Freed Death Row Inmate Shujaa Graham

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Shujaa Graham spent five years on death row before being acquitted in the death of a prison guard. He now lectures all over the world on the death penalty, the criminal justice system, gang violence and racism. Graham will talk about death penalty alternatives at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and will talk about his experiences and his views on the death penalty on Arizona Horizon.

Ted Simons: SHUJAA GRAHAM SPENT FIVE YEARS ON DEATH ROW BEFORE BEING EXONERATED IN THE DEATH OF A PRISON GUARD. GRAHAM NOW LECTURES ALL OVER THE WORLD ON THE DEATH PENALTY, THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, GANG VIOLENCE AND RACISM. GRAHAM IS IN ARIZONA THIS WEEK TO TALK ABOUT DEATH PENALTY ALTERNATIVES. HE'LL BE SPEAKING AT 1:15 TOMORROW AT THE HERBERGER CENTER IN PHOENIX. WE SPOKE WITH SHUJAA GRAHAM ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCES AND HIS ADVOCACY WORK.

Ted Simons: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US ON "ARIZONA HORIZON." THANK YOU FOR BEING HERE.

SHUJAA GRAHAM: THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

Ted Simons: LET'S TALK ABOUT WHY YOU ARE IN ARIZONA?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: IM GOING ON A TOUR, GOING AROUND TO DIFFERENT CITIES SPEAKING ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. I SPENT 11 YEARS OF MY LIFE IN PRISON. I SPENT SOME OF THAT ON DEATH ROW. IT TOOK ME NINE YEARS TO PROVE MY INNOCENCE. I SPEND A LOT OF TIME TALKING ABOUT THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM ITSELF.

Ted Simons: WHEN YOU SPEAK IN FRONT TO HAVE GROUPS, WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO HEAR?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: THESE WERE LAW STUDENTS. WHAT I WAS TRYING TO EXPLAIN TO THEM HOW THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WORKS, HOW IT FAILED ME AS A PERSON. THEY SAY IT WORKED BECAUSE YOU WERE RELEASED. IT TOOK NINE YEARS TO WORK FOR ME. AS A PERSON, SINCE BEING RELEASED, I'M TRYING TO MAKE SURE WHAT HAPPENED TO ME NEVER HAPPENS TO ANYONE ELSE. THE ONLY WAY TO DO THAT IS EDUCATE PEOPLE ABOUT THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM AND THE FRAUD THAT EXISTS ITSELF.

Ted Simons: LET'S GET THE WHOLE PICTURE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU BORN, WHERE WERE YOU RAISED AND WHEN DID THINGS GO SIDEWAYS FOR YOU?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: I WAS BORN IN LOUISIANA. I WORKED ON THE PLANTATION WITH MY PARENTS TO TRY TO MAKE A LIVING. I NEVER KNEW MY REAL FATHER. MY SECOND FATHER WENT TO CALIFORNIA TO FIND A BETTER LIFE AND WE STAYED BACK WITH MY GRANDMOTHER. ONCE WE WERE ABLE TO GET MONEY, WE MOVED TO CALIFORNIA. I SPENT THREE YEARS OF MY LIFE IN PRISON BEFORE I WAS 18. WHEN I WAS 18 I WENT TO PRISON FOR THE LAST TIME.

Ted Simons: THIS WAS A ROBBERY CONVICTION?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: I WAS SENT TO PRISON FOR ROBBERY THAT I WAS GUILTY OF.

Ted Simons: OKAY, YOU ARE IN PRISON. YOU GET TO PRISON, THINGS TURNED AROUND FOR YOU. WHAT HAPPENED?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: A MAN I MET, I'LL NEVER FORGET HIM. I WAS IN GANGS WHEN I MET HIM. HE LEARNED ME HOW TO READ AND TAUGHT ME DISCIPLINE AND UNDERSTANDING LIFE AND THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING AN EDUCATION. MANY PEOPLE TRIED TO HELP ME BEFORE BUT I NEVER GAVE THEM THE TIME OR LISTENED TO THEM LIKE I LISTENED TO MR. MOHAMMED. I FOUGHT TO UNITE BLACK WHITE AND BROWNS. ON DECEMBER 27TH, 1973, AN UPRISING HAPPENED IN THE PRISON I WAS IN AND A HUMAN BEING WAS KILLED. HE WAS A GUARD AT THE PRISON. I WAS ACCUSED AND FOR THE NEXT NINE YEARS I HAD TO FIGHT FOR MY LIFE. I HAD FOUR TRIALS. THE FIRST THEY COULDN'T DETERMINE MY CONVICTION. THE SECOND I WAS SENTENCED TO DEATH ROW. THE COURTS OVERTURNED THE CONVICTION BUT I HAD A THIRD TRIAL. THE JURY COULDN'T DETERMINE MY GUILT OR INNOCENCE. A YEAR LATER I HAD A FOURTH TRIAL. I WAS ACQUITTED AND WALKED OUT.

