On becoming aware of the case of Darrell Grayson, the 46-year-old Black man who was executed this past thursday on flimsy evidence that did not include DNA testing and who was found guilty by an all white jury in 1981 Alabama, I felt that I had to do something. I contacted Lisa Thomas, whose dedication to Grayson's cause obliged her to stage two walks-one from Selma to Washington D.C. and one from Selma to Montgomery in protest of the death penalty and in support of Grayson, and I asked her if I could interview her for JuliusSpeaks. In turn, Ms. Thomas gave my information to Esther Brown of Project Hope, an organization for people on death row in the state of Alabama that serves as a support group, works to abolish the death penalty, and advocates for the cases of death penalty inmates. Brown serves as the outside contact person for the group. We had a lengthy discussion over the phone and later she replied to some direct questions over email.
Esther Brown is a fiesty older lady, a German immigrant who came to the United States fifty years ago and who has dedicated a large part of her life to ending the death penalty, a cause which burns deep within her soul. When asked if there was anything she might say to Alabama governor Bob Riley, Brown replied, " It perhaps would not be printable." When I asked her to talk about Grayson, she told me that over the years she and Grayson had become the closest of friends. She described him as being "more thirsty for knowledge than anyone I ever met." When Grayson entered prison in 1982 at the age of 19, he suffered a severe depression, after which he vowed to "make something of his life." He applied for a pell grant, earned an Associate's Degree and became a poet and writer, publishing three chapbooks and serving as a correspondent for a Black-owned Alabama newspaper.In that time, Grayson also helped to found and became the chairperson of Project Hope, which was founded by Alabama Death Row Inmates in 1989.
When I asked Ms. Brown what life was like for Grayson on Death Row, she said that life for him was solitary, but that he kept himself involved because he "wanted to make a difference and leave the world a better place than he found it." In a conversation between the two of them about his life, she says he sighed and said whimsically, "Darling, this is prison." Over the years, Brown says that she and the Alabama Death Row inmates of Project Hope have become a close-knit family, saying that "family isn't about bloodlines, it's about connection." In terms of family, Grayson has one sister who stuck by him throughout his ordeal in the justice system.
In terms of allies who aided in Grayson's case, Brown says one of the strongest allies they had was Alabama state senator, Hank Sanders, Democrat. Senator Sanders has constantly introduced moratorium resolutions before the state assembly over a number of years to no avail, objecting to the racial and class discrimination that is inherent in the death penalty. According to Brown, Senator Sanders said of the moratorium bill, "anything concerning race and poverty has a tough time in Alabama." Other allies in Grayson's struggle were the NAACP who have their own effort to end the death penalty, the group Alabama Arise, and the New South Coalition.
Racial and class bias are inherent in death penalty cases throughout the United States; cases where white victims are involved recieve death penalty sentences far more than those in which there are black victims, blacks are the usual victims of violent crimes, black defendants recieve death penalty sentences more than white defendants and throughout the system many who are convicted cannot afford adequate representation, leaving lower-income defendants to the mercy of uncaring public defenders who do little to advocate on their behalf. In the case of Darrell Grayson, Grayson, who grew up in poverty in Alabama and was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in 1981, was not able to afford decent representation and as a result witnesses who needed to be interviewed regarding the case were not interviewed and all of the evidence that pointed away from Grayson and that was taken care of through affadavits was ignored by the current governor of Alabama and other state officials. One of the major issues in Grayson's case was the failure of the state to do a post-conviction DNA test, a test which Grayson and others felt might exonerate him. When he was convicted in 1981 by an all-white jury, there was no such thing as DNA testing. After Grayson recieved his execution date, the Innocence Project, a national organization that pushed for DNA testing in death penalty cases, picked up Grayson's case and advocated for him. Alabama's governor Bob Riley refused all pleas for DNA testing in Grayson's case, even after Grayson supporter Lisa Thomas staged a walk from Selma to Montgomery in support of Grayson and to end the death penalty.
