. In 1981, nine years and four trials later, a jury finally found Graham to be innocent, discovering racial bias to be the foundation for a series of false testimonies that led to his guilty conviction.
A member of the Witness to Innocence program, an organization of exonerated death row inmates advocating for the end of the death penalty, Graham told his story for the purpose of unveiling to Milton students the faults in our judicial system, hoping to encourage younger generations to fight against the injustices that he endured. In his speech, he repeated the value of “the youth” in his eventual exoneration, saying that kids were the ones who helped spread the word and raise awareness of his unfair situation.
Graham also criticized the death penalty through a detailed description of the pain that he endured while on death row. He explained the suffering of his torturous experience, saying that “if [he] didn’t wake up one day, [he] wouldn’t care.”
Speaking at Milton for the second time, Shujaa brought a variety of responses from his audience. “Observing the students, I did notice that some were quite moved by his story and experience,” said Ms. DeBuhr. However, she “imagine[s that] the reactions differed,” as some students seemed less invested in the speech. “I was a little scared,” said Cody Cortes (II). “But he definitely moved me deeply.”
Shujaa’s speech seemed to accomplish his final goal of raising awareness about the physical and emotional tortures that come with the death penalty, as well as the racial bias that skewers America’s criminal justice system. “Before hearing Shujaa speak, I didn’t really have much of an opinion about the death penalty,” said Abby Lebovitz (II). “His story made me realize that capital punishment is an unfair repercussion to crime.”
“Shujaa helps us to understand the privileges we have in our environment and also encourages us to broaden our awareness of the lives of others in different circumstances,” said Ms. DeBuhr. “I am moved by Shujaa’s ability to reach a place where he fights for social justice while urging us to forgive those who have wronged us.”
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