Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Meet the Exonerated: California Death Row


Ernest (Shujaa) Graham . Shujaa Graham was born in Lake Providence, LA, where he grew up on a plantation. His family worked as share-croppers, in the segregated South of the 1950s. As a teenager, Shujaa lived through the Watts riot and experienced the police occupation of his community. In and out of trouble, he spent much of his adolescent life in juvenile institutions, until at age 18, he was sent to Soledad Prison. In 1961, he moved to join his family who had moved to South Central Los Angeles, to try to build a more stable life.

In prison, Shujaa, mentored by the leadership of the Black Prison movement, he taught himself to read and write, and studied history and world affairs, becoming a leader of the growing movement within the California prison system, as the Black Panther Party expanded in the community.

In 1973, Shujaa was framed in the murder of a prison guard at the Deul Vocational Institute, Stockton, California. As a recognized leader within and without the prison, the community became involved in his defense, and supported him through four trials. Shujaa and his co-defendant, Eugene Allen, were sent to San Quentin's death row in 1976, after a second trial in San Francisco.

Shujaa spent three years on death row, but he and Eugene Allen continued to fight for their innocence. A third trial ended in a hung jury, and after a fourth trial, they were found innocent in 1979, after discovering that the District Attorney excluded all African American jurors, the California Supreme Court finally overturned the death conviction. As Shujaa often says, he won his freedom and affirmed his innocence in spite of the system. He was released and exonerated in March, 1981, and continued to organize in the Bay area, building community support for the prison movement, as well as protest in the neighborhoods against police brutality.

In the following years, Shujaa moved away from the Bay area. Shujaa learned landscaping, and created his own business. He and his wife raised three children, and became part of a progressive community in Maryland.

In 1999, Shujaa was invited to speak about his experiences on Death Row at fund raiser for the Alabama Death Penalty project, sponsored by the New York Legal Aid Foundation. This was a new beginning, and provided Shujaa the opportunity to begin to tell his story, his experiences and grow through work with other death penalty opponents.


Oscar Lee Morris was wrongly convicted of murder in 1984 and sentenced to death. He spent six years on death row and re-sentenced to life in prison in 1990 and was finally freed in 2000 after 16 years in prison.

Early on the morning of September 3, 1978, William Maxwell was shot to death at a Long Beach, California bathhouse, which was known to be a popular meeting place for homosexuals. Police arrived at the scene moments after the shooting, and questioned a witness who saw the back of the shooter, but no one was arrested.

Several months later, a man named Joe West contacted the police to tell them that his friend Oscar Lee Morris had murdered Maxwell. West said he had dropped Morris off at the bathhouse that day and given him the murder weapon; he claimed Morris said he “had to kill” a homosexual. West had known Morris since childhood, and the two men had a falling out shortly before West went to the police. Police began investigating Morris, but in 1979 the detectives were pulled from the case, and it was mistakenly filed as a closed case. Investigation came to a halt until 1982, when Joe West was arrested for auto theft and joyriding. He once again told police that Morris had killed Maxwell. Morris was charged with Maxwell’s murder shortly afterwards.

West was the key witness for the prosecution at Morris’s trial. He testified that he received nothing from the state in return for his testimony, though it was later revealed that in fact West’s sentence for an auto theft charge had been reduced and his sentence for a parole violation had been terminated. Morris was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in March 1983.

In 1988, the Supreme Court of California reduced Morris’s death sentence to life without parole, finding that there was no evidence that the murder had been committed during a robbery, a necessary condition for his capital sentence.

