Yes on California’s Proposition 34
An Op-Ed by David Lacy
Often it seems the only one who isn’t angry is Obie Anthony.
The 38-year-old newlywed is accustomed to his story riling up listeners. Students, teachers and community members who hear Anthony speak of his 17 years of incarceration for a murder he didn’t commit frequently leave his speaking engagements wide-eyed and livid. They often return to their classrooms or homes balking at a criminal justice system they formerly declared their unabashed faith in.
Yet Anthony insists that anger is counterproductive. He says he has felt despair and fury at certain points in life and finds both emotions “physically and emotionally exhausting.” Instead, he encourages those who hear his story to become active participants for change. Currently he allies with the Northern California Innocence Project—the same group that worked tirelessly to secure his own freedom—to promote Proposition 34, the ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty in California.
Meeting Anthony puts the conversation on capital punishment into sharp but surreal focus. After all, Anthony is the exception to the rule; he is the cautionary tale of the innocent behind bars who pops up in seemingly every death penalty debate you’ve ever had yet remains faceless to so many of us. He is the living example of the “well, it’s-not-like-it-will-ever-happen-to-someone-I-meet” person who I (David Lacy) have personally met and spoken with.
Anthony was released in October of last year after serving 17 years in connection to a 1994 homicide. He had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole based on the fabricated testimony of a pimp eager to strike a deal with overzealous prosecutors. According to The Los Angeles Times, that “witness has since admitted he never clearly saw the gunman at the scene of the crime.”
The Los Angeles Times also reported: “Judge Kelvin D. Filer harshly criticized the prosecutors who handled the 1995 murder trial for failing to disclose to the jury that they had made a deal with the witness, John Jones, agreeing to seek a light sentence on pimping and pandering charges in exchange for his testimony against Anthony and a co-defendant, Reggie Cole.”
No physical evidence linked Anthony to the murder.
For nearly two decades Anthony vociferously maintained his innocence. However, he had several seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, he entered prison with merely a fourth-grade reading level. Secondly, his own pleas were drowned out in a chorus of incarcerated voices all loudly proclaiming their own guiltlessness.
His co-defendant Cole also maintained his innocence in the 1994 slaying yet found himself facing the death penalty after defending himself in a prison attack. His self-defense led to a charge of manslaughter; that along with the 1994 conviction threatened to place him on death row.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Cole’s act of self-defense “attracted the attention of attorneys for the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, who determined that the key witness against Anthony and Cole in 1995 had fabricated his testimony.
“First they convinced an Imperial County judge to disregard the prior murder conviction while determining Cole’s sentence for the prison stabbing. Then they convinced a Los Angeles County judge to overturn Cole’s 1995 murder conviction.”
As events began to unfold behind bars, Anthony began the long and arduous journey of both guided and self-education. First and foremost, he was determined to learn how to read.
“I had never understood the fascination with reading,” Anthony said in a phone call this week. “I just thought I could watch everything on TV and movies. I quickly realized the fascination with reading was with the knowledge acquired. [And that] knowledge is tremendously powerful.”
He read everything he could get his hands on. Slowly expanding his lexicon, he began poring through the available law books in the prison library. He took vigorous notes and pushed on.
He read case briefs, poetry, self-help manuals and fiction. But, most importantly, he insists, he read theology.
“I didn’t even realize at the time what an unconscious thirst I had for theology,” Anthony admits. “I began to read about different faiths; I picked up Christian and Hebrew texts, as well as a variety of eastern philosophy [tracts].”
While he remains unapologetic for his own spiritual convictions he makes no attempts to proselytize to those who don’t share his beliefs. But he does ask even atheists and agnostics to think critically about their own evaluations on the sanctity of life. He adds: “even in the idea of us evolving from apes we should be constantly asking ourselves, what are we evolving INTO? What do we want to be as a species?”
As his faith and literacy grew in tandem, so did his ability to adequately express his case to the California Innocence Project and Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent. Anthony’s spiritual confidence melded with scholastic confidence and he soon had a team of law students and a former federal prosecutor working tirelessly on his case.
When Anthony exited the Los Angeles County Jail last year he was greeted with hugs, tears and kisses from friends and family members who had never given up on the young many who had fallen trap to the corruptions of the system (although he admits he is deeply saddened by some of the friends he did lose along the way).
But also waiting for him was one of his greatest supporters, Denise Anthony, a woman he had known since high school. Just last week the two held a wedding reception in front of their closest friends and family.
One of those reception guests was Dr. Connie Ireland, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at California State University, Long Beach who has invited Anthony to speak at her campus on two occasions.
“Amidst the dancing, social rounds and cake-cutting traditions, I saw him firsthand console a woman whose husband is still incarcerated for a crime he did not commit,” Ireland said. “While her husband’s legal team is optimistic they can secure his exoneration and release, his wife is in agony. Obie sat beside her and offered the kind of comfort only another wrongfully convicted man can give the wife of another.”
She added, “Obie Anthony is unexpectedly kind, compassionate and wise, not at all like someone we’d guess was a prison inmate.”
Anthony’s kindness shines through in his beaming smile and subtle sense of humor. After release from prison he likes to tell his listeners that he still habitually calls his bed a “rack” and his dinner plate “a tray.” He elicited a chorus of laughs when, at his reception, he invited all of his guests to “pick up their trays” and begin serving themselves.
Anthony has yet to receive any financial restitution from the state of California. However, he recently began work at a warehouse in Victorville, an employment opportunity he credits, not surprisingly, to divine providence.
“When I came home I was sitting in my backyard and I saw a bunch of buildings on the horizon,” he told me in an evening phone call. “When I asked my wife what they were she admitted she didn’t know.” The two exchanged a joke about how fortuitous it would be if he could land a job in one of those buildings.
He applied to a temp agency and they placed him in one of those buildings that sat on the horizon of his backyard. His employment with the warehouse has since become permanent.
Anthony’s optimism on the possibility of repealing the death penalty in California is a bit unsettling. I am not quite confident that California will take the moral initiative needed to dismantle a system of punishment that seems to satisfy the understandable desire for vengeance in homicide cases. But as I hung up with Anthony earlier this week he left me with these words: “David, I believe your story is going to reach the people it needs to reach to make a difference.”
I hung up the phone feeling as if I were going to personally let Anthony down; there is no way this op-ed piece will significantly sway public opinion. But the fact that he believed in me to be one amongst a sea of “participants of change” left me inspired and awe-struck.
I will conclude this op-ed by mentioning a few important points to consider:
* According to the FBI and the U.S. Census Bureau, the death penalty is not a deterrent in any of the states in which it is utilized. (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/deterrence-states-without-death-penalty-have-had-consistently-lower-murder-rates)
* Capital punishment is more costly to taxpayers than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
*Hundreds of innocents have been exonerated through DNA evidence, innocents who may have otherwise been executed by the state. Innocents, in a number of cases, HAVE even been executed by the state.