The inmates on Death Row represent the worst of the worst of California’s criminals. Collectively, they’ve murdered roughly 1,000 people. Californians have consistently voted that executing these people is the way to make things right.
But what happens if the legal system gets it wrong?
“I’m a Death Row survivor out of the state of California,” said Shujaa Graham.
Graham spent years on San Quentin’s death row.
“Think about you fittin’ to lose your life for something that you didn’t do,” Graham said.
Graham admits, there were quite a few things he did do in his early years. As a child, he joined an L.A. gang and was in and out of juvenile hall. At age 18, he was sent to prison. Within the walls of the prison, he began to turn his life around.
“I tried to create a new person,” Graham said. “And from that day on, I never looked back.”
Graham was transferred to a San Joaquin County prison, the Deuel Vocational Institute, and became an advocate for prisoner’s rights.
“We tried to get reading materials, better prison conditions for prisoners. Tried to expose the brutality that was being perpetrated by the guards at the prison,” Graham said.
He said authorities labeled him a violent troublemaker during a time of violent clashes between correctional officers and prisoners.
“Did I add to the atmosphere by educating people that they didn’t have to accept this? Some people took it another way. Some people did it my way. Some people did it this way. Others resorted to violence,” Graham said.
One of those clashes turned deadly. A correctional officer was killed and Graham was blamed. But he said he had nothing to do with the murder of that prison guard.
“Something happened. What happened? None of them really know,” Graham said. “They say there was a takeover in the building.”
His first trial ended with a hung jury. But after the second, Graham and another inmate were convicted and sentenced to death.
“I never contemplated suicide when I was on Death Row,” Graham remembered, holding back tears. “But sometimes, the pain got so hard, that it was perfectly OK if I didn’t wake up in the morning.”
After years of appeals, Graham got his conviction overturned when his attorneys proved blacks were excluded from his jury.
But he wasn’t free yet. A third trial ended in another hung jury before he was finally acquitted.
As a long-time crusader against the death penalty, Graham is now urging voters to pass Proposition 62, which would repeal the death penalty.
“Capital punishment doesn’t solve any problems,” Graham said. “It’s just a vengeful thing.”
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert says that’s not the case.
“It’s not a decision we take lightly. But if someone decides to go into the Golden 1 Center tonight and kill indiscriminately for no reason, that should be an option,” Schubert said.
Proposition 62 would also commute the sentences of current condemned inmates to life in prison, which would mean telling people like Sandy Friend the man who raped and murdered her 7-year-old son won’t be executed.
“These loved ones were given a promise,” Schubert said. “And through the swipe of a pen, through an election process, it’s all taken away.”
Still, Schubert agrees -- California’s death penalty is broken. So she’s advocating for Proposition 66, which would preserve the death penalty but speed up the process from conviction to execution.
“Let’s fix the appeals process so people don’t wait seven to 10 years to even get an attorney after they’ve been convicted. It shouldn’t take five to 10 years once you’ve gotten a lawyer to have appeal after appeal after appeal,” Schubert said.
But appeal, after appeal, after appeal was the difference between life and death for Graham.
“Remember, it took eight years to prove my innocence,” Graham said. “It’s a great possibility I wouldn’t be here today if Proposition 66 had been into effect.”
In Shujaa Graham’s case, the system got it wrong. The question before voters is, will Proposition 62 or 66 set things right?
Shujaa Graham's case of conviction and exoneration gained national attention as it unfolded in the 1970's and early 1980's. The following are articles about him and his co-defendant, as they were published by the Sacramento Bee. Here, Shujaa Graham is referred to by his birth name of Ernest Graham. (COURTESY: SACRAMENTO BEE)