Keith LaMar has spent 33 years in jail, practically all of it in solitary confinement. He’s scheduled to be executed in Ohio subsequent 12 months, after being convicted within the 1993 killing of 5 fellow inmates throughout a jail riot.
However a cadre of jazz musicians led by Albert Marquès, a pianist, composer and New York Metropolis schoolteacher, is satisfied he’s not responsible. And so they’ve determined to place music to work as a software to assist LaMar, who they are saying was denied a good trial within the inmate deaths and ought to be granted a brand new one.
“I consider he’s harmless,” Marquès stated in an interview. “However should you don’t consider that he’s harmless? Cool. Agree, not less than, to guage him once more. Reopen the case. Let him show that what he tried to say, however he was not ever capable of say, is fake or true. Give him one other likelihood.”
For greater than a 12 months, Marquès has organized live shows to attract consideration to LaMar’s case. He’s a part of a wider group of civic activists and attorneys — the “Justice for Keith LaMar” campaign — that argues the federal government illegally withheld inmate statements that would have helped LaMar at trial and supplied inmates who testified in opposition to him leniency and particular offers.
A formidable roster of jazz professionals, together with Salim Washington, Brian Jackson, Arturo O’Farrill and Caroline Davis, have performed on the Freedom First live shows, which started on a broiling afternoon in August 2020 on the Grand Military Plaza in Brooklyn, the place some 25 musicians carried out in the midst of a pandemic. There had not been a single rehearsal. That they had no allow. The sound gear was cobbled collectively. The price range nonexistent.
Three live shows later, Marquès and the others are producing an album this month along side LaMar. A 12 months within the making, it is going to characteristic remarks and poetry by LaMar, a tenth grade dropout who has educated himself in jail by studying Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Cornel West, in addition to jazz from sympathetic musicians who’ve recorded covers and recent compositions from areas together with Spain and Oregon.
“To fulfill somebody like Keith LaMar, who’s not solely incarcerated, however on demise row, unfairly, unjustly, it’s a heavy factor,” stated Washington, a tenor saxophonist and jazz educator with a doctorate from Harvard. “However the heat that he has as a human, and the class and eloquence that he has as a scholar, and simply the cost that he has for himself, and that he’s capable of exude to the remainder of us, is a factor of magnificence.”
Past music’s primal energy to sooth, energize and encourage, it has helped focus consideration on the pleas of these incarcerated for crimes they are saying they didn’t commit. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer convicted of homicide, spent nearly a decade in jail earlier than Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” raised the profile of his case. He was finally freed years later.
Marquès, who by day leads the music division on the Institute for Collaborative Schooling in Manhattan, just isn’t Bob Dylan. Nonetheless, his efforts drew practically 100 folks final November to the newest Freedom First live performance inside a black field theater at Northwestern College.
When the jail riot erupted in 1993, LaMar, a former drug seller, was serving an 18-years-to-life sentence after pleading responsible in 1989 to fatally capturing a person, a drug person and childhood pal, who he stated had tried to rob him.
Authorities stated that throughout the riot, LaMar turned an enforcer and used the chaos of a cellblock takeover by different prisoners to kill inmates who some seen as “snitches.”
LaMar is adamant that he had no position within the killing of the inmates throughout what turned often called the Lucasville jail rebellion, an 11-day siege throughout which some inmates seized hostages and a cell block to protest circumstances.
Ten folks, 9 inmates and a guard, died.
LaMar suggests he was a handy scapegoat for officers, an inmate who loudly objected to jail circumstances and who had refused to cooperate within the riot investigation.
“I believe they got here to me beneath the impression that I’d plead responsible,” LaMar stated in an interview. “And I believe that that was a manner for them to essentially type of sweep these instances beneath the desk.”
However a number of appeals courtroom selections have gone in opposition to him, and the prosecutors who dealt with the case, Invoice Anderson and Seth Tieger, stay unswayed.
“To Invoice and I, he’s extraordinarily responsible, he’s the place he belongs: on demise row,” Tieger stated in an interview. “However all of this was introduced out on the trial and in all of his totally different appeals, and no one has believed that something was accomplished mistaken in any respect, and that this demise sentence has been upheld constantly all over this.”
The riot on the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility was triggered by the warden’s demand that inmates undergo tuberculosis testing that Sunni Muslim inmates objected to on non secular grounds. LaMar was in a recreation yard, ready to re-enter his cell block, when inmates inside overpowered the guards and took management. He stated he briefly went in, meaning to seize some private belongings, however was advised by one of many riot leaders that if he didn’t need to be concerned within the takeover, he needed to go away.
“And so I got here again out onto the yard with out retrieving my property,” LaMar stated. He stated he remained there till two or three within the morning.
Prosecutors stated LaMar truly stayed contained in the cell block, killing or ordering the killing of 4 inmates there, and a fifth inmate the following day after being positioned in a separate cell block with different prisoners because the riot continued.
Within the aftermath of the chaos, the crime scenes have been too contaminated for investigators to seek out forensic proof, corresponding to DNA, to assist establish the killers. So witness statements turned vital.
However earlier than the trial, when it got here time to assessment who had recognized LaMar within the killings, prosecutors balked at turning over the statements. The entire inmates had been promised confidentiality, they stated.
The prosecutors requested the decide to resolve what info to provide the defendant. The decide dominated that the names of 43 inmates who had been interviewed by investigators ought to be turned over to the protection. Individually, prosecutors have been to show over 11 pages of transient summaries, with none names hooked up.
It was the protection’s job to determine who had stated what — an almost unimaginable job, even with the extra time and funds the decide supplied, stated Herman Carson, one in all LaMar’s trial attorneys.