In 1997, on his death-bed, West recanted his testimony against Morris. Based on this new evidence, the Supreme Court of California ordered an evidentiary hearing in 1998, and the Los Angeles County Superior Court granted Morris a new trial. Prosecutors declined to retry the case, and Morris was freed in 2000. Morris filed a lawsuit against the city in 2002, but received no relief.
Morris’s case was marked by the controversial use of testimony from a felon granted leniency for his testimony, and the prosecution’s failure to divulge this special relationship to the defense during the trial. The star witness later confessed that he had fabricated the entire case against Morris in return for favorable treatment in at least two criminal cases he was involved in.
The chief prosecutor in the case, Arthur Jean, Jr., is today a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge. In a deposition about the case, Judge Jean said, “I wish I wasn’t on record having participated in giving him [Morris] something less than a perfect trial, but I am. It’s an embarrassing situation that I didn’t do well at the trial, and I didn’t handle things well. And misjudgments occurred, and I made them. And it’s tough to look people in the eye and ‘fess up with them sometimes.”
.... As a prosecutor, Mr. Jean had told the jury in Morris’s case that “there is no evidence, not a shred, and you would know if it existed, if Mr. West [the witness] got any benefit from the handling of his criminal case.” Records show that Mr. West in fact received a reduced sentence on a felony auto theft charge in return for his testimony against Mr. Morris, as well as termination of his prison sentence for parole violation. Mr. Jean’s handling of the Morris case drew the wrath of the California Supreme Court when it considered Morris’s automatic capital appeal and vacated his death sentence in 1988. Mr. Morris spent another 11 years in jail, until Mr. West recanted his testimony and Mr. Morris was released. (LA Daily Journal, Oct. 29, 2002)"

Ironically, California, the epitome of over-incarceration, who has been ordered by the courts to bring down the population of its prison system - due mostly to the state's deeply misguided three-strikes law, which puts people behind bars for 25 years to life if they commit a third felony, even a nonviolent one - to alleviate its badly overcrowded conditions, is also the state where the Supreme Court declared, in California v. Anderson (Cal. 1972), that the Death Penalty was unconstitutional, and in violation of what was then Article 1, Section 6 (now Article 1, Section 17) of the State Constitution, and that the decision was retroactively effective to all persons on Death Row in the State. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia (1972) would also find the death penalty unconstitutional.

Jerry Bigelow (California, Conviction: 1980) Bigelow, sentenced to death, the only evidence, the statement of a man who escaped the death penalty in exchange for his testimony.

Jerry Bigelow and a companion were hitchhiking when the victim gave them a ride. In exchange for immunity from the death penalty, his companion testified that Bigelow shot the victim.

After the companion accused Bigelow of the murder, the police persuaded him to confess by promising him leniency — a promise that would not be kept. Bigelow eventually was exonerated by several witnesses who testified that the companion had admitted committing the crime while Bigelow was sleeping and without Bigelow's knowledge.The California Supreme Court opened the way for the release from Death Row of a once-condemned inmate who won a disputed acquittal in his court-ordered retrial for a 1980 murder in Merced County.

Over one dissent, the justices refused to review a challenge by state prosecutors to an appeals court ruling upholding a jury's verdict in May acquitting Jerry D. Bigelow, an eight-year resident of Death Row who at one point in his legal odyssey confessed the killing and demanded his own execution.

Patrick Croy In 1978, Patrick "Hooty" Croy was working as a logger in Yreka. A weekend of partying led to an ill-fated shoot out between police and a group including Croy. By the end, Officer Hittson was dead. Croy was convicted of attempted robbery and Officer Hittson's murder. The jury did not convict Croy of intentionally killing the offer, but, rather, convicted him based on the theory of felony murder -- that is, that he intentionally committed a robbery that resulted in the officer's death. Croy was sentenced to death.

In 1985, Croy's conviction and death sentence were overturned. The California Supreme Court found that the trial judge had read the wrong instructions to the jury, allowing the jury to convict Croy of robbery even if he did not intend to steal. Because the murder conviction was based on the theory that Croy had intentionally committed a robbery that had caused the officer's death, the murder conviction too was reversed.

The case was re-tried and Croy presented evidence that he acted in self-defense during the shoot out. The jury found him not guilty of the crime for which he had previously been sentenced to death. Croy was released in 1990 and today still lives in Yreka.

In his own words:
I am Norma Jean's brother Patrick "Hooty" Croy. I was convicted at the same time as my sister. I was sent to death row where I spent many years awaiting execution. In my retrial it was proven that I shot Officer Bo Hittson in self-defense. This acquittal has clearly exonerated my sister. The prison parole board refuses to recognize any evidence surrounding the acquittal. Norma Jean is the only one still doing time.