In turning to a discussion of the injustice and inhumanity that is the death penalty, Ms. Brown adamantly told me that the death penalty and the practice of lynching are the same thing. Indeed, lynching and the practice of the death penalty in the United States have a related and twisted history in the United States. In her reasoning for abolishing the death penalty, Ms. Brown stated that "Fallable people are in charge of the justice system, for that reason alone there should be no death penalty." Brown says that the Association of African American Police Chief Deputies has recently issued a statement declaring that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. In her fight to end the death penalty, Brown says that her message to the public is "We are going to continue our fight in the spirit of Darrell Grayson."
Interview with Esther Brown
Who was Darrell Grayson?
Brown: Darrell was a poet/activist, a leader and father figure to many on the Row, a man with a thirst for knowlege with the desire to leave the world better than he found it. He was also my very dear friend.
How did you become involved with this case?
Brown: I became involved in the case because of our very close friendship.
Tell me about Project Hope. How did it get started?
Brown: Phadp was founded in 1989 by Alabama death row inmates who wanted to reach out to a mentally retarded brother on the row. The board is on the row and I am the executive director on the outside. We publish a newsletter 4 times a year which is printed and formatted on death row and then sent to me for printing and mailing. We also have an email group and our focus is to educating the public on the death penalty. We have also been working on a moratorium and you will find the city councils/county commissions and Al churches and organizations that have come out in support of this.
What was Darrell's life like in prison? What were his living conditions?
Brown: Darrell's life in prison was solitary. He spent much of the time reading, writing poetry, working on phadp matters and on the phone with me for 3-4 hours daily. The board of phadp meets once a week and they call me from their meeting.
How big was Project Hope? How many people were involved?
Brown: How big is phadp? Depends on how you count it. About 30 men on death row, I am the full time volunteer chief cook and bottle washer, our web master and 600+ on our email list and 1,000 on our mailing list, not all of these in Alabama. We work together with grassroots organizations, Alabama New South Coalition, Alabama Arise, Peace groups around the state, NAACP where I am the chair of its Death Penalty/Moratorium committee. Smaller groups as well as the Quest of Social Justice in Mobile, TOPS of Dothan and others.
It seems that Darrell was making something of his life. He was getting his education, becoming an activist and an organizer. How did this transformation come about?
Brown: His career as an activist and organizer was fostered by joining phadp, working his way up through the ranks and of course my giving him a voice. Hard to be heard from death row unless there is someone on the outside who promotes you.
Did Grayson have any relatives? How are they coping?
Brown: Family? One sister who stayed devoted to him and who is now coping by making sure I am okay, calling every night.
At any time did Darrell recieve any ehlp from the ACLU, NAACP, or other civil rights organizations?
Brown: The help Darrell received from civil rights organizations came from Alabama New South Coalition,(of which I am a member) and the NAACP. Both made statements, wrote to the Governor, came to the rally on Wednesday, ie Senator Hank Sanders and Ed Vaughn. Judy Collins Cumbee, my close friend is first vice chair of ANSC and was a large degree instrumental in rallying the forces for the rally.Greater Birmingham Ministries. I'm just hoping that I am not leaving anyone out!
Tell me about the Innocence Project.
Brown: The Innocence Project takes on cases where there is DNA and the possibility of innocence.
Alabama has a legacy with regards to Black men and the death penalty, whether with the courts or through the practice of lynching. Do you think that Darrell Grayson was a victim of racism?
Brown: Of course! An all white jury in 1981, an all white courtroom, a white victim? The modern day lynching. 80% of the men on death row are there because of a white victim, yet more African Americans are murdered than whites!
If you had the opportunity, what would you say to Governor Riley?
Brown: What would I say to the Governor? Perhaps not printable! I hope you never take the pledge of allegiance and say with justice for all! Alabama does not know what that means and the rest of the world cannot believe how we are still back in the dark ages of racism. And you know, to quote Bryan Stevenson of EJI Alabamians with their terrible history do not have the right to execute a black man. The question we must ask is not whether that person deserves to die but whether we deserve to kill.
Do you have anything else you would like to say? Perhaps to the public?
Brown: We will persevere, now more than ever and we will overcome one day!
Good talking to you!
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty: