IT was like any other day in St Louis, Missouri, that August 1984. St Louis native Ndume Olatushani was driving home when he was suddenly pulled over by the police.
After running a background check on him, the police took him into custody as a suspect to a robbery and murder that occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1983. Olatushani, who was then 26, had never even been to the city that was about 500km away from St Louis.
“How my name came up was never completely explained but the only reason they began to look for possible suspects in St Louis was because the car used in the crime was stolen from a rental car company at the St Louis airport,” he says.
Police took the then father of two young children to Tennessee, where he was eventually charged with the crime.
“I didn’t have any reason to believe it would go beyond the point that it actually did because I thought they would quickly figure out that I wasn’t person they wanted for the crime,” says Olatushani, now 61.
It would, however, be another 28 years before he would step out into freedom from behind bars.
In December 1985, he stood for trial, with an all white jury finding him guilty of the crime in a matter of days and deciding that the death sentence was the most appropriate punishment for the “crime”.
Olatushani spent 20 years on death row, during which he was kept locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and could only shower twice a week.
During the one hour of “freedom” he had everyday outside in the recreation yard, he had to wear shackles around his hands and feet.
He eventually took up art in prison, and it was this art that saved his life.
It all started when he “hired” a fellow inmate to do a portrait of him, he says.
“Disappointingly, the portrait looked nothing like me. I thought that I could have done a better job and saved my money.”
So he started drawing, before moving on to painting, Olatushani shares as he takes out his phone to show the art pieces he had done in prison.
It took him two years to master it, he adds, “I was always painting what I wanted to see and what was in my imagination.”
One was a picture of a boy carrying a pail of water on his head titled Balance and another was of a mother feeding her child titled Nurture Your Children.
His relatives and various abolitionist organisations helped him to get painting materials.
It was through his art that he met Anne-Marie Moyes, who worked for a non-profit organisation that was planning a prison art show to raise awareness on death penalty.
She learned about his situation and the rest was history, says Olatushani.
Anne-Marie, who would later become his wife, with lawyer David Herrington started to fight for his freedom through the courts.
In 2004, Olatushani was re-sentenced to life in prison after the Tennessee Supreme Court found that prosecutors did not disclose important information to the defence.
And in 2011, he was awarded a new trial in light of new information which indicated that the witnesses in his old trial might have been motivated to protect other suspects.
He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in his new trial.
“If not, I would have to wait much longer in prison,” says Olatushani.
Although he hasn’t been exonerated, he is just happy to be free to get on with life outside a prison cell.
Olatushani now works with an organisation that looks at children’s rights.
He says he never resigned himself to the idea that he would be executed and always continued to fight as he knew he was innocent.
“If not, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I think now in life I can feel we are wherever we are supposed to be. I think that nothing is a mistake if you can learn from it, and in this case it wasn’t even my mistake.”
He says he read thousands of books ranging from law and psychology to anthropology while in prison.
“It might sound strange, but I did not begin to live until I was facing the prospect of death.”
According to Olatushani, while most of those on death row confessed to their crimes, there were those who pleaded innocent.
“There is this propagated lie where everybody says they are innocent. But when you go inside, people have no problem telling they did this and that,” he says.
As an anti-death penalty advocate, he says that besides the fact that innocent people are going to be executed for “s***” they didn’t do, a society cannot be civilised for utilising the death penalty.
Olatushani can also speak against the death penalty as family of murder victims – his brother and sister were murdered.
His 65-year-old sister was shot in cold blood in front of her home for an unknown reason.
“It happened, but I can’t do anything about it. It is obviously horrible stuff.
“You can take somebody like that and put them in prison. And I’m not even saying that they should be there for the rest of their life.
“With proper prison systems, you can give them tools to become a better person and they can become productive people in society,” he says.
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