A man called 'Shaka'
By Mumia Abu-Jamal

On Sept. 5, 1999, the man born as Gary Graham marked his 36th year in life and his 18th year in a Texas cage. Several years ago, the Black death-row prisoner changed his name to Shaka Sankofa, after the great founder of the Zulu Empire of southern Africa.

For years, he has been fighting for his life, most recently against one of the most brutal killing states in America. Texas leads the nation in executions, spurred, at least in part, by the presidential aspirations of its governor, George W. Bush.

Supporters from as diverse a grouping as the pope, the Nation of Islam and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have been critical of some aspects of his trial, and called for either clemency or a new trial. Sankofa's trial was marred by conflicting witnesses, ballistics evidence that cleared his weapon from the killing, and even alibi testimony placing him miles away from the crime scene, yet much of this wasn't brought out to the jury.

Five times Sankofa has faced the gallows and five times he has been granted last-minute stays of execution.

What disturbs many observers is the provision of Texas law that disallows evidence of innocence that does not come within that state's narrow time frame. To support his new trial efforts, supporters of Sankofa have released a compact disk, called "Let the Evidence Be Heard," featuring music and spoken word.

In early September 1999, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, wrote to Texas Gov. Bush asking, on behalf of Pope John Paul II, that clemency be granted. The Nuncio wrote:

"The Holy Father prays that the life of Mr. Graham may be saved through the compassion and magnanimity of yourself, Mr. Governor, and through the Board of Pardons and Paroles. His Holiness counts on your authority to have a life spared by commuting this sentence with a gesture of mercy which would certainly contribute to the promotion of a culture of life and of non-violence in the freedom-loving society of the United States."

But even the appeal of a pope may have to yield to a Higher Power—the power of human political ambition. That was certainly the case as regards the late Karla Fae Tucker, whose remarkable rehabilitation was treated like a joke.

Shaka Sankofa has spent half of his life not only in a cage, but under threat of death, despite considerable evidence of his innocence. From his perspective, the U.S. is many things, but "freedom-loving" it ain't.

 

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