“That listing of names and statements, it was like, ‘Choose, you would give me one other 5 years; these guys aren’t going to speak if we simply stroll in there chilly and say, ‘Hey, which one in all these 43 statements did you make?’” Carson stated.
Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Challenge, and Justin Murray, an affiliate professor at New York Legislation College who researches disclosure disputes in legal proceedings, referred to as the decide’s choice uncommon, one which unfairly handicapped LaMar’s attorneys.
“Folks have tried to reopen the Lucasville instances, and it looks as if the courts are identical to, ‘Oh, that is that black gap referred to as Lucasville,’” Godsey stated. “‘We’re not going to take a look at it.’”
Given the demise of the jail guard, LaMar’s trial in 1995 was moved to keep away from any prejudicial local weather to the adjoining county, simply 30 miles away and in addition overwhelmingly white. Prosecutors used peremptory challenges to take away the one two Black potential jurors, so LaMar’s case was heard by an all-white jury.
Eight inmates testified that LaMar was concerned within the killings. Six, together with Stacey Gordon, stated LaMar had led the “demise squad.” However a 12 months earlier, Gordon had given a sworn assertion to investigators wherein he stated he had not seen LaMar within the cell block, and that he didn’t know who LaMar was.
That assertion was by no means turned over to the protection, one in all a quantity that protection attorneys have argued would have helped LaMar, however have been withheld. Initially charged with tried homicide and 7 counts of assault in reference to the riot, Gordon testified after reaching a plea settlement for less than two assaults.
Dana Hansen Chavis, a lawyer for LaMar, stated Gordon’s assertion may have been used to question his credibility and will have been turned over beneath the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to reveal exculpatory proof to the protection.
“Earlier than we, as a society, truly undergo with taking the lifetime of one other human being,” Chavis stated in an interview, “I consider that we have to be completely certain that society has adopted the entire guidelines in posing the punishment and is totally certain that that particular person is responsible of the crime.”
The prosecutors stated that they’d not withheld any proof that was exculpatory from LaMar’s attorneys.
“They have been very, very aggressive attorneys,” Tieger stated. “And we turned over every thing that we have been required to beneath the principles of discovery.”
LaMar took the stand at trial and testified that he had not been concerned within the killings. 5 inmates testified for the protection, 4 of whom stated they’d seen LaMar within the recreation yard shortly after the riot began. Two stated they noticed him within the yard all through the day.
However the jury finally convicted LaMar within the murders and sentenced him to demise, a call that has been upheld by a number of appeals.
In ruling in opposition to LaMar, some appellate panels discovered that, even when the withheld proof had been exculpatory, it might not have outweighed different proof and led to a distinct verdict. A number of discovered that any withheld proof was not “materials” to his protection as a result of they stated statements from inmates who implicated themselves or others within the killings didn’t preclude LaMar from having had a job, since so many prisoners had taken half.
Dwayne Svette, the son of one of many inmates LaMar was convicted of killing, stated these making an attempt to assist LaMar are misguided.
“I perceive,” Svette stated, “that there’s been folks on demise row earlier than and so they’ve bought launched as a result of some proof got here up the place they was truly not the individuals who did the crime. However that’s not the case on this man.”
For many who have taken up LaMar’s trigger, the proof that he has been handled unjustly seems fairly substantial and so they have been equally impressed by his drive to overturn the decision. In 2013, he spent eight months writing “Condemned,” an autobiographical guide that particulars his expertise from the day of the rebellion by his time on demise row. LaMar wrote the memoir on a typewriter, then dictated the story over the cellphone to a pal who transcribed every phrase.
Throughout his time in jail, LaMar turned a scholar of jazz, and credit the music — particularly “A Love Supreme,” the jazz journey by John Coltrane — with educating him to improvise, to keep away from being engulfed by his personal anger. The Coltrane work is commonly performed on the Freedom First live shows.
LaMar got here to the eye of the musicians after talking to Mother Jones about his case and his expertise in making the most effective use of his time whereas in solitary confinement. Brian Jackson, a jazz musician who ceaselessly collaborated with Gil Scott-Heron, then reached out to LaMar and so they created a podcast about music and justice that attracted extra curiosity.
LaMar usually calls in to the Freedom First live shows from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown to say hiya, provide remarks and poetry and hearken to the music, his phrases at occasions interrupted by a tinny voice.
“This name,” the voice says, “is originating from an Ohio correctional facility, and could also be recorded and monitored.”
On a bitterly chilly Saturday in mid-November, LaMar referred to as into the Northwestern theater exterior Chicago for the newest live performance. He learn poetry, each others’ and his personal, like his poem “Tell ’Em the Truth.”
“Kids of slaves who braved the worst of it, so we, their kids and grandchildren, may benefit from it,” LaMar learn. “To protect us from the ache of realizing the reality, they by no means defined what sort of society we have been born into.”
The live performance had opened with a Coltrane piece: “Alabama,” which some consider the jazz nice wrote in response to the killing of 4 African American women in a 1963 bombing of the sixteenth St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Later, the composer and alto saxophonist Caroline Davis blew the primary haunting notes of “A Love Supreme” — the music that LaMar says freed him, not less than internally.
“This music was born out of struggling, I believe,” Davis, a former composer-in-residence on the MacDowell Colony, stated in an interview. “That essence of it’s what, in its musical kind, folks can really feel. Folks can sense that struggling. However there’s additionally a variety of pleasure within the music.”
Marquès stated he’s hopeful in regards to the ability of the music to broaden support for LaMar’s case. However, he stated, he had already benefited personally: LaMar, who he met in person final summer time, has develop into one in all his finest associates.
“There’s a human connection,” he stated, “that goes past these partitions which might be between us. And it’s very highly effective. All of this comes from love.”
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting from Illinois. Susan Beachy contributed analysis.
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