Keith LaMar has been on death row for 20 years. He spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement and has little contact with the world outside his cell. He is facing capital punishment for a crime he did not commit. LaMar is among the 5 prisoners sentenced to death after the Lucasville prison uprising in 1993, one of the largest prison rebellions in history. Like the other 5 prisoners, LaMar’s refusal to cooperate with state prosecutors and correctional officials, whose actions prior to the uprising escalated tension to the breaking point, led him to be singled out, given an unfair trial and convicted on unsupported witness testimony.
On Monday, “Condemned,” a film about LaMar’s case, was screened at Soapbox Books & Zines, a lending library in Northside. The documentary made by local filmmaker Barbara Wolf examines the flimsy evidence against LaMar and exposes an array of misconduct before, during and after his trial. For example, LaMar was convicted of a murder during the uprising that another person admitted to in earlier testimony. The state swept the admission under the rug in return for that individual’s cooperation. In another instance, a witness first testified that he didn’t know who LaMar was and that LaMar wasn’t active in the uprising, then later testified that he saw LaMar leading an apparent death squad that killed 5 inmates. The defense were never provided with any information about the dubious testimonies, a violation of LaMar’s constitutional rights.
LaMar’s is now in limbo. In November, a hearing of oral arguments was held in the 6th district court in Cincinnati to determine whether Keith will get a new trial in light of all the misconduct 20 years ago. By all accounts, the hearing went well, but LaMar was barred from attending to defend himself, the latest in decades of injustice. It may be as late as spring 2016 before a ruling is made. The hope is that LaMar’s original conviction will be thrown out, and the state will not attempt to retry allowing him to finally walk free.
In the meantime, LaMar is continuing to do all he can from behind the walls of the Ohio State Penitentiary where he is now confined. During a lengthy question and answer session held over the phone after the screening, LaMar talked about a number of topics, ranging from his own case, to his thoughts on the struggles on the ground in Ferguson and across the country. He offered advice for activists, saying that “our role”–he rightly includes himself—”is education… you have people coming out without really knowing why…the people who know better are the ones who have the responsibility to educate them.” Because, as he said “anger doesn’t sustain a movement, education does.”
Also joining the discussion were Wolf and Amy Gordiejew, who edited LaMar’s book. In making the film, Wolf traveled some 4000 miles to get interviews with exonerated death row prisoners, prison abolition activists and LaMar’s family. Gordiejew explained that she takes LaMar everywhere–via the phone–from college campuses in North America and Europe, to other prisons where he talks about his case and the greater systemic issues. Wolf and Gordiejew’s tireless work to bring LaMar’s story to the outside world is often thankless, but absolutely necessary for justice to be served.
“It wasn’t until we took our lives into our own hands, utilized our own agency, that things changed. The system is set up to convince you that you shouldn’t even try.”
The timing of the screening was significant–LaMar’s lengthy comments on ferguson, the prison industrial complex and what it’s like to spend Martin Luther King day behind bars (there was no special meal like there is on Christmas and Thanksgiving), were more coherent and relevant than any of the offerings of President Obama who gave his state of the union just a day later. For Obama, Ferguson is just something Republicans and Democrats disagree over. But for LaMar it’s much more. In early January, an exchange between LaMar and Siddique Abdullah Hasan, another Lucasville death row inmate in the same prison, was posted online. In it, LaMar tied the issues of our day together, saying. “global warming and climate change which, on the surface, seems disconnected from the present problems of police brutality, poverty, mass incarceration, etc., but beneath it all is this relentless push for profits over people.”
Back in the Q&A, LaMar tied his personal struggle against the daily oppression of prison life to the larger movement. He told of how he and a number of other inmates stood up for themselves, explaining that he was apathetic, and “was made to feel that way.” “It wasn’t until we took our lives into our own hands, utilized our own agency, that things changed.” That took real courage, in 2012, he and other inmates (including Hasan) went on a hunger strike for improved conditions, including expanded phone privileges. And it took a leap of faith, because, as LaMar explained “the system is set up to convince you that you shouldn’t even try.”
LaMar ended with a quote “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is the ultimate message–the struggle is bigger than just a single case of wrongful imprisonment. He sees his experience as a piece of evidence that indicts the entire system, one that needs to be dismantled, and that we need to do that dismantling as one. This echoes a statement from the beginning of the film “I hope you will join the fight, not just to undo what was done to me, but to undo the injustice of a system that is too often as a weapon against the poor; against nameless faceless individual whose story we will never know. Let’s fight them together.”
And we shall.
View the documentary on youtube.
To stay up to date about LaMar’s case, visit http://www.keithlamar.org/
Originally written for Streetvibes.