Can you imagine how it would feel to spend one day in jail? What about 28 days? Imagine spending 28 years in prison – and facing the death penalty – for a crime you did not commit.
Ndume Olatushani knows how it feels to spend 28 years in prison for killing a man he had never seen. Olatushani and his wife, attorney Anne-Marie Moyes, spoke about his plight Thursday during a McMinnville Noon Rotary Club meeting.
Olatushani was wrongfully convicted of capital murder in 1985 and spent 28 years in prison – 20 of those on death row. Olatushani was sentenced to death for the murder of a Memphis grocery store owner, Joe Belenchia, which took place during a botched robbery.
Witnesses inside the store said the perpetrators drove away in a maroon station wagon. Police traced the license plate to a rental car business stationed at the St. Louis airport.
Olatushani said he had no idea how he became a suspect. He said he had never been to Memphis, or even to Tennessee, before his arrest.
Though family and friends insisted Olatushani was in his hometown of St. Louis and was attending his mother’s birthday party at the time of the crime, authorities still convinced a jury of his guilt, an all-white jury.
Moyes said, “They were able to impanel an all-white jury to hear their case against Ndume, an African-American defendant on trial for the death of a white store owner. Given that Memphis is a majority black city, the all-white composition of Ndume’s jury was particularly troubling.”
Olatushani said, “The prosecutor told the jury they had a fingerprint from the vehicle. But, he never told them my print didn’t match.”
Olatushani's original attorney had never tried a death-penalty case. He waived his opening statement at trial. He also overlooked some of Olatushani’s relatives who could have provided him a strong alibi — including his aunt, the wife of a police chief.
According to Moyes, “In over 60 percent of wrongful convictions, eyewitnesses were wrong. There were 10 people inside the store and no one could make a positive identification. I wish there was DNA evidence in Ndume’s case.”
Moyes spent 20 years trying to free Olatushani before he was finally freed on June 1, 2012, when he accepted an Alford plea.
The Dictionary of Politics: Selected American and Foreign Political and Legal Terms defines the term Alford plea as: “A plea under which a defendant may choose to plead guilty, not because of an admission to the crime, but because the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to place a charge and to obtain conviction in court.”
Olatushani was sentenced to time served.
Olatushani said his mother was his biggest supporter when he was first convicted. Unfortunately, she was killed in a car accident a couple of years into his incarceration.
“Before she passed away she was visiting me in prison and I was pretty angry about what had happened to me. I was at rock bottom. I told my mother, ‘I don’t know what I would do without you in my life.’ She said, ‘You will know what to do when the time comes.’ She was right. I always say, you can knock me down today, but if you come back tomorrow and I am still lying in the same spot on the ground, that is on me. It is my responsibility to pick myself back up,” Olatushani said. “I learned to channel my anger. While on death row, I taught myself how to paint. I received my GED in prison and took college classes. I had mental freedom even though I did not have physical freedom.”
Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for alternatives to the death penalty, was also present during the Noon Rotary meeting.
She said, “In Tennessee, a total of six people have been executed between 2000-2013. Three people on death row have been exonerated. They were either declared not guilty during a new trial or they had all charges dropped. Ndume took the Alford plea. Many changes are happening in the law because of DNA. DNA was not available years ago. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the death penalty, no one wants to see anyone executed who did not commit the crime. There are alternatives to the death penalty that are less costly for taxpayers, including life without parole.”
According to Rector, since 1973, 142 people have been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged.