The support group meeting is in full swing at the Father McKenna Center, a dimly lit, low-ceilinged room in the basement of St. Alosysius Catholic Church on North Capitol Street. Some are regulars and others have simply drifted in to escape the stifling humidity and oppressive noon glare. The side door is cracked open, letting in the constant wail of sirens and anyone searching for temporary sanctuary at this drop-in facility.
Every so often, a stocky man named Shabaka strides through the small room, past a sign that says, “But For The Grace of God,” to a refreshment table in the corner. In his frequent rounds, he replenishes beverages and delivers pastries and baked goods to the afflicted. Dressed in an apron, Shabaka performs these mundane tasks as if he were catering a breakfast banquet of church elders.
Oblivious to Shabaka’s presence, the meeting drones on in the hushed tones of sorrow and repentance. In front of a wall covered by the commandments of recovery, a man in a wheelchair addresses the sparse audience. He blames the usual culprits for his downfall: drinking and drugging. Now he’s slowly crawling out of his hellhole, day by day, moment by moment. He gulps his steaming coffee, takes a bite from a pastry, and opens the floor to the others. “Help me help somebody to recover,” he demands. “Somebody has got something to say that’s going to help somebody.”
A young woman, her hair done up fancy and wearing a pretty dress, tells about a job interview earlier that morning; she told her prospective employer about her criminal record, probably ruining any chance for the position. No matter how hard she tries, she says, she can’t stop stealing things. It’s like some sort of sickness she can’t shake.
The others nod in sympathy at the tales of woe that pour out of these confessers like the coffee and tea they guzzle from styrofoam cups.
Shabaka, the man in the apron, continues his duties as if he’s heard this talk hundreds of times. He knows what it’s like to be down and out. He knows what it is to be forgotten, and he knows much worsewhat it’s like to be left for dead, literally. His own saga trumps all these hard-luck stories put together.
In 1983, Shabaka was 15 hours from being executed in the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit. By then, he had already spent nearly a decade on death row in Florida, tirelessly claiming his innocence of the charges against himmurder, rape, and robbery. Shortly before his scheduled execution, he said his final goodbyes to his family and friends, and guards fitted him for his death suit. But Shabaka received a stay of execution, and he continued his fight. Four years later, an appeals court overturned his 1974 conviction, and he was a free man.
A decade later, Shabaka is quietly living up to a vow he made during his darkest days on death row: If he ever got out, he was going to “give something back.” For almost a year, he has been working as the food services supervisor at the McKenna Center. He also runs a support group three times a week at the facility, a shelter for the homeless, substance abusers, and anyone else in need.
Shabaka makes no big deal of his past. After his release, he made appearances on behalf of the national anti-capital punishment movement, and locally he spoke out during the ’92 referendum on the death penalty, which was resoundingly defeated by District voters. Ever since, only those who wander into the McKenna Center ever hear about Shabaka’s duel with death. Sometimes, during meetings, the subject of capital punishment comes up, and many will say they’re in favor of the death penalty. It’s only after Shabaka tells his astonished listeners how narrowly he eluded the electric chair that some begin to rethink their positions.
“Shabaka puts a human face on everything that’s wrong with the death penalty in this country,” says Sam Jordan, chairperson for the Dave Clarke Coalition to Stop the Death Penalty. Embracing a bevy of Washington civic and religious organizations, the group is crusading against legislation proposed by Mayor Marion Barry to reinstate the death penalty in the District for cop killers.
Like many critics of capital punishment, Jordan says the death penalty is racist, classist, and arbitrary, among other shortcomings. “What happened [in Shabaka’s case] is some poor black person has been convicted of a murder or rape of a white person, and that’s typical,” says Jordan.
Jordan knows that arguments about the excesses of capital punishment can fall flat without a flesh-and-blood victim. Accordingly, he wants to enlist Shabaka in the coalition’s lobbying campaign, which is now in full swing. “Shabaka is a modest person, and we respect that,” says Jordan. “But he is so articulate [on the issue], and that’s what we want him to do, talk to regular people in their homes.”
While he hasn’t ruled out helping the cause, Shabaka has made no decision. Though he counts some friends in the coalition, he says no one in the group has officially contacted him to speak out. He feels he was burned by advocacy groups in the past, and he is weary of being a mouthpiece. “I’m not going to be used like I was when I first got out,” he says. “If I do it now, it’s because I want to do it. It’s not for any movement; it’s something I believe in.”
Back in the summer of ’73, Shabaka was primarily interested in having a good time. A high-school dropout, Shabaka, then 23, made a living as a full-time welder in Tampa, Fla. He generally squandered his paychecks partying and chasing women.
One fateful night, Shabaka and two buddies went out drinking, popping pills, and club-hopping. After several hours of bingeing, though, they decided to burglarize some rooms at a Holiday Inn. The next morning, Shabaka turned himself in.
Earlier that day, on the other side of Tampa, a woman had been raped and murdered in a robbery at a boutique. She was the common-law wife of a prominent local attorney who boasted ties all the way up to the state house in Tallahassee. This wasn’t the sort of case that authorities could allow to go unsolved.
Under questioning from authorities, Shabaka implicated his friends in the burglariesa strategy that quickly backfired. One of the accomplices agreed to work with authorities to implicate Shabaka in the boutique murder. Detectives took the accomplice to the murder scene and schooled him on the details, and the prosecution cooked up a neat scenario that even included a fictional third party named Poochie. Shabaka’s nemesis cast himself as an innocent passenger in the car and claimed that he witnessed Shabaka murdering the woman.
