News from LifeLines

The 2018 Spring Conference

This year’s LifeLines Spring Conference at the Amnesty International Human Rights Centre was a very special and memorable day for everyone who attended. As well as the opportunity to catch up with our fellow LifeLiners, we also had the great privilege to hear from two incredible speakers. Kwame and LaShawn Ajamu made us laugh and cry in equal measure as they shared the personal tragedies that brought them together, as well as the uplifting story of their marriage and their united efforts to bring an end to the death penalty and support others who have suffered at its hands.

Kwame – formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman - was arrested in 1975, along with his brother Wiley and good friend Ricky Jackson, for the robbery and murder of a U.S. money order salesman. He was just 17 years old at the time, and was convicted based on the false testimony of a 12-year-old boy, Edward Vernon. Vernon lied about what he had seen, and when he later tried to change his story the police threatened to target his mother, who was dying of ovarian cancer at the time. Kwame says that he forgave Edward Vernon a long time ago, “because I realised that at 12, he had been victimised worse than me. They had used his dying mother to make him kill 3 people.”

This was the beginning of what Kwame describes as “a very sad and long atrocity” in the lives of himself, his brother and his friend. His brother Wiley suffered worst of all, because at the age of 20 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Over the course of his 39 years in prison, like many others, Wiley would be treated with so many different medications that he later had to be re-medicated with an antidote for the drugs he had been given.

Kwame spent 3 years on death row, “cursing God and the Devil and everybody else that I could think of”, asking why this would happen to a 17-year-old boy. The only answer he got was that sometimes good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people – he just happened to be in that particular time frame where bad things came his way. It was then that he became an abolitionist, and vowed to fight for the rest of his life to prevent the same thing happening to another child as it did to him.

In 1978, the death penalty was overturned in Ohio and all the inmates on the row were moved to general population, with a few exceptions – including Kwame’s brother Wiley, who had just been re-tried and had to stay for a further nine months on the row until the necessary paperwork was completed. Kwame had to walk past Wiley’s cell to leave the row, but wished desperately that he could stay; he says it still kills him to think that he left his brother to suffer in that way.

When he left the row, Kwame realised that in order to survive, he would need to draw strength from his innocence, and be someone who “was able to let the rain fall off my back and keep stepping, and look for the sunshine on my face”. He came to understand that many of his fellow prisoners had suffered a lack of education, and with 3 others he had the idea to set up a school in the prison.

For nearly 20 years, he acted as an administrative clerk helping others to achieve educational status; he knows of men who couldn’t write their names, who now have degrees. When new inmates arrived at the prison, Kwame would test them and if they didn’t read at a sixth grade level, he would send them to school – no matter how much bigger than him they were, or how much they threatened to fight him!

Kwame always had a single goal in mind: to get out of prison so that he could help his brother and his friend, and clear all their names. He had no idea, however, that the authorities were watching and recording the work he was doing the whole time. In 2002, the deputy warden Dennis Baker wrote a letter commending him for his efforts, saying that “his commitment has provided offenders with a sense of purpose, direction and high self-esteem”. The letter also recognised Kwame’s contribution to the NAACP chapter at the Richland Correctional Institution (RiCI), for which he was Director of Re-entry and Financial Planning, and implemented a pre-release programme to help others prepare resumes, cover letters and phone and email applications so that when they got out they would be less likely to come back. In writing the letter, Dennis Baker gave Kwame a chance, and a few months later he was granted parole and released from prison.

This was a bittersweet moment, however; he still had to clear his name, his brother and friend were still in prison, and he had lost most of his family - his mother, youngest brother, older sister, seven aunts, three uncles and his grandparents had all passed away while he was incarcerated, and he never got the chance to say goodbye. In fact his brother had died only 30 days before Kwame was released, after they had both waited so many years for that day to come.

It was the loss of Kwame’s mother in 1990 that led him to change his name. After 15 years in prison, he met with the parole board and was given a 5-year continuance. The decision was made on a Friday afternoon, but Kwame decided to wait and call his mother on Monday. Tragically, however, she died later that day and he never got to give her the news. At that moment, he decided the only way he could move forward was to bury Ronnie Bridgeman with her and start over as someone new. He researched a name that fit the person he wanted to become, and legally changed his name to Kwame Kamau Ajamu. Kwame means ‘born on Saturday’; Kamau means ‘silent warrior’ and ‘Ajamu’ means ‘he fights for what he wants’.

