Fight to free Lawrence "Bubba" Hayes

By: Sherry Wolf

THE dramatic story of Lawrence Hayes' 47 years reads like one of Franz Kafka's absurdist novels. But unlike a novel, a man's tortured life is not entertainment. It is tragedy at the American justice system's worst.

Lawrence Hayes, a former Black Panther and outspoken opponent of the death penalty, was sentenced in September to five years in prison by the New York State Board of Parole. His crime? Lawrence visited his parole officer on the wrong days!

Because of Lawrence's political activism against the death penalty, Gov. George Pataki and local politicians wish to use a negligible parole "violation" to justify silencing him.

In the words of Eddie Ellis, a Harlem community activist who took part in the Attica prison rebellion in 1970, "The entire move appears to be politically motivated. It's part of an election-year crackdown on crime. Parolees are now being violated for minor infractions that would not have caused a ripple even a year ago."

Lawrence became a passionate anti-death penalty abolitionist from his own experience on death row from 1971-73. At age 19, Lawrence was sentenced to death by an all-white male jury from Queens whose average age was 55. Like other Panther militants of his generation, Lawrence was framed by the FBI for being present at the murder of a police officer. He was never even accused of being the trigger man.

A year after he was on death row, the district attorney in his case was disbarred for taking bribes from organized criminals. A year and a half after he was in prison, the judge in his case was cited in a New York Times Magazine article as being one of the 10 worst judges in the state because of his favoritism to the mob.

While Lawrence's appeal was still pending in 1973, New York's death penalty was abolished and his sentence was commuted to 20 years to life. A conscientious person working for the state of New York anonymously mailed Lawrence confidential documents revealing that the FBI had set him up. With no money to clear his name legally and a desire to get on with his life, Lawrence earned both bachelor's and master's degrees while behind bars.

Since his release from jail almost seven years ago, Lawrence has been considered such a non-risk parolee that he had to report to his parole officer only four times a year. In 1995, the state offered to release him from parole entirely if he could pass a psychological evaluation. But when he showed up for one, Lawrence didn't have the $250 that he was never told was needed. His parole officer never rescheduled an appointment for evaluation, despite his repeated requests.

As a "violent felony offender" in a tough-on-crime election year between bloodthirsty pro-death penalty politicians, Lawrence was forced earlier this year to check in with his parole officer on a monthly and later weekly basis.

Early this year, when New York State began prosecuting its first death penalty case in over 25 years, Lawrence threw himself into protests and speak-outs against capital punishment for the defendant, Darrel Harris. Days after Lawrence's picture appeared in local papers at a protest outside the Brooklyn courthouse, he was reincarcerated for refusing to attend parole meetings daily during work hours.

"How was I to feel?" Lawrence told me. "I have to work and pay my bills. They would not compromise and I was arrested."

As Lawrence explains, "I am just as astonished as anyone else who knows anything about me. My life has consisted of working, taking care of my four-year-old daughter and the campaign against the death penalty and prison industrial complex. The facts that led to this violation are basically insignificant. The state is seeking to persecute me."

In an unprecedented move by the Board of Parole, a victim impact statement from the family of the police officer killed in 1971 was submitted as evidence against Lawrence at his parole violation hearing on August 10. The parole commissioner who sought out this statement from the family, Sean McSherry, was indicted by a federal prosecutor this October for repeatedly lying to a federal grand jury in order to cover up the Parole Board's favorable treatment of the son of a wealthy contributor to Gov. Pataki's campaign.

Lawrence has devoted his life to helping people as a social worker and community activist in the ghettos of Brooklyn. While speaking with him at Rikers Island for this article, another visitor was horrified to discover that the man who helped get her children out of foster care is in jail.

Lawrence's eloquent speeches before hundreds on panels with Howard Zinn and Cornel West at Harvard and with Bobby Seale at NYU have compelled many to fight alongside him to end the death penalty.

Along with the nearly 1,000 activists, intellectuals and religious leaders who have written letters asking for his release, Lawrence sees that he is being used to advance the careers of politicians aiming to abolish parole.

"Governor Pataki's support is upstate, in rural communities that rely on prisons for their economy. With lower crime rates, they should be closing prisons down. But this is an election year. Extra-judicial, capricious, amateur and illegal policies are being used to increase and maintain a high prison population," Lawrence says.

There has been a 19.2% increase in reincarceration among parolees in New York on conditional release during the first six months of this year compared with the first half of last year.

The state of New York has already stolen 20 years from Lawrence and is willing to take even more to silence his dissent. New York state will spend $70,000 a year to imprison a dynamic and passionate father, activist and leader.

Lawrence has been my close friend and comrade in the struggle for justice for three years. As news junkies and political animals we have shared endless hours of conversation and collaboration in the fight against the criminal justice system and the death penalty, in particular. I have always been amazed by his sensitivity, selflessness and total lack of bitterness in spite of a system that has done its best to grind him down.

As Lawrence's own life proves, by organizing to free him and exposing the lies of this system, we reclaim our own humanity and help make this world fit to live in.

To get involved in the Committee to Free Lawrence Hayes, a working group of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, call (212) 330-7056.(New York City branch)