Ted Simons: THROUGH THE TRIALS, YOU KEPT TRYING. YOU KEPT GOING. DID YOU EVER LOSE FAITH? DID YOU EVER LOSE HEART? DID YOU THINK, THIS IS USELESS?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: THERE WERE MOMENTS YOU WANTED TO GIVE UP BUT THERE WAS NO LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. THOSE ARE THE DARK MOMENTS. YOU CATCH YOURSELF AND COME BACK AND YOU WANT TO LIVE AND DO WHAT'S NECESSARY TO GET OUT.

Ted Simons: WHAT KEPT YOU GOING? WHAT MADE YOU SAY, I DO WANT TO LIVE. I CAN'T GIVE UP.

SHUJAA GRAHAM: THERE WERE TWO YOUNG STUDENTS THAT GOT ME OUT WHEN I WAS GOING TO TRIAL. TWO LITTLE WHITE KIDS I DIDN'T KNOW. WHEN I WAS CONVICTED, THEY CAME TO SAN QUENTIN TO SEE ME. I SAID MY LIFE IS FINISHED. WHAT CAN LITTLE KIDS DO AGAINST THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA. THEY WENT TO SELL COOKIES AND TALKING AT CHURCHES ABOUT MY STORY. THEY WERE RAISING FUNDS AND WE GOT GOOD INVESTIGATORS AND REPRESENTATION AND WE WERE ABLE TO REPRESENT OURSELVES AT TRIAL.

Ted Simons: DID YOU HEAR FROM THE STATE, FROM ANYONE THAT THE FOLKS FIGHTING TO KEEP YOU IN PRISON ON DEATH ROW, DID YOU EVER HEAR FROM THEM ONCE YOU WERE EXXON RATED?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: NO.

Ted Simons: WHY?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: IT WAS POLITICAL. I WAS FIGHTING FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN PRISON. YOU ARE IN PRISON BUT YOU ARE STILL A HUMAN BEING. I WAS EXPOSING RACISM AND BRUTALITY OF GUARDS. IT WAS ME ORGANIZING PRISONERS, ON THAT DAY THEY THOUGHT I WAS THE ONE TO BE A PART. THE GUARDS LEFT THE WING AND NO ONE WAS IN THE WING BUT THE PRISONERS AND MYSELF AND EUGENE. IN THE END, EUGENE ALAN AND I WAS ACCUSED. FOR NINE YEARS WE HAD TO PROVE OUR INNOCENCE.

Ted Simons: YOU PROVED IT. YOU WALKED OUT. WHEN YOU WALKED OUT, WHAT WERE YOU FEELING?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: I SAID TO MYSELF, WHEN THE JURY SAID NOT GUILTY, I SAID 11 LONG YEAR, MY GREATEST NIGHTMARE HAS COME TRUE. IT'S BEEN 30 YEARS. THE STRUGGLE TRYING TO ADJUST TO SOCIETY.

Ted Simons: IT HAD TO BE A PHENOMENAL FEELING TO GET OUT. THE NEXT DAY, THE NEXT MONTH, THE NEXT YEAR HAD TO BE DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH.

SHUJAA GRAHAM: EVERYDAY I GET UP I THINK ABOUT DEATH SENTENCE AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, WHO I WAS. I CAN BE HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME PLAYING WITH MY GRANDCHILDREN AND I BREAK DOWN. IF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA HAD THEIR WAY, I WOULDN'T BE HERE TODAY. FOR ME, IT'S TIME TO CREATE A BETTER SOCIETY. WHAT HAPPENED TO ME IS OVER AND DONE. I'M NOT GOING TO DIE, BUT THROUGH MY CONTINUED EDUCATING MYSELF, I HAVE BEEN SPEAKING TO THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM MAKING IT BETTER, A INSTITUTION, PRISON TO HELP PEOPLE. WHEN THEY GET OUT, THEY'LL BE AN ASSET TO THEIR COMMUNITIES.

