Exonerated death row inmates speak out

Excerpts from the Campaign's National Convention 2003


Darby Tillis: "We had a victory, but we want to win the war"

My name is Darby Tillis. I spent nine years, one month and 17 days in the penal system. I was tried five times, more than anyone in the judicial system throughout the United States. I’m part of Illinois’ exonerated--number one. I was released from death row, but I’m not free of death row. Death row is hell, and so is my life like hell. I have not been compensated. Death row lives within me today. It’s alive--the pain, the hurt. Every day is a day of bad memories.

I cannot forget death row. I cannot forget the people who manufactured the lies and manufactured a case against me. There is one happy memory that I cannot forget--my judge, who is now doing 15 years in a federal penitentiary.

George Ryan concluded his tenure as Illinois governor in the most dramatic fashion in the entire history of governors. Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation for everyone in prison who was under the death penalty. Plus he pardoned four men on death row. For those of us who believed that the death penalty should be abolished, we praised to the highest and celebrated. And for those who supported the death penalty, many screamed in anger and resentment. God used Governor Ryan to save lives and wipe the bloodstains of men from the judicial system.

Abolition of the death penalty will follow, and the system will be changed forever. Judges, prosecutors, policemen will no longer be able to build careers for monetary gain. It’s time to abolish the death penalty. The time is now.

Just the other day, I read in the Chicago Tribune that state Senator Emil Jones believes that a new bill has cleared up the death penalty. The death penalty cannot be cleared up. It is dead wrong. It is too final.

You will not be able to take some little guy out of college, who knows nothing about society and its flaws and who wants to build a career to get a Porsche and raise up his status and buy a home in the suburbs for Susie. Do you think that he’s going to consider some guy who he thinks is no more than number on a legal brief? Do you think he is going to take consideration of his innocence? When he knows that if he finds him guilty, he can get that Porsche and a house in the suburbs for Susie? No. He’s not going to consider.

As long as men’s hearts are corrupt, and their minds are corrupt and crooked, we cannot have a death penalty. As long as alcohol and drugs run rampant in the streets, we cannot have a death penalty. We must abolish the death penalty. It is flawed--too flawed to be fixed. The magnitude of a capital case is too great to be tried without errors. And once the error is found, you cannot be brought back from the grave.

Today, the death penalty continues to be imposed, despite the moratorium on executions. So I say to you tonight, we had a victory. But we want to win the whole war. We must continue to hold rallies and protests and do everything that’s conceivable to force the custodians of the court system to end the madness by taking politics out of the court system. We must end the death penalty, because the death penalty is dead wrong.

Shujaa Graham: "That’s why I stand today--to resist"

My brothers and sisters, friends of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, it’s a great honor and a great privilege for an old soldier like myself to be here with the youth. I cannot describe in words the depth of my gratitude and the feelings that you all have engendered in me by coming out and being in the streets and trying to educate people about the reality and the cruelty of capital punishment.

My friends from Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland, and George Washington, we’ve had a great time. You’ve given me a wonderful feeling of inspiration. Not to discount the elders, I’ve heard the elders throughout my life. But the new beginning lies with the youth in our country. The young children that are in these universities have put a spirit in me that I thought was long gone. I’m thankful to you all and all the dedicated work. There’s so many other things that you all could be doing today, but you’re here with us -- not to celebrate, but to organize and mobilize to go forward in positive direction.

My name is Shujaa Graham, an old and angry man because of all the time that I spent on California’s death row and in its institutions. I grew up, for those who don’t know, in Lake Providence, Louisiana -- in a small, segregated part of the South. I grew up under racism and segregation. In the beginning of my life as a young kid, I couldn’t understand the reality of racism. I thought that it was something that we did wrong as a people. But it wasn’t segregation that angered me and disturbed me as much as the way we were segregated. Segregated to have the worst of all things.

I had to go through the back door, I couldn’t enter the front door of this building. But today I do -- and because of men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice in the name of our movement. Not just Black, but white, brown, and yellow -- people of all races contributed to our movement.

This is your movement. The abolition movement is your movement, not the Bush movement, but your movement. We cannot allow them to define what is right and wrong for us. Too long, we have allowed them to define what is right and wrong, and we have found out that their definition is a definition of racism, oppression and capitalism.

I come here today as a confined man on death row, but don’t narrow-mind me. I’m a revolutionary socialist -- that’s who I am today. And that’s who I was when they convicted me in California. I have no regrets. The only regret that I have is that I started too late. I was 18 years old when I started my conscious resistance against American "democracy." And why did I start my resistance? Because I was educated and organized by people. That is the way to the future -- by being organized and mobilized and ready to take on the new day. We have to be people of conscience. Not just people of thought, but people who think and act upon those thoughts. That’s what I’m here today to talk about--to talk about our movement and how it should grow.

I’m here today because of people like yourselves, young women and men and gays and lesbians organizing, mobilizing like never before to see two young innocent Black men have a fair day in court. And I’m thankful to those people who have organized on my behalf and my codefendant -- and on the behalf of all people.

So today, I stand before you, and I ask you to help us make a way. I cannot do it alone. The road to victory is paved through the people -- not me, not Martin, not Malcolm, not anyone in particular, but a united people that is organized and conscious.

I wasn’t allowed to enter the general population. I didn’t have the right politics. They tried to keep me confined. It wasn’t until later on that I understood and realized why they kept me confined. It wasn’t me that they was afraid of. It was the people that they thought I could reach and touch that they were afraid of.

At first, because of my little old ego, at the age of 20 years old, I thought that they were scared of old Shujaa. But I found out later on that it wasn’t old Shujaa -- it was the people. The old saying is that as long as they keep us divided, we will fall individually to the collective blows of racism and capitalism here in America. But we can rise up like a people.

When I went to prison I couldn’t even write a letter to my mama. I had to ask others to do it for me. And that’s why I’m thankful today for those who America calls the criminals--the old guards, and what they taught me. They took me under their wings and said, "We’re going to make a revolutionary soldier out of you. You are going to go out, and you are going to serve humanity."

I never thought to ask why they chose me. I asked why they were putting pressure on me. They put the pressure on me, because I was a young and innocent man, with a commitment that believed in the greatness of humanity. They saw in me what I didn’t see in myself.

So to serve has been an honor and a pleasure. Don’t feel sorry or bad for me. I’ve had a rich life -- I’ve had a billion-dollar life of resisting here in America. And that’s why I stand today -- to resist. With all these new acts like the USA PATRIOT Act, what they’re trying to do is criminalize our resistance. We must not let them criminalize our resistance. We must not let them define who we are.