The Shaka Sankofa Case Details...
It doesn't look good for Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham). A death warrant has been signed and he faces execution in Texas on June 22. The odds against him beating the lethal injection are monumental in a state where 131 people alone have been executed under Gov. George Bush's watch, and more than 400 are waiting , on death row.
But the odds against Sankofa, his adopted name indicative of a political consciousness nurtured over 19 years of incarceration, have never been good. A high school dropout with a mother troubled by mental illness, Sankofa was charged with killing a white man during an attempted robbery in 1981. There was a rash of crimes that followed this incident, and Sankofa was arrested and pleaded guilty to 10 cases of aggravated assault, including a rape charge that was later dropped.
His next stroke of bad luck occurred when attorney Ronald Mock was appointed by a judge to represent him, since Harris County has no public defender system. But represent is hardly the word, if we can believe a recent story in The New York Times in which Mock is portrayed as absolutely incompetent. Mock practically boasts that he has more clients sentenced to death than any lawyer in the country. Is there any validity at all to the article?
"All of it's true," said Jack Zimmermann, who along with Dick Burr has taken on Sankofa's case, filing appeal after appeal before the state's pardons and parole board. Without saying it, Zimmermann agreed that the lawyer had "Mocked" things up so much that it has been virtually impossible to get any relief.
"With each appeal we have been told that the questions we raise should have been raised during his trial," Zimmermann explained. "We are in a catch-22. And they seem to be reluctant to issue the reprieve we need, to get a new trial." .
Sankofa's request for a new trial is similar to the demand supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal have been making for almost the same amount of time. Having his trial botched by an inept lawyer, a single eyewitness and a forensic report that seems incredible, Sankofa's plight has even more in common with Abu-Jamal's. The two death row inmates are bound also by the fact that neither were able to present key eyewitnesses prepared to vouch for the men's innocence.
Two eyewitnesses, who were working at the Safeway market when the murder occurred, insist that Sankofa was not the killer. Both witnesses said the killer was under 5'5"; Sankofa is 5'10". As in Abu-Jamal's case, the prosecution's forensic evidence does not connect Sankofa to the crime.
According to ballistics reports, the .22-caliber gun Sankofa possessed when he was arrested could have been the murder weapon. It was mostly on this uncontested fact and the unshakable testimony of eyewitness Bernadine Skillern that Sankofa was convicted. But Mock did not challenge her or cross-examine on the grounds of possible mistaken identity, Zimmermann said. He stated firmly: "Mr. Mock put up no defense.
"Yes, the situation for Shaka is grave, but we have not lost hope," Zimmermann asserted.
He noted that there has been increased media attention to the case, including all the major news networks. "Yesterday, from nine in the morning until late in the evening, we were fielding interviews and running from one television show to another. We are building momentum now, and it may not be too little and too late."
While the whole race for life depends on a stay from the governor, who has to be nudged by the board of pardons and parole, Sankofa supporters are optimistic with the news that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has joined the cry for a new trial. Zimmermann said the appeal team is gladdened to hear that a report on the death penalty by James Leib-man, a professor of law at Columbia University, finds that two out of three convictions were overturned on appeal, mostly because of serious errors by incompetent defense lawyers or overzealous cops who withheld evidence. "This news should help us because I have never seen a case like this with such a compelling and stark set of facts pointing to a man's innocence," Zimmermann said.