Former Tennessee Death Row Inmate Released on Alford Plea

In December, TADP reported that Ndume Olatushani (formerly known as Erskine Johnson) was granted a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals due to faulty witness testimony. His original death sentence for the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocery store manager, Joe Belenchia, during a robbery was thrown out in 1999 after an appeals court found that police reports and evidence had been withheld. He was later re-sentenced to life in prison. Since the December 2011 ruling, Ndume has been incarcerated awaiting a new trial.

Last Friday, however, Ndume was released , after serving nearly 27 years in prison (19 of which were on death row) when he took an Alford plea. To avoid potentially serving several more years in the Shelby County jail awaiting a new trial and taking his chances with another jury, Ndume took the plea deal. This deal required that he plead guilty to second-degree murder, while, at the same time, allowed him to maintain his innocence as he has since the beginning. In exchange, he was sentenced to time served and was released.

Just as in the infamous case of the West Memphis Three who also took Alford pleas and were released in 2011, Ndume is free, but has justice been served?  Though the  evidence points to his innocence, Ndume will still have a second-degree murder on his record. He spent 27 years of his life in a prison cell, separated from his family and friends, waiting for the courts to intervene. The victim’s family has endured a decades long process full of uncertainty and pain while millions of tax payers’ dollars have been wasted. Though a killer may still be roaming the streets, this plea deal allows the state to save face, maintain a conviction, and close the case.

TADP is elated that after all these years Ndume is a free man. At the same time, the illogical Alford plea is a sobering reminder of how flawed the death penalty system is.  This plea specifically allows Ndume to maintain his innocence while pleading guilty at the same time…his freedom  used as a bargaining chip while the victim’s family is left with ultimately no one held accountable after all of these years.

To date in Tennessee, four men have been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row–three of whom ultimately had all charges against them dismissed and now one who took an Alford plea. Three Tennessee death row inmates have been granted clemency–one of whom is out of prison today, coming within a few months of execution–and six who have been executed since 1960. Do those number frighten anyone else?

What have we spent in taxpayer money for such spotty and scary results? How many lives were turned upside down? How many promises broken? Repealing the death penalty ends this arbitrary system and moves us one step closer to restoring the public’s faith in the reliability of the criminal justice system. The time for repeal is now.

Photo credit: Charles O’Rear/Corbis

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