Making a difference for those wrongly accused

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To the Editor:
Following the murder of George Floyd, a group began kneeling at Beetlebung Corner to honor the lives of Black, indigenous and people of color harmed or killed by law enforcement. During a virtual vigil on Feb. 28, we learned about Pervis Payne, a Black man with intellectual disabilities on death row in Tennessee who has maintained his innocence for 34 years. Through Pervis, we met Ndume Olatushani, who spent 28 years in prison, 20 years on death row with Pervis; Ndume was exonerated via an Alford plea in June 2012. Ndume found art as a way of self-expression, and began creating vibrant and powerful paintings while on death row in his drab, 4- by 9-foot cell. 

“Disrupt Death Row: Art & Justice,” a fundraising event held at the Kara Taylor Gallery in Chilmark on July 31, benefited the Free Pervis Payne Campaign and the Innocence Project. Joining ongoing efforts in Pervis’ fight for justice and helping to launch Ndume’s career as an artist, the DDR event also underscored the tremendous impact that a collective effort can create. It simply would not have been possible without the many generous donations of time, talents, and resources from individuals from the Island and afar. A deep gratitude of thanks go to the following Island businesses: DJ Dave Kish, Dena Porter Photography, Donorama’s Nursery, Landscaping and Floral Design, Dottie’s Potties, Joe Farina Videography, Kara Taylor Gallery, Kitchen Porch Catering, Morning Glory Farm, Nomans, Our Market, Rosewater Market, Sherman Associates, Sweet Life Cafe, and Vintage MV Wine and Spirits.

One of the greatest measures of success was hearing from attendees who were changed by the firsthand stories of those who have been impacted by an unjust and racist system. For many, the DDR event was the ignition for real and meaningful change, the beginning of a radical movement, and a beacon of hope for Ndume, Pervis, and the countless others we fight for. Pervis and his family are helping us understand that it takes committed and caring people to save the lives of the wrongfully convicted. Through the power of art, Ndume conveyed the indescribable and the intangible, transcending physical boundaries and opening our hearts and minds to dismantling the past and creating a better future.

We are thrilled that we exceeded our fundraising goal, raising a total of $60,132.35, above and beyond the money that Ndume earned and received for his art sales. The Free Pervis Campaign will be gifted a donation of $45,132.35, and donations of $5,000 each will be gifted to the New England Innocence Project in Cambridge; the Tennessee Innocence Project in Nashville, Tenn.; and the Korey Wise Innocence Project in Boulder, Colo. 

The DDR has created a ripple effect with impacts beyond the Island, as evidenced by reflections from the beneficiaries:

  • “The funds will be used to support the grassroots efforts of citizens across the country who are seeking a commutation for Pervis Payne.”  –Rolanda Holman, organizer, Free Pervis Payne Campaign
  • “I just wanted to say that we were blown away to receive such a generous gift from your organization. It is incredibly meaningful to TIP and our clients! Tennessee was one of the last states without a full-time organization, and I’m incredibly proud of the team we have and the work they are doing. None of this would be possible without supporters like y’all.” –Jessica Van Dyke, executive director and lead counsel, Tennessee Innocence Project
  • “Correcting injustice — whether it be freeing one person or confronting the system that put them there — requires passion, people, and resources. This contribution will empower us to continue fighting for freedom with people, families, and communities who have been harmed.” –Radha Natarajan, executive director, New England Innocence Project
  • The Korey Wise Innocence Project (KWIP) depends on private donations — like the generous gift from the Disrupt Death Row event — to pay for DNA testing, hire experts, and cover all of the costs of litigating our cases. Donations also support our work for legislative reform. In addition to exonerating the wrongfully convicted in individual cases, we push for reforms to our broken criminal legal system to prevent miscarriages of justice at the front end.” –Anne-Marie Moyes, director, Korey Wise Innocence Project

 

The statistics of wrongful convictions are sobering:

  • Since 1973, more than 185 people have been exonerated from death row; 99 of them are Black.
  • In the U.S., the longest wrongful incarceration on record is nearly 50 years.
  • Collectively, clients of the Innocence Network organizations have spent more than 10,400 years wrongfully incarcerated.
  • According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 32 innocent people from Tennessee, 11 innocent people from Colorado, and 126 innocent people from the New England region (80 from Massachusetts) have been exonerated since 1989.

 

It’s one thing to quote statistics about wrongful convictions. It’s entirely different to hear the personal testimonies of people who have been wrongfully convicted, and how wrongful imprisonment has impacted their lives, their families, and their communities. Systemic racism and oppression infects almost every aspect of American life. The disparities and injustices against Black, Indigenous and people of color in our criminal justice system are painfully obvious in policing, sentencing, mass incarceration, and capital punishment; healthcare and reproductive rights; education and training; housing; employment; media portrayals; and much more. These disparities and injustices are a shameful part of our legacy, past and present.

We consider the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and we consider what Ndume said about how “knowledge makes us responsible.” We are choosing to continue to push for an end to systemic racism by disrupting death row, together. If you would like to join us in the fight to free Pervis Payne, we welcome you to visit bit.ly/DDRopt-in.

Lisette Williams
Amy Cody
For the Planning committee of Disrupt Death Row