Lawrence Hayes Wins His Freedom

By: Alex Lesman

The Campaign is also helping Lawrence get back on his feet financially after his ordeal.
Donations may be sent in care of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, P.O. Box 25730, Chicago, IL 60625.

On December 8, 1999, Lawrence Hayes walked out of the Woodbourne prison in upstate New York, a free man for the first time in 19 months. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty activist was supposed to spend five years in jail for a bogus parole violation, but continued protests won his early release.

The injustices Lawrence has faced date back 30 years. He was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1971 and spent 20 years in prison -- part of the time on death row, before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in 1972. He was paroled in 1991.

Among many other issues, Lawrence has been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty -- especially after capital punishment was reinstated in New York by Gov. George Pataki. When prosecutors brought capital murder charges for the first time against Darrel Harris in 1998, Lawrence helped lead the protests.

That's when New York state officials decided to exact some revenge.

Lawrence had been a model parolee, but everything changed in April 1998, when he was informed by his parole officer that he would be expected to report for a meeting every day between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. "How can these people think I can adjust my life and be successful as a citizen and be telling me to report to one of them during work hours?" said Lawrence. "It just didn't make sense, so I said no." He was taken into custody a few days later and eventually sent back to prison for a five-year term.

Significantly, the meeting with his parole officer took place just days after Lawrence's picture appeared with a newspaper story about the Campaign's news conference in support of Darrel Harris.

There were suspicions about official impropriety in Lawrence's case all along, and they deepened last August when two officials of the state parole board -- Ron Hotaling and Sean McSherry -- were convicted of lying to federal investigators. The investigators were looking into allegations that contributors to Gov. Pataki's 1998 campaign won early parole for family members.

McSherry intervened in Lawrence's parole revocation hearing in August 1998, soliciting "victim impact statements" from the widow and daughter of the police officer killed in the 1971 robbery for which Lawrence was convicted. In Lawrence's view, this extraordinary action made it clear to the judge that "somebody upstairs is against this guy." What's more, while a judge had recommended a prison sentence of two years, McSherry changed Lawrence's sentence to five years when the case went to the state parole board.

In August 1999, Lawrence -- aided by Campaign member and Columbia Law School student Alex Roth and Prof. Philip Genty -- got the parole board to reduce his sentence to two years. And at the end of December, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer agreed not to contest Lawrence's appeal of his parole -- as long as Lawrence forfeited his right to sue the state in relation to his imprisonment.

Despite the misery he was put through, Lawrence is optimistic about the future. "If history is any indication, this institution of imprisonment must fail," he said. He also believes that history is on the side of abolitionists. "I detest the contradiction that killing is against the law, yet the law kills," he said. "More and more people will see that contradiction as time goes on."

Lawrence expressed his gratitude for the Campaign's efforts on his behalf, which included writing letters and petitioning the parole board, picketing the governor's New York City office, placing an ad in the Village Voice and helping with legal representation. "I have to thank all the thousands of people who got involved and made this victory possible," he said.

Although Lawrence is free, the struggle on his behalf goes on. In an effort to right the wrongs that he suffered, the Campaign is demanding that Lawrence be permanently released from parole supervision, that Attorney General Spitzer investigate McSherry's involvement in Lawrence's case and that the parole board end its draconian measures.