Shabaka’s court-appointed attorney was making a jailhouse visit to discuss the burglary charges when he heard that Shabaka’s bond had been raised to more than $1 million. “They said to my lawyer, ‘Didn’t you know? Your man’s been charged with murder,’” Shabaka recalls. His immediate response was to laugh in disbelief, but the situation had gotten all too serious.
There was no evidence linking Shabaka to the murder scene, and he even had an alibi: At the time of the killing, he was repairing an air conditioner. An all-white jury heard the testimony and found him guilty. Then, after deliberating only an hour, the jury recommended the death penalty. Shabaka became the ninth person in Florida to be sentenced to death under a revised capital punishment statute that had been approved by the Supreme Court.
A recently transplanted South Carolinian, Shabaka says he was an easy target to take the rap, especially considering the racial climate at the time. “I was a noncitizen in Tampa; I had no family, no ties to the community,” he says. “And I was an ex-Black Panther with a big mouth.”
Years later, during his appeals process, court depositions revealed jurors making racist slurs during their deliberations. “Referring to my Black Panther activities, they said, ‘This nigger ain’t been nothing but trouble since he’s been here, and this nigger ain’t gonna be nothing but trouble ’til we get him off the street,’” recalls Shabaka.
Shabaka’s whirlwind ride from burglary suspect to convictedthough actually innocentmurderer on death row isn’t so rare. According to a report released in July by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, 69 people have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence has emerged. Since 1993, 21 condemned inmates have been released.
Opponents of the death penalty find dire omens in the report, which states, “The current emphasis on faster executions, less resources for defense, and an expansion in the number of cases mean that the execution of innocent people is inevitable.”
On a day off from work, Shabaka sits at a sandwich shop near the McKenna Center and sips black coffee, recalling how his grandson Ricky was born on the date that he was due to be executed.
His brand of gallows humor yields a rare grin, revealing a gap where his two front teeth should be. It’s a reminder of the savage beating he received the day before he was supposed to die. As guards fitted him for his death suit, Shabaka took offense at their brusqueness, and he lashed back. “It was dehumanizing,” he says. “They were treating me like an inanimate object, and I wasn’t going to allow them to do that.”
Death row dished out other indignities as well. In the final month before his scheduled execution, he was moved to a holding cell 30 feet from the electric chair. “In there, you’re treated to what we jokingly used to call the ‘presidential treatment,’” he says. “You sit in that cell and listen to that chair being tested twice a day in your honor. You hear the crackle of the electricity…”
Shabaka avoids calumny and remains calm as he recites the grimmest moments of his confinement. “He doesn’t show any bitterness or resentment,” says Charlie Sullivan, who works for CURE, a rehabilitative organization that shares space at St. Aloysius. “I’m so impressed with him as an individual and the way he handles himself,” says Sullivan.
It wasn’t always so. “For the first couple of years in jail, I had a grudge against every-damn-body,” Shabaka says. “I was angry at the system, I was angry at everybody involvedthe first few years I survived primarily on the strength of my hatred.”
He eventually found comfort in the Bible, the Koran, and other religious texts, but Shabaka had no patience for prison chaplains and no need for jailhouse conversions. “I’ve always been a spiritual person,” he says. Although his legal name has always been Joseph Green Brown, he had already chosen the name “Shabaka” (Swahili for “uncompromising teacher of truth”) years before his ordeal.
The name didn’t sway skeptics who considered his claims of innocence standard death-row disavowals. He’s the first to admit that he wasn’t some sort of upstanding citizen at the time of his arrest. “I don’t claim to be an angel,” he says. “I had done a lot of bad things in my life I had never been caught for. But I never hurt anyone. If there’s anything in my life I’m proud of, it’s that. Out of all the bare rotten shit I ever did in my life, Shabaka ain’t never hurt another human being, and that means a helluva lot to me.”
“Maybe I needed to go through that,” he murmurs, trying to find a purpose for his unjust punishment. “Maybe it was a blessing.”
In Florida, inmates are not guaranteed counsel during the appeals process. A few years after the conviction, Shabaka’s lawyer abandoned his case, and Shabaka only found out about the desertion by accident. “That’s when I realized that I was alone, and if something was going to happen, Shabaka had to do it.” He earned his GED and began studying law books, and he realized that he had been railroaded. “I read everything I could about the criminal justice system, and I saw that what I was reading wasn’t what the hell happened in my case.”
By 1981, he received support for his cause from the Legal Defense Fund. After reading the trial transcripts, Dick Blumenthal, a private attorney and former prosecutor, became convinced of Shabaka’s innocence and took up his cause pro bono. (Blumenthal is now Connecticut’s attorney general.) In 1987, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Florida ruled that the prosecution had knowingly allowed false testimony to be introduced at the trial.
After he was freed, it was no easy road for Shabaka. He relocated to Washington, D.C., and spoke out for the cause, but it didn’t help pay the bills. He worked as cab driver and truck driver. It was tough getting jobs, though, because would-be employers often balked at his singular history. “They want to know what happened in that 15-year gap in my résumé,” he says.
Now, 10 years later, Shabaka is repaying his “debt” to those who helped him escape death row by working at the McKenna Center. “I’m not down here because I’m making any money,” he says. Indeed, most of the bills are paid by his wife, a federal worker, with whom he lives in Maryland.
“A lot of people came to my rescue,” he says. “I believe that I help a lot of these fellows.”
He says he will help the anti-death penalty cause only on his own terms.
“I know there are other Shabakas out there [on death row],” he says. “And there are always gonna be Shabakas there.”CP