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Exonerated from death row, panelists address legal professionals in Eagle County
exonerated folks
Basalt Police Sgt. Aaron Munch (left) and Chief Greg Knott (right) pose with the three exonerated death row survivors who spoke at an event this week in Eagle. Photo by Megan Tackett

By Megan Tackett, Special to the RFWJ

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News.

A 12-year-old boy’s testimony cinched the murder conviction that would take 39 years from Kwame Ajamu, then Ronnie Bridgeman. Of course, the boy’s mother was dying of ovarian cancer and police told him that if he didn’t testify, they would forcibly remove her from the hospital — but Ajamu wouldn’t learn that for many more years.

“That kid would be 53 at the time of my exoneration,” he told a room full of mostly prosecutors, police officers and judicial employees at the Eagle County Building Monday evening. “I was just 17 years old. I was tried, convicted and sentenced to die all before my 18th birthday.” 

That was in 1975. He was exonerated in December of 2014, thanks in large part to the Ohio Innocence Project reopening his case after Edward Vernon, that 12-year-old boy who’d been coerced into falsely testifying, recanted his testimony in 2011.

Now, Ajamu serves as the chairman of the board of directors for Witness to Innocence, a national advocacy organization that seeks “to abolish the death penalty by empowering exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones to become effective leaders in the abolition movement,” according to its website.

He was also one of the three death row exonerees to share a survival story during a panel discussion hosted by the Eagle County District Attorney’s Office.   

There was also Sabrina Butler-Smith, who as a teenager was convicted in Mississippi for the capital murder of her 9-month-old son, Walter. 

“I too was 17,” she told the 25 or so people in attendance. “I used to go jogging when I was younger. I put [my son] to sleep and left him in the house — that was my mistake.”

When Butler-Smith returned, Walter wasn’t breathing.

“I didn’t know what to do. I applied adult CPR to a 9-month old all the way to the hospital,” she continued. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d charge me with murder.”

In fact, she didn’t even learn she was being charged while she sat in a jail cell for two weeks, and she said that her defense attorneys were noticeably drunk during her first trial in 1990. Butler-Smith was exonerated in 1995, becoming the first woman in United States history to be exonerated from death row, after British civil rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith took an interest in her case.

But before the exoneration, Butler-Smith was terrified.

“‘You will die here,’” she recalled a security guard telling her. “When he said that, I knew my life was over. You have to have good constitution to withstand that kind of treatment. I never had no parents; I never got to grieve for my son.”

While serving her sentence, she made good use of her time. She earned her general educational development certificate, or GED, after having dropped out of school in the ninth grade. 

“You have to open yourself up. This is what you got left,” she said. 

Amaju similarly found ways to be productive while in state custody, starting vocational schools in prison for his fellow inmates.

“I was state raised. I implemented these things in the institution that I should be a millionaire for today,” he said, adding that some of his systems are still used today. 

But no matter his achievements, the stigma and fear were always there. 

“The truth of the matter was, I was completely innocent. People … the depths of how brutally insane their minds and the depths of their inner voice screams, ‘Help me! I didn’t do this; I’m innocent!’” he said.

The irony for Amaju was that as a boy, he’d wanted to be a police officer. He’d always held the men and women in uniform in the highest possible regard, he explained.

A sense of betrayal was a common theme in Monday’s presentations, as were poverty and lack of education. While Amaju and Butler-Smith felt betrayed by the system, Gary Drinkard’s betrayal came from family.

“I still don’t know why,” Drinkard said of his half-sister, whose testimony was a mainstay of the prosecution’s evidence. “We were planning her son’s birthday party.”

The reason, it turned out, was that Drinkard’s half-sister and her common-law husband were facing their own unrelated criminal charges. Those charges were dismissed in exchange for testifying against Drinkard in the 1995 trial for robbery and murder. 

“I went straight to death row,” he said. “I wrote everybody I could an address for begging for help.”

In 2000, the Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged official misconduct by the prosecution and ordered a retrial. Drinkard was acquitted in 2001. 

“Alabama would have killed me, but the prosecutors got too greedy,” he said.

Unfortunately, misconduct is a major contributing factor to wrongful conviction exonerations — about 50 percent, according to numbers by the National Registry of Exonerations presented at the event. 

Witness to Innocence Board Vice Chair Elizabeth Zitrin, who moderated the panel, acknowledged that prosecutorial misconduct is a touchy subject to discuss in a room full of prosecutors and police — but having the conversation is critical, everyone agreed.

“This is a project we do as part of an ongoing and increasing national dialogue about … public safety, basically,” Zitrin said. “I think that’s something we can all agree on: We all want to be safe in our homes and our families safe. If we convict people that didn’t commit the crime, it means of course that we’ve done something terrible to those people, and we’ve also left the actual perpetrators out in our communities.”

Eagle County Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum agreed. She also expressed anger on behalf of the presenters. Two of the officers in the room were Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott and Sgt. Aaron Munch. 

“They brought a whole different perspective that I’d not experienced in my career of law enforcement,” Knott said, adding that he left feeling upset for the panelists. “It was quite concerning of the experiences that those three individuals went through due to individuals not doing their jobs. It’s quite sad.”

That said, Knott also left feeling proud of the agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley, especially after hearing Zitrin’s recommendations for best practices to avoid wrongful convictions.

“Everything she says, we have that written in policy or procedure or practice,” he said. “So it makes me feel good hearing her say those things and just reinforcing what we’re doing. With Basalt being in two judicial districts, both of those district attorney offices are very conscientious and very good at what they do. And law enforcement itself is I believe very compassionate and works to find answers to the questions rather than jumping to conclusions.”