How the #DeathPenalty fails murder victim family members and what victim families really need: LaShawn Ajamu at Lifelines Conference in London, April 7, 2018

Death Penalty Action

(Prepared Remarks)

Hello Lifelines!

Thank you so much for inviting us. You have been treating us so nicely — it’s been amazing to be here in the UK. You have been especially gracious. I don’t even want to go home! […]

LaShawn Ajamu, speaking outside of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in November, 2017 as the state failed to execute Alva Campbell. LaShawn was speaking as Co-Chair of Ohioans to Stop Executions Murder Victim’s Support Project, pointing out how the death penalty just makes it worse for victims families — especially in situations like this. The victim’s family was in the witness room when the execution was called off. They had been waiting more than 20 years for the killer of their loved one to be killed so that they could begin their healing process. Alva Campbell went back to his cell that day and died on death row several months later.

I have to tell you, I was a little surprised when you asked me to speak. Usually I am in the background at these things. It is my husband Kwame who is the one who is usually out front. But you know what they say, behind every successful man is a stronger woman.

You know, I’m not saying that to be boastful. I am saying that to lift YOU up. You people at Lifelines — let’s put the truth out there — we know you are mostly women. Right? You have NO IDEA how much strength you give to the men you are writing to. On behalf of those men and the very few women on death rows across the United States, I want to say thank YOU. You have no idea what it means to them, the work that you do.

Kwame reacts to LaShawn’s remarks: “I’ll tell you what — he was such a charmer, but if I had known what he had been accused of before I started talking to him I might not be here.” Photo © Caz Dyer/LifeLines

Now, I had no idea either, before I met my husband. And I met my husband after he was released from prison. I’ll tell you what — he was such a charmer, but if I had known what he had been accused of before I started talking to him I might not be here. I learned what I know about what it is to be supporting someone in prison only later, because it turned out that Kwame’s brother and his friend were all in prison for the same crime. So while Kwame was doing everything he could to get the truth out there and to get them exonerated, we were living under the cloud of him having been convicted and having spent almost three decades in prison. And we were supporting our people in prison — in some ways just as you provide support to prisoners.

Kwame has told me what it means to have a touch from outside. I’ve never been a prisoner in a prison, but I too understand living under that cloud of conviction. Kwame and I were together and got married before he was exonerated, when he could not get a proper job because he was still a “convicted murderer” in the eyes of the world. So what you do — writing to prisoners and providing them a touch from the outside, without judgement, just being a friend, it is so so so important to the prisoners whom you write to — whether they are guilty or innocent. You have no idea what it means to them. Please don’t stop. Please don’t stop.

Now, I said I am usually behind the scenes when I come out on the road with Kwame, and happily so. I don’t want to be famous, and I don’t want to be the big speaker. But sometimes, I have to, because I do have my own story to tell. And I tell it because it helps people see a whole other side to the issue of the death penalty — one that people make assumptions about.

In Ohio, where I’m from and where we live, every time they are trying to execute a prisoner, the politicians come out and say “We need to do this for the murder victims family.” “We need executions so that the victims family can heal, or have closure.”

Well, that is something I know a little bit about. I want to tell you about the work I do as a member of the board of directors of Ohioans to Stop Executions. I’m on that board, and I also am one of the co-chairs of Ohioans to Stop Executions Murder Victims Families Support Project. You might not believe it, but it turns out that the anti-death penalty group in Ohio is also one of the groups in the state most strongly advocating for the needs of murder victims families. I’m very proud to be part of this work, and we are very slowly having an impact.

But let me tell you a bit about what happened to me and my family.

LaShawn Ajamu speaking in Athens, Ohio. LaShawn is married to Kwame Ajamu, one of Ohio’s nine exonerated death row survivors (161 nationwide as of April 6, 2018). Kwame Ajamu chairs the board of directors of Witness to Innocence, the national group of exonerated death row survivors (note her t-shirt).

21 years ago next month, on May 3, 1997, I was asleep after a long day at work. In my dream there was a bell ringing. It kept getting louder. It seemed to go on and on, and then I woke up and realized that it was my phone ringing. I was not dreaming. I came to my senses and answered what turned out to be, for me and my family, the proverbial middle of the night phone call. The call none of us want to ever receive.

The woman on the phone identified herself as a nurse at Mercy Medical Center. She asked me my name. Then she asked me if I have a brother named James Nero. I said yes. And then my dream became a nightmare, because the nurse told me that James had been shot in the head, and that I need to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

I guess I still wasn’t fully awake, because it still hadn’t yet registered to me what this meant. After I hung up and realized who I had been talking with, I became very numb and all I could think about was getting to the hospital to find out what was going on with my brother. I didn’t have a car, so I started walking from my apartment to the hospital — it wasn’t that far, but it felt like miles.