July 16, 1978: It was high summer in Yreka, California and the town was celebrating the weekend with a street fair and dance. Norma Jean Croy was 24. Along with some friends and relatives, this Native Shasta woman was also enjoying the weekend. Visiting from home to home, laughing, watching movies, relaxing on

the hot summer night. They decided it would be good to go get pufitch night at her Grandma's place out in the country. First off, they needed some food and cigarettes at a local all-night store. It was near midnight.

The clerk at the convenience store was working the night shift, hoping his application at the police department would be approved soon. It was hot that night, maybe too hot. When Norma Jean, her brother Patrick Hooty Croy and three of their relatives (ages 17- 26) stopped at the store the clerk became verbally abusive, mistakenly accusing Hooty of short-changing him. Norma and 18-year-old Carol Thom defended Hooty against the verbal onslaught. Hooty did not want any trouble, he left the store. The clerk became physically and verbally abusive with Norma Jean and Carol. A scuffle broke out.

A squad car rolled into the parking lot. One of those coincidences. The clerk yelled "Get them", and then came the chase. "There's a carload of Indians," the police radio barked across Siskiyou County. One cousin, Darrell, just waking up in the back seat had the bright idea that he'd shoot out the headlights of the pursuing squad car. He picked up the .22 rifle as Hooty drove the old Pontiac. By the time they reached Grandma's, Darrell had managed to fire one bullet. He hadn't even hit the squad car, much less his target.

When the got to Grandma's, Norma Jean, Hooty and Darrell fled into the hills. The other two, Carol and 17-year-old Jasper (who had been asleep until arrival at Grandma's) attempted to turn themselves in to the police. The police responded by beating Jasper and handcuffing him and Carol in the line of fire.

Fifteen squad cars and 27 officers came to the scene. The police had military style semi-automatic weapons: M-16's, AR-15's, "riot shotguns", and .357 magnum pistols, shooting at "ANYTHING that moved". The Indians had one .22 caliber rifle and a handful of bullets. Memories of Captain Jack and the Modoc nation standoff against the US Cavalry whispered in the air.

Norma Jean, Hooty and Darrell continued to try and find cover in the sagebrush. Norma Jean got hit first, shot in the back. An officer was hit in the hand.

Trying to surrender, Darrell was shot in the groin. During a de facto cease-fire, Hooty approached the cabin to check on his Grandmother and Aunt.

There was a death. Yreka police officer Bo Hittson, who had been drinking prior to arriving on the scene saw Hooty attempting to get into the window of the cabin. One bullet hit Hooty in the lower butt and traveled down his leg, where it remains to this day. The other bullet entered through the back of his upper arm, bursting out the front. Hooty turned and shot-- one bullet from the .22 which hit the officer in the heart. The officer died instantly.

Hooty crawled to some storage shacks by the cabin, seeking shelter. Several police officers opened fire with semi-automatic weapons. Twice they spewed the bullets into the area where Hooty lay bleeding. By some miracle, Hooty survived. By dawn the dust cleared. The police had fired an excess of 200 rounds into the area. Only 6 .22 shots had been fired by the Indians.

Hospitals...Jail time...Trials. Penitentiaries. Jasper (a juvenile who ended up in adult court), got six years. Carol Thom was turned over to the California Youth Authority and separated from her baby daughter for 3 years. Darrell got 6 years. Norma Jean got life. Hooty got the death penalty. That was a long time ago. Today, all the Indians except for Norma Jean are out of prison. Hooty, in 1985, was granted a new trial by the California Supreme Court, and was found NOT GUILTY by reason of self-defense in May of 1990. With no release date, Norma Jean has been in prison for 12 years. [pg: at the time this was written. It's 17 years now.] A victim of gross miscarriage of justice, Norma Jean, unarmed in the racially-charged encounter, is still behind bars.

Here's what Hooty's (second) trial judge said:
"I think that when Norma Jean comes up for a parole hearing again, that the board should take into consideration the fact that this court, at least, believes Normal Jean Croy would have been found Not Guilty....I want the record to be clear that this is my judgement, my opinion, having heard the evidence in this case." -- Judge Edward Stern, Hooty's trial judge, San Francisco, May, 1990
But when Norma Jean went before her parole board, they refused to consider the evidence which had come out at the new trial, or the trial judge's opinion.

