Friday, 10 July 2015 00:00

An Alabama Death Row Story

Written by GOv. Don Siegelman

Before being sentenced to seven years in federal prison - for something 113 State Attorneys General and the New York Times said was never a crime in America - I had the honor of delivering a eulogy for my dear friend Colonel Stone Johnson. The story of our friendship is worth taking note of, because it ultimately demonstrates how unjust a judicial system can be.

Colonel Johnson was deeply involved in the Civil Rights struggle in Alabama. He fought for equal rights and equal pay for African American workers in Alabama's steel plants. He courageously served as the body guard for Alabama's fiery leader of desegregation, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth.

As Rev. Shuttlesworth stepped up his public pressure on Birmingham’s infamous Police Commissioner, "Bull" Connor, the Klan stepped up their threats to those confronting the system. Fred was a prime target. Death threats were made and attempts were carried out. Rev. Shuttlesworth and Civil Rights attorney Author D. Shores' lives were nothing to bet on. Bombs blasted their homes and churches.

But Fred and Author Shores did not yield an inch. Colonel Johnson was right there with them. Once, protecting Rev. Shuttlesworth and Bethel Baptist Church, he picked up a live bomb with his own hands and carried it across the street from the church. He put the bomb in a ditch where it discharged, without harming anyone.

The United Brotherhood Breakfast

I knew of Colonel Johnson by reputation, but it was in the early 1980's when I started attending the United Brotherhood Breakfast Forum that I met him. The forum was created by old Civil Rights foot soldiers; I immediately felt comfortable in this Sunday, 7:00 AM spiritual and political setting. In those early years I was the only white member. It was at the Forum that I met Mr. Simmie Lavender and Colonel Stone Johnson. Both were Constables and both became dear friends. Both worked in my campaign for Attorney General in 1986. I won the campaign, and I was carrying out my duties as Attorney General when these two old friends came to see me in Montgomery.

The three of us sat at the large conference table, the same place, where on several occasions, I’d met with the head of the Capital Murder Division, whose job was to defend the conviction and fight the legal appeal of any death row inmate.

My feelings about the death penalty were conflicted. I was sworn to uphold the laws of the Alabama, and I had no choice there. But the death penalty weighed heavily on me. When an inmate was on death watch, I would sit until after midnight on a conference call with the warden of Holman prison waiting, hoping, that the U.S. Supreme Court would intervene and we could halt the impending execution

"Please, Don, just look at it, try. He was set up by the Klan."

It was the death sentence case of Johnny Harris that Simmie Lavender and Colonel Johnson had come to Montgomery to discuss with me.

They asked me to get Johnny Harris off death row. However, only the governor has the power of pardon. As Attorney General, I did not have that power. I was thinking: That's never been done, please ask for something I can do. Nonetheless, I listened to their request.

"Please, Don, just look at it, try. He was set up by the Klan." I knew the story: Black man, Johnny Harris, moves into White neighborhood and is charged with three night-time burglaries and the rape of a white woman. This was a big trial and conviction. And my friends want me to somehow prevent Johnny Harris from being executed.

"I can't promise results, but I do promise you I will personally review Mr. Harris's file."
They both thanked me. They left the fate of Johnny Harris with me, knowing I would do all I could to see justice done.

Colonel Johnson and I became close.

When Reverend Shuttlesworth became ill and resided in a nursing home in downtown Birmingham [Colonel Johnson and I] would frequently cross paths as we visited our old friend. I made a point of visiting on Sunday, after our Breakfast Forum.

Mrs. Shuttlesworth would later write President Obama:

"Fred Shuttlesworth loved, trusted, believed in and respected Don Siegelman. . . .

"In the end there were two powerful men who stuck with my husband to the bitter end. They were Don Siegelman and Colonel Stone Johnson. . . .

"My husband and his friend Colonel Johnson bowed to no one. They felt themselves as much a man as any other, all made in the miraculous image of God. But all men have their heroes. Don Siegelman was a hero to both."

At the coffin of Colonel Johnson, I tell the Johnny Harris story.

I eulogized both Simmie Lavender and Reverend Shuttlesworth’s "homecoming." Time passed and other loyal friends crossed over, including the Colonel.

I had never told the story of Johnny Harris, but I was standing over the coffin of my dear friend, Colonel Stone Johnson, and the words just came to me. I told the story of Fred and Simmie coming to me when I was Attorney General and asking that I get Johnny Harris off death row.

I told the congregation of how when I asked to see the case file, I had been told by the head of our Capital Murder Division that all I needed to see was the jury verdict, and how I had insisted on reviewing the entire file.

I told the congregation what I found: Johnny Harris had moved into a neighborhood where several white police lived. One was a police lieutenant who had been linked to the Klan during the investigation of the church bombings. It was that police lieutenant who arrested Johnny Harris. Johnny's court appointed attorney never even checked the file out and never interviewed the alleged rape victim. The lawyer got Johnny to plead to three life sentences to avoid the death penalty. Johnny was sent to Alabama's worst prison, Holman, where he joined in protests against cruelty and inhumane work. The beatings with rubber hoses and whips and the use of cattle prods allegedly got worse when Johnny and other inmates formed a Prisoners Union demanding better treatment. There was a riot. A guard was stabbed to death. The warden pointed the finger at Johnny Harris. Alabama's white state attorney general, running for governor, decided to prosecute Johnny himself. It generated a lot of press for the new "tough on crime" attorney general.

But when I looked at the file, I saw that Johnny Harris's cell was in a separate, segregated part of the prison. It was possible, but highly unlikely, that he could have gotten out of his cell, gone to where the guard was, stabbed him to death, cleaned the blood off, changed, and gotten back in his cell before being discovered. That evidence was withheld from the defense. With that [and other] exculpatory evidence in hand, we were able to legally maneuver to finally get Mr. Harris off death row, something my dear friend Colonel Johnson never forgot.

I concluded by saying, looking down from the pulpit, gesturing toward the open coffin of my friend who had fought against injustice, “If it had not been for this man right here...if Colonel Stone Johnson had not acted, another innocent Black man would have been put to death at the hands of the state."

The service ended. I said my goodbyes to my friend and was walking out of the church when a hand reached out touching the sleeve of my coat. I turned: "Governor, I'm Johnny Harris. Thank you."

The criminal justice system is broken, everybody knows it. It's time to fix it.


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