My brother James was just twenty years old. We had just been together earlier that day. I thank God because our last time together he hugged me and told me that he loved me. At least I have that to remember him with.

James was a passenger in a car with two female friends when there was a minor accident. I don’t know who was at fault, but the other driver did not want to take responsibility. My brother insisted that he provide his insurance card. The driver went to get his insurance card but instead came back with a gun. He shot my brother in the face, hitting him in the eye. Then he shot James again, point blank as he lay there on the ground.

James Nero, holding his son, Jaron.

James was engaged to be married. He left his fiancé with their 18-month-old son, Jaron. Being so young, James did not have much in the way of savings or life insurance. We were able to bury him with the help of our family and church community. But I can’t remember anyone from the county or the prosecutors office offering any sort of assistance.

Terry Freeman is the man who killed James. He claimed it was self-defense. He said my brother was too aggressive. It also happens that he is the son of the former county sheriff, so of course they made James out to be the bad guy. The killer was found “not guilty” and walked off without being held accountable. If he was so scared, maybe I can understand one shot, but once my brother was on the ground with a bullet in his head, that second shot turned self-defense into nothing less than murder.

When the court case was over, James was still dead. There was no help except from our own community. My parents, my two other brothers, James’s fiancé and my nephew never received any information about resources available to help us deal with the situation in which we found ourselves. None of us had ever experienced traumatic loss like this. We did not know how to deal with the pain and grief of losing our loved one to murder. There needs to be assistance available to any family that experiences such a traumatic loss. For us, we had only ourselves and our church community. From the government, there was nothing.

That is why I am working with Ohioans to Stop Executions to help put something in place that will help other families dealing with the kind of situation that my family endured. We were lucky in a way, because at least we were a part of a faith community. Sadly, not everyone has that, and even for those that do have strong community support, most faith communities are not set up to offer anything more than prayers and love. Those are vital, but they are not the sort of tangible supports that government can be providing.

What would be helpful? What did we need?

· Trained grief counselors would be a good start.

· We needed someone with the knowledge of how to negotiate getting James’ body released so that we could bury him.

· We needed help paying for a funeral and a burial plot — and not just a possible reimbursement at some unknown point in the future.

· Because James’ killer had all of these friends in the prosecutors office and the sheriff’s department, it turns out we needed our own advocate in the court system — both to defend our dead brother and to not let that killer get away without being held accountable.

· We needed independent victim service providers who are thinking about those impacted by crime regardless of allegations against the victim. My parents didn’t do anything wrong. My nephew, who was 18-months-old, didn’t do anything wrong. But because they made James out to be a bad guy, all the help went to his killer.

· It would have been helpful if someone had apologized that this had happened. A simple “I’m sorry this tragedy happened to your family” would have helped.

· James’s son has grown up without a father. What’s out there to help him? Why, over the course of 21 years now, has no one thought to reach out to us with any information?

I have recently become aware of the Ohio Crime Victims Compensation Fund, and we are exploring our options with that. But I had to find it. Nobody told us about it. That should be the first thing that happens — before the police leave. There needs to be a simple guide and a list of resources that can help the loved ones of murder victims. There needs to be someone who comes to visit and offers to talk through the possibilities. It’s so hard, right after the crime. My brain was in such a fog. It was enough trouble just getting out of bed some days.

In our case, the local politics lined up everyone in the system against us. We got nothing, and the killer got a pass. That must be unacceptable.

In Ohio and in most states, county government victim assistance is most often housed within the office of the county prosecutor. I’m here to tell you that if the crime victim is somehow found in disfavor, or if the victims’ family disagrees with the prosecutors’ office, their services dry up. That must be unacceptable. Victim services personnel should not be beholden to the county prosecutor. Victim services should not be housed in the offices of the county prosecutor, and victim service personnel should not be beholden to a decision-maker in criminal case proceedings.

I’ve been reading about the Ohio Crime Victims Compensation Fund, and I have some concerns about that. I want to be clear that this does not apply to me, but did you know that if a crime victim was previously convicted of a completely unrelated crime, they are ineligible for assistance? Really? How can that be fair? That sounds like it is designed to keep hurting people down instead of offering them a hand up. We are working to change that.

Now, what about the death penalty? Where does that fit in? I want to say this as a family member of a murder victim. My family — we don’t need or want an execution. Not even for Mr. Terry Freeman, who put two bullets in my brother’s head.

Yes, our loved one was murdered. We want the truth about what happened, and we want the killer held accountable in a way that he can’t do it again. No amount of killing is going to bring our loved one back, and we certainly don’t want the state using our pain and suffering to justify another family losing their loved one — even if they are guilty.

