Note: This blog entry was written by Markese Osborne (pictured above), a Bethel University student who is studying criminal justice. Markese interned with TADP during his winter break.
During my internship with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, I heard about and read through numerous case studies of current and former death row inmates. I felt the best way for me to learn more and really gain a deeper understanding about the issues surrounding our broken death penalty system was to actually speak with someone who had served time on death row. I had the privilege to sit down and talk with Ndume Olatushani on December 19. Ndume spent 28 years behind bars, 19 of which were on death row, before being released last year on an Alford plea. I was interested to speak with him and hear about how he was able to deal with all of the different types of circumstances and adversity that he had been through.
The talk that I had with Ndume was one of the most powerful interactions that I have ever had with anyone. Throughout our conversation, I felt him speaking with so much honor, dignity, courage, and passion within his voice, and he really inspired me. His words were so powerful that it made me realize that if a man who has been through what he has can fight for his life and his principles, then there is no reason why I can’t fight through my circumstances and any adversity that I go through. Speaking with him also made me realize that when TADP’s Organizer, Jamie Moeller, came and spoke to my class at Bethel University, God was giving me a sign to become more involved with the fight to abolish the death penalty.
I asked Ndume numerous questions and he never shied away from any of them. He told me “I didn’t really begin to live until I was sitting on death row.” What I took from that was that he realized during that extremely difficult time that he needed to be the strongest man he could be and stand up for his principles and fight for his life. His given name was Erskine Johnson, but he changed it to Ndume Olatushani, which means “masculinity unifier.” He told me that he changed it because of religious reasons, and also because he believes that words are powerful and that names should be too.
Within the first couple of years on death row, Ndume encountered many obstacles, but the toughest he faced was his mother’s death. You would think that a man in such an adverse situation who is faced with so many hardships would just lose control and give up. But not Ndume. He made the decision to channel his frustration, hurt, and anger into working to make sure that he wasn’t executed. He had great support from various friends who helped with his case, including his wife, Anne-Marie.
The State offered Ndume the Alford plea, which allowed him to be set free by pleading guilty to a lesser charge of 2nd degree murder while allowing him to maintain his innocence, as he always has. He was released on time served in June of 2012. By agreeing to this special plea, Ndume is not able to sue the state. I asked him why he decided to take this plea instead of just fighting the charges and possibly suing for wrongful conviction. He explained that he didn’t want to risk waiting another two years in jail for another trial and possibly being convicted again. He decided that it was better to take the Alford plea and be reunited with his family. Hearing his story and learning about this plea, I realized just how broken the system really is.
I really enjoyed my time at TADP and appreciate the ambition that the staff and the organization’s supporters have to fight for this important cause. My experience at TADP gave me more inspiration and belief to take action. My time spent here was worth more than I could have imagined, and I just want to say thank you to TADP for having me be a part of the organization. I look forward to helping more to fight for repeal of the death penalty in the future.
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