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In Spite of the System

Opponents to VA's Death Penalty Rally to Action.

Shujaa Graham was already in tears when he reached the pulpit at the Unitarian Universalist Church Saturday afternoon in Arlington. After serving 15 years in prison, nine of them on death row, nobody could blame him.

"I remember like it was yesterday, the things that went through my mind when I knew that I was condemned to death," Graham said before the audience of more than 50 gathered for a conference of advocates seeking to promote alternatives to the death penalty in Virginia. "I'm here not because of the system. I'm here in spite of the system."

Born into a poor black family in rural Louisiana, Graham said he'd faced a life of little opportunity and much hardship. In the early 1960s he moved with his parents to California, but life was no easier. As a young adult he soon found himself on the wrong side of the law, arrested in 1968 for a robbery that netted him only $35. His sentence landed him in San Quentin. At a time when prison riots had become commonplace there, Graham took on the role of an organizer, banding together his fellow inmates to protest prison conditions. Tensions between prisoners and guards ran high, he said, often leading to violence. For his work in prison, Graham said he was a marked man.

"I was trying to organize whites and blacks," he said. "I became a target of the state."

In 1973, Graham and another inmate became the primary suspects in the murder of a prison guard. His first trial ended with a hung jury. His second ended with a death sentence, placing him on death row to await the long walk to the gas chamber.

"On death row, I saw the suffering of all types of people," Graham said. "I was locked up in a 9 by 6 cell for something I never did. I remember being beaten. Once it was three times in one day. They'd beat you down so hard that I almost believed that I'd done what they were saying I did."

Years passed, but Graham persevered. On appeal, a judge found that prosecutors had made a systematic effort to exclude blacks from serving on the two prior juries. One more trial followed, again with an all-white jury.

"But they were people of good conscience," Graham said. "They found me innocent."

NOW, ALMOST two decades after his release and exoneration, Graham said the psychic wounds of his time on death row are still fresh.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about where I've been," he said. "My life was destroyed. Many of you fight for a good day. I fight for just a good moment."

His struggle on death row, he said, has led him to join the fight to end capital punishment in Virginia — which is second only to Texas when it comes to the number of people executed each year — and across the United States.

"Here I stand, wounded by the blows of racism and capital punishment," he said. "There can never be a just death penalty."

AT THE CONFERENCE, Graham was joined by advocates for alternatives to capital punishment and others touched by its effects. Among them was Bishop Walter Sullivan, who has long helped lead and organize anti-death penalty groups from his diocese in Richmond. Killing to enforce the notion that killing is wrong, he said, is illogical, costly and fails to act as a deterrent to crime.

"The killing of killers has no causal relationship as a deterrent," said Sullivan. "I feel that at least part of the motivation behind it is vengeance."

Sullivan, now retired, pointed to the death of Timothy McVeigh following his conviction for the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building. The families of those victims, he said, told him they found little comfort in McVeigh's execution.

"Those who watched came away angry," he said. "They said he had gotten off too easy. He just slept away into eternity. Killing to say that killing is wrong will never lead to communities of brotherly love. From a faith perspective, life is sacred and inviolable."

Sullivan added that "Life in prison without the hope of parole can be a viable alternative, and it is a cost savings. Only the Lord knows how many people have been put to death because of overzealous prosecutors or unscrupulous detective work. A society that is willing to kill its own, even those that might be innocent, is a society that cheapens all of us."

THE DEATH PENALTY, he added, is little more than a means for politicians to gain votes by appearing tough on crime.

"But politicians who want to appear tough on crime are only being tough on criminals," he said.

Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34) was also among the conference's attendees. Callahan said he has changed his opinion on capital punishment after some study on the subject.

"Philosophically, I've come around," he said. "It's not a deterrent to crime. Even the strongest advocates for the death penalty agree on that. It should no longer be a part of our penal code."

The Commonwealth has put 94 people to death between 1976 and January 2005, according to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center. Prior to 1976, the state had killed 1,277. There are now about 23 inmates on Virginia's death row. A total of six people have won clemency. One who has not is Justin Wolfe, 20, of Centreville, convicted for ordering the murder of Owen Barber, a charge leveled after the man who shot Barber struck a deal with prosecutors for a lesser sentence. His mother, Terri Steinberg, told the audience that as Mother's Day approached she could not see her son.

"I had never really thought about the death penalty," said Steinberg, adding that the prison where he is held allows her the kind of visits when she can touch her son about once every six months. "Justin was always known for breaking up fights, not for starting them."

Steinberg said her entire family has felt the impact of Wolfe's sentence. Her other son dropped out of school, she said, because he couldn't focus knowing that his brother is about to die. Her 8-year-old daughter, too young to understand the gravity of what has happened, asked that last year's Christmas tree be left standing for her brother to see it when he returns.

"I do have faith that my son will come home, whether it will be with me or with God," she said.

THE CONFERENCE was organized by Virginia's for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP). During discussions, local activists focused on how to advance the case against capital punishment in the state. According to the group, the death penalty costs five to six times more than life imprisonment. On average, it states, the murder rate in states that have capital punishment is more than twice that in states that do not. In the last nine years, Virginia has executed three juveniles. And, as of 2003, in one out of every 10 trials resulting in a death sentence, the defendant was represented by an attorney who later lost his or her license to practice law. Rev. Michael McGee of the Unitarian Church brought the current election into the discussion. He said the Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore poses a serious threat to VADP's efforts if elected.

"He's not only for it, he's for expanding it," said McGee. "He wants to put more people to death."

VADP activist Albert Monroe of Arlington said the group — which brought more than 100 members to lobby in Richmond during 2005's legislative session on Martin Luther King Day — is seeking a political solution.

"We understand that we face a tough battle," said Monroe. "We can't change some legislators' minds, so we have to change the minds of people, of voters, all over the state."

He added that "Killing is never the answer. Killing can never be justice."