Kwame Ajamu was only 17 when he was arrested and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.
It was a hot spring day on May 19, 1975. Ajamu, his brother and his friend were finishing up a basketball game. On their way home, the trio passed a crime scene where a money order seller had been robbed and killed. His body was still on the ground, chalked out. It was only a matter of days before Ajamu woke up in bed, troubled and confused as armed Cleveland police stormed his home to arrest him.
Ajamu told the story to a crowd gathered Thursday at the St. Ashworth Temple during an Akron NAACP meeting. It was exactly 47 years after the day of the murder that changed the course of his life.
What followed was a wrongful conviction resulting in 28 years in prison and a death sentence, all based on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who claimed to have witnessed the crime and later admitted to lying.
“The system is completely broken in every way,” Ajamu said.
Even after being paroled in 2003, it took another 11 years before he could be exonerated and cleared of his name, by which time his brother and friend were finally released from prison.
“If it weren’t for the effort I put in over those 11 years after my release and the people who believed me, they would still be in jail,” he said. “They would probably have died in there.”
Ajamu is now using her story to mobilize Ohioans to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. He is chairman of the board of Witness to Innocence, an organization whose members are all exonerated death row inmates who advocate for an end to capital punishment.
“I am here because it has become my obligation and my duty since I was 17 to tell this story,” he told members of the NAACP in Akron. “I’m here because you can actually see someone who has been sentenced to death. You can actually see what wrongful incarceration looks like.
Death penalty resources are better spent on victims of crimes, advocates say
Ajamu was joined by his wife, LaShawn Ajamu, a Canton native whose brother was murdered 25 years ago in a road rage incident. LaShawn has spoken out passionately against the death penalty, saying that while his family wanted justice for the man who killed his 20-year-old brother, an execution wouldn’t have given them the end they needed .
She called the argument to use the death penalty as family justice “political grandstanding,” saying that state resources would be better spent providing resources for victims of crime.
Ohio taxpayers pay about $3 million per death penalty case, compared to $1 million per case for life without parole.
“My family, myself, we had never experienced the intense trauma of losing a loved one to murder and we didn’t know how to deal with that pain,” LaShawn said. “No state, city or agency provided my family with information about resources available to help us deal with our murdered loved one…We were alone when it came to the state of Ohio.”
She argued that capital punishment processes prolong a family’s period of grief, as appeals can span decades and do nothing to help them heal.
“Killing that man wouldn’t have brought my brother James back,” she said. “There is no closing, because there will always be an empty seat at my family table.”
The death penalty disproportionately affects black Americans
Since 1976, approximately 35% of executed prisoners have been black, despite representing only 13% of the American population.
In Ohio in the fall of 2020, more than half of those on death row were people of color.
Additionally, a prosecutor is more likely to seek the death penalty if the victim is white; death penalty defendants accused of killing a white person are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those accused of killing a person of color.
“The death penalty is the sharpest point of the justice system that needs so much work, and it contains all the problems of our justice system: you have racial discrepancies, prosecutorial and police misconduct, flawed eyewitness accounts, junk science,” Jennifer Pryor said. , the director of organizing and educating the people of Ohio to stop the executions. “You have so many pieces from every part of our justice system that lead to wrongful conviction.”
And wrongful convictions happen more often than people realize: for every five people executed in Ohio, one innocent person was released from death row. In total, Ohio sentenced 11 people to death who were later proven innocent.
Speakers call for legislative action and voter advocacy
Ohioans to Stop Executions provided postcards for all attendees to send to lawmakers and urged them to vote in favor of HB 183 and SB 103 – legislation that would end capital punishment in Ohio. Pryor said they plan to hand-deliver the cards to the Statehouse.
“We have a real opportunity,” Pryor said. “No repeal of the death penalty has ever come this far. We are killing innocent people, we are hurting families, and we are costing the people of Ohio a lot of money.
Journalist Abbey Marshall is a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at [email protected]