Also, the state makes mistakes. I know about this because my husband was wrongly sent to death row in this state for a crime he had nothing to do with. I met Kwame Ajamu after he was out of prison but before he was exonerated. He is one of nine people wrongly sent to death row in Ohio. I’ll let him tell his own story, but know this: No murder victim family wants an innocent person held accountable for the loss of their loved one. Not only does that create more victims, but it leaves the real killer free to kill again. Get rid of the death penalty and you won’t risk executing the wrong person.

But here’s the other thing you need to know about how the death penalty actually hurts murder victim family members. The death penalty is hardly ever used.

Executions are so infrequent that what they are really saying to most of us is that our loved ones were not valuable enough to them. Despite thousands of murders since Ohio enacted its death penalty statute in 1981, only 55 killers have been put to death. For the precious few where death is the sentence, victim families are putting their healing process on hold for a very long time.

One of many the reasons I oppose executions is because of the false promises they present to victim families. As happened just two weeks ago and also in Ohio’s reprieved execution in February, the rug can get pulled out from under you just days before the moment you have been waiting for. In November, the victim’s family was in the witness room when the execution was called off. In two of those cases the families had been waiting more than 20 years. In the most recent case, William Montgomery had been waiting 32 years to be executed. Thankfully, we were able to stop it, because that man may be innocent. That’s a whole other story, but we pray he gets the fair trial he deserves and that maybe they can figure out who really killed those two young women.

Anyway, just a few more facts. I’m almost done. Ohio currently has 25 men with execution dates extending into 2022. By the time of their executions, five will have been on death row between 15 and 20 years. Eleven will have been there more than 20 years, and nine will have been there more than thirty years. Turning that around, that’s how many years victim family members in those cases have had to wait for their so-called justice, and to begin healing.

Yes, that’s absolutely unacceptable. Some say speed up executions, but then we run the risk of wrongful executions. Thirteen Ohioans who faced death at trial have been exonerated and freed. Four were released from life sentences, and nine after having been condemned to death, all for crimes they did not commit. For many, it was after decades on death row or in prison.

What I know for sure is this. When the trial is over, that’s when victims families can begin to heal, and really get started rebuilding our lives. Without the death penalty looming over us for decades, we can go on. That’s what I am working on.

And you can help. Keep writing to the people on death row in the United States. It makes a huge difference to them and they deserve to have someone treat them like a human being. But don’t forget the rest of us who are impacted by crimes of murder. Help us get rid of the death penalty. There are two things I want to ask you to do today:

#1 — Figure out who you can work with here in the UK who can help put pressure on politicians — the Governor and state legislators in Ohio and other states. You writing your own letter is great, but it is so much more powerful if the message is coming from a business leader who wants to do business in the United States. They should make a choice to only do business in states without the death penalty, and they need to tell US politicians that this is a priority in their decision-making. In the US, money talks. Figure that out and act on it.

#2 — Think about who you know who can help us pay for this work. Now I know that Lifelines also depends on donations, so this idea can help Lifelines too. Who do YOU know. Who do YOU know who knows somebody. Somebody who just sold a successful business. Somebody who has done very well in life and who wants to make a difference. Who do you know? Maybe it’s YOU? Maybe it is someone you know or someone who someone you know is friends with, or related to by family. When you figure that out, invite that person to support what you do by investing some of their money in our success.

LaShawn also serves on the Advisory Board of Death Penalty Action, a relatively new NGO in the United States working to lift up visibility, education and ACTION to stop executions. Donate to Death Penalty Action here.

I have to tell you, I don’t like asking for money. But now I’m on the board of directors and its part of my job. And its not like we are asking for money for ourselves, right? This is something I feel passionate about. I know it is what you feel passionate about. It’s a real need if we are to be successful. Think about who you know and let’s make the connection (click to donate to Ohioans to Stop Executions).

Again, thank you for all that YOU do to lift the spirits of prisoners living under the threat of death. It is so important, and it’s one VITAL piece of the broader movement to end executions once and for all. Thank you, each and every one of you. Thank you.

This photo was made following LaShawn’s testimony before the Joint Committee on Victim Services at the Ohio Legislature. From left, Abe Bonowitz (Death Penalty Action & Ohioans to Stop Executions), Kevin Werner (Ohioans to Stop Executions) and Kwame Ajamu (Witness to Innocence).

COPYRIGHT 2018 LaShawn Ajamu & Death Penalty Action — To reach LaShawn Ajamu send e-mail to info (at) DeathPenaltyAction.org

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Death Penalty Action provides high visibility resources, leadership and support in order to stop executions.

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