She was given no release date then, told to return in several years for another hearing. She was denied release date in 1992, 1993, 1994. Should have another hearing in 1995, but her attorney believes prison crowding will delay it till Spring, 1996. Also believes no release will be set then.

Norma Jean and Hooty were both convicted in Placer County by an all-white jury of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, assault on officers, and robbery in August of 1979. Norma Jean was sentenced to life, on some of the charges, long terms on others. Hooty received the death penalty. Their appeals went to different courts with different results. Hooty was granted a new trial at the end of 1985, Norma Jean's convictions were affirmed by a lower appeals court. Hooty's change of venue was considered a landmark case; Norma Jean's venue change was denied.

At Hooty's second trial, in San Francisco, evidence was presented which the 1979 jury had not heard on a dual system of justice for Indians, a background of racism in the community where the incidents occurred, misconduct by law enforcement officers, and most importantly, that Hooty had shot officer Hittson in self- defense. Hooty was found not guilty of all charges, murder, attempted murder and robbery.

International Indigenous People's 1993 Resolution Supporting Norma Jean Croy

WHEREAS Norma Jean Croy, 39, now serving a life sentence for a murder conviction in 1978, has been imprisoned as a political prisoner since she was 24, longer than any other Indian man or woman associated with the struggle for Native rights and sovereignty;

WHEREAS the facts of Norma Jean's case clearly indicate she was shot in the back by police officers who surrounded a relative's house and began shooting at

Norma Jean, her brother, Patrick "Hooty" Croy and old people in the house, the said police officers attacking these people in force after a minor verbal altercation with a store clerk mainly as part of the government assault on the American Indian Movment that followed the FBI incident at Oglala;

WHEREAS over 200 shots were fired in the assault, one office was killed by Patrick, and Patrick was shot twice from, and Patrick was convicted of murder,but won a new trial in 1985 after many years of support efforts, at which he was acquitted, and the jurors and trial judge said that Norma Jean would have been acquitted by them too, if she had been on trial;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that Norma Jean Croy should receive an Executive pardon, since it has never even been alleged that she had anything to do with the officer's death other than being there and being shot in the back.

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that members of this conference and the groups they represent will make serious efforts to publicize and build support for Norma Jean against this long-standing injustice,which has been virtually ignored by everyone except a few women for more than 15 years. Resolution was passed by unanimous acclamation,Sept 2, 1993

Troy Lee Jones spent more than 14 years on California's death row. The California Supreme Court ruled in June, 1996 that Jones should have a new trial because he was not adequately defended at his original trial for the murder of Carolyn Grayson in 1981. The Court found that the defense attorney failed to conduct an adequate pretrial investigation, speak with possible witnesses, obtain a relevant police report, or seek pretrial investigative funds. Moreover, the attorney elicited damaging testimony against his own client during cross examination of a witness. The prosecution announced that it was dropping all charges against Jones in November, 1996, after he had been on death row for 14 years. (Associated Press, 11/19/96).

And then there is one death row inmate, Dennis Lawley - who the court allowed to defend himself regardless of the fact he was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic - who, despite recanted testimony, questions about a former district attorney who has died, and new evidence - the murder weapon the self-confessed murderer said he used - still resides on death row.
I have at least a philosophical objection to begging these people for my life, and I am not going to do it. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do it." - Dennis Lawley, a paranoid schizophrenic defending himself after which he was sentenced to death.
The most comprehensive review of death penalty cases ever undertaken, led by Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman, found that California's trial courts produced an extremely high level of error in capital verdict cases. 87% of capital verdicts in California were tainted with an error serious enough to prejudice the outcome.

Not only that, in states like Texas and California with large death rows, many defendants sentenced to death are not currently being represented by any attorney. [See R. Smothers, A Shortage of Lawyers to Help the Condemned, The New York Times, June 4, 1993, at A21; see also H. Chiang, Judge Sees 'Time Bomb' on Death Row, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 18, 1993 (105 of the 370 Calif. death row inmates have no attorneys].

The majority of Californians still favor the death penalty, but their support has waned from 79% to 66% over the last two decades as fears of executing the wrongly convicted escalate.


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