Ted Simons: HOW DO WE DO THAT? HOW DO YOU IMPROVE THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM OR PRISON SYSTEM FROM YOUR ADVANTAGE POINT?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: FOR ME, GET OUT THE IDEA OF PUNISHMENT. HOW DO I SECURE SOCIETY AND HOW DO I CORRECT YOU. WHEN I INCARCERATE YOU, MY MAIN EFFORT IS TO CORRECT YOU, NOT PUNISH YOU. I THINK THAT'S WHERE WE FAIL. WHEN I WAS IN PRISON, I SPENT MOST OF MINE IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. A LOT OF IT IS PUNISHMENT. A LOT OF PEOPLE COME INTO PRISON WITH A MARIJUANA CHARGE AND LEAVE A MURDERER AND NEVER LEAVE PRISON. THERE ARE OTHER PLACES TO BE OPPOSED TO PRISON. PRISON MAKES THEM WORK. TAKE A DRUG CASE, LOW-LEVEL CASE AND THROW THEM IN PRISON WITH HARD CORE PRISONERS, THEY ARE INFLUENCED AND LEAVE WORSE THAN THEY COME IN. I THINK THE THING IS EDUCATION. I APPRECIATE MY MOTHER FOR NEVER GIVING UP ON ME. WHEN I WAS 18, THIS PARTICULAR PERSON GAVE ME EDUCATION AND I NEVER LOOKED BACK SENSE.

Ted Simons: YOU HAVEN'T. NOW YOU ARE SPEAKING IN FRONT OF GROUPS. DO YOU HEAR FROM FOLKS LATER ON, I HEARD FROM YOU AND IT'S CHANGED MY LIFE?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: IT'S PAINFUL DOING WHAT I DO, BUT I GET A LOT OUT OF IT WHEN I TOUCH SOMEONE AND GET A LETTER FROM SOME YOUNG GIRL OR BOY. THEY SAY YOU CHANGED MY LIFE. I'M IN THE POSITION I'M IN TODAY BECAUSE I HEARD YOU SPEAK IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE CLASS. THAT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD. MY SON WENT TO SCHOOL DAY AND HE CAME BACK WITH A WONDERFUL SITUATION. THAT MAKES ME FEEL GOOD. I KNOW WHERE I WAS. I WAS A DANGER TYPE PERSON GROWING UP IN SOUTH CENTRAL LOS ANGELES.

Ted Simons: YOU NEEDED THAT ONE GUY YOU RAN INTO IN PRISON FOR YOU, BUT IF YOU CAN RUN INTO THAT ONE PERSON TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

SHUJAA GRAHAM: I TRY TO BE THAT FOR SOMEONE. I WAS 18 AND MR. MOHAMMED WAS 45. MAYBE BECAUSE HE WAS OLDER I GAVE HIM THE TIME TO TALK TO ME. I NEVER FORGET THAT. THAT'S THE TURNING POINT IN MY LIFE.

Ted Simons: YOU SAY EVERYTHING YOU WENT THROUGH AFFECTS YOU EVERYDAY. ARE YOU AN OPTIMISTIC PERSON?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: YES.

Ted Simons: WHY?

SHUJAA GRAHAM: I BELIEVE IN PEOPLE. I BELIEVE IN THE GOODNESS OF PEOPLE. I BELIEVE IF WE GET OUT OF THE PROCESS OF PUNISHMENT AND RETALIATION, WE CAN CREATE A BETTER SOCIETY. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE IN A MURDERER OR STATE THAT MURDERS. DO WE ENACT ROBBERS TO SHOW THE ROBBER IS WRONG? OF COURSE NOT. WHY DO WE KILL? WE SAY LIFE IS IF MOST SACRED THING. I THINK WE CAN PROTECT SOCIETY WITHOUT RESORTING TO KILLING. ALL WE ARE DOING IS CREATING MORE VICTIMS.

Ted Simons: IT'S NICE TO HAVE YOU ON THE PROGRAM. WELCOME TO ARIZONA.


Shujaa Graham: Lecturer

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