Despite all that he had lost, Kwame never became bitter, because he felt it would be a waste of time, and knew if he allowed himself to get angry about what had happened to him, he would end up finding a reason to hate everybody. Instead, he put his energy into his case, until in 2014 all three men were finally exonerated and Wiley and Ricky were released from prison after 39 years.

After his release in 2003, Kwame got a job at a recycling plant. One day on his way to work he met LaShawn, who was new in town and looking for the right bus. Kwame showed her where to go, and ended up riding the bus with her - for six months. On those journeys they talked and talked, and he told her everything that had happened to him. To his surprise she didn’t cringe but simply asked, “What are we going to do about it?” LaShawn always believed in her heart that Kwame was innocent, and after reading seven boxes of transcripts on his case, told him that she was never leaving. The couple met in February, moved in together in August, got married the following year - and have been together ever since.

Kwame is now Chairman of the Board of Directors of Witness to Innocence, a unique organisation that empowers its 156 members – who are all death row exonerees - to be at the forefront of the struggle against the death penalty. Through workshops and public speaking, they educate both the public and legislators about innocence and wrongful convictions, and also provide a network of mutual support and healing for the exonerated.

It took Kwame 39 years to prove his innocence to the world, but he says that it will take the rest of his life to deal with what happened. He still has bad dreams, and will never understand how human beings can do such vile things to each other in the name of God and good practice. Defeating the death penalty is a constant battle, and too much for any one person to deal with alone, but Kwame believes that if we come together and stay steadfast, we can prevent more families from being destroyed as his was.

LaShawn’s story began in 1997, when her brother James was brutally gunned down by a man called Terry Freeman in a road rage incident in Canton, Ohio. James was 20 years old, the proud father of an 18-month-old son, and like any young man of his age, full of hopes and dreams. LaShawn is grateful that she saw him earlier that day, when he hugged her and told her he loved her; now that’s all she has besides her nephew to remember her brother by.

After James’ murder, LaShawn and her family received no support from state or city agencies; the only help they had came from their church community. As the oldest daughter, LaShawn had to pay for the burial because her parents couldn’t cope. They never even received an apology, either from the authorities or James’ murderer; they were completely on their own.

LaShawn realised then that though state officials may say the purpose of the death penalty is to give victims’ families closure, that isn’t true. Although of course she wanted her brother’s murderer to serve time for what he had done, she knows that a death sentence would not have helped her family heal even if it had been sought in their case. Killing Terry Freeman wouldn’t have brought her brother back, and she strongly believes that only God has the right to decide who lives or dies – it’s not man’s responsibility to make that choice.

In fact, Freeman – who turned out to be the son of the former sheriff in the county – would serve only 90 days in jail before being acquitted, after a 3-day trial, on grounds of self defence. Because he was a local man, after the trial LaShawn and her family would still see him regularly around town, and her dad would get so upset that he used to start fights and throw cans at Freeman in the grocery store. Eventually LaShawn realised she couldn’t keep doing this to herself, and decided to leave town and move to Cleveland. Her parents stayed behind in Canton, so in February 2003 she found herself alone in a strange city, looking for her bus – and that’s when she met Kwame. She says he was like her knight in shining armour, and she really believes that God sent him to her at a time when she didn’t know if she could keep going.

Today, LaShawn is Co-Chair of Ohioans to Stop Executions, a coalition of individuals and organisations that work to bring an end to the death penalty, with a particular focus on the needs of victims’ families. LaShawn uses her own experience to support other family members who have suffered as she has, reassuring them that they’re not alone and she knows exactly what they’re going through. Every speaking engagement she does is dedicated to her mother, who passed away 8 months ago “with that emptiness in her heart for her son”. LaShawn remembers looking at her parents every day after James’ death, seeing the hurt on their faces and not being able to do anything about it.

Above all, LaShawn argues that instead of wasting resources on executions, the state of Ohio should be doing more for people who have lost loved ones to violent crime. She and her family would have benefited from grief counselling and other kinds of support, but they received nothing. 20 years later, LaShawn is still going through the grief of losing her brother, and believes that those who claim to be fighting for people like her are in reality only out for political gain.

It was an honour to be at the conference, to hear Kwame and LaShawn’s powerful stories of courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable horror and to witness the mutual love and respect they have for each other. Despite coming to the issue from such different circumstances, they are united in their passionate opposition to the death penalty, and a determination to keep fighting and never give up until the battle is won.

Written by Liz Dyer; Photos by Caz Dyer