Ndume Olatushani (Erskine Johnson) was released from a Tennessee prison on Friday, June 1. He served 26 years, 11 months and 5 days – most of them on death row.
Ndume was charged with a shooting death during a holdup in 1983. His palm print was found in the getaway car, and a witness testified that Ndume confessed. In fact, he was in St. Louis at his mother’s birthday party when the crime occurred, but he was convicted and sentenced to death.
After countless appeals, in 2004 the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors did not give the defense a police report showing that Ndume could not have fired the crucial shot. Ndume was re-sentenced to life in prison, and moved off death row.
Last December, Ndume’s conviction was overturned. The court found that witnesses had close ties to other suspects, which could have led them to implicate Ndume. He was awarded a new trial, and his status changed to someone charged with a crime but not yet convicted. He was moved to a Memphis jail to await the new trial, for yet another year.
At the same time, the parole board agreed to release him, but because his conviction was vacated, there was no crime from which to parole him. He was offered a deal for immediate release if he pled guilty to second-degree murder and accepted a sentence of time served. Ndume took the deal. He was finally free.
Ndume is free because he had advocates. A top New York law firm. Countless pro bono hours. Activists opposing the death penalty. National organizations that called attention to his case. People from the churches – including UCC members and leadership – who visited, fostered relationships, offered testimony, and held him in the light. A family that stood by him.
Nudume is home. He has much to do. He must learn to use a cell phone, ride unshackled in a car, walk down a city street. We hope he will continue to paint, as he taught himself to do in his long years in prison. We also have much to do. There are too many with wrongful convictions. Too many on death row. Too many incarcerated.
Ndume sends you his thanks, from the depths of his heart. Your work allowed him to believe that one day, he would be free. That day has come.