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'I'm a free man,' a father sings after pardon



Steve Snipes was singing on the West Jones Street sidewalk; he couldn't stop smiling. On Feb. 2, Snipes received a full pardon from Gov. Mike Easley, officially clearing his name for an armed robbery he never committed.

Snipes, a father of seven children, was arrested Feb. 13, 1998, for allegedly holding up a Sanford convenience store. Despite the fact the robber was wearing a mask, two white clerks said they identified Snipes, who is black, by his "disguised voice." He was convicted and spent more than five years in state prison. Thanks to the efforts of Durham lawyer Paul Green and a prosecutor who was willing to admit his mistake, Snipes was released from prison June 23, 2003. It took almost four more years before Easley pardoned Snipes, who is now eligible for up $20,000 per year in compensation for wrongful incarceration.

"The first time we met, I knew he was innocent," Green said just minutes after receiving an envelope from Easley's legal counsel containing Snipes' official pardon. "I could tell just by reading the trial transcript that this guy did not belong in prison."

But, to prison Snipes went, in yet another example of the tragic errors that plague the state's criminal justice system. Despite no physical evidence linking Snipes to the robbery and solid alibi evidence, a jury still sent an innocent man off to prison.

Arrested at his home minutes after the robbery, Snipes said police brought him to the crime scene where the two clerks said: "Yeah, that's him; he's done changed clothes."

Snipes, who was so excited he was telling strangers on the street his story, said he always knew if he "trusted in God long enough," the truth would come out.

Chavala Snipes, who spent five years making weekly visits to her husband in 17 different state prisons, said her faith sustained her through the hard times.

"Had I not been rooted and grounded in God, we'd've never made it," she said. "There was always this question of, 'Why, God, why? Why me?' It's hard; I've got a baby.... They kept denying the appeals, denying the appeals. Without God, none of this would a happened."

When another man started bragging about the Sanford robbery, Green approached Snipes' original prosecutor, Tom Lock, now a Superior Court judge, and asked him to look again at Snipes' case. Lock and Snipes' original trial judge both backed the pardon.

While Green said he was "extremely grateful" to Easley for the pardon—"He did exactly the right thing"—Easley is clearly not a big believer in handing out pardons. Out of 481 requests, Easley has granted just four pardons; 155 requests are listed as pending. Former Gov. Jim Hunt granted 218 pardons in his first two terms.

Snipes' case may have been aided by the fact that News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers wrote about Snipes last Oct. 21 in a column titled "Pardon now far overdue."

As he spoke with reporters after receiving the pardon, Snipes broke into song. "I'm a free man," he exclaimed, holding up the document.

Raleigh 'singer' going to jail

His lawyers weren't sure what would happen when 20-year-old Graymon Ward started to sing his sentencing statement when he appeared in federal court Jan. 29 to face a trespass charge for crossing the line last Nov. 19 onto Fort Benning to protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas), a U.S. Army school that trains Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics.

The annual protest, which drew 22,000 people, is held in conjunction with the anniversary of the 1989 murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Most of the soldiers implicated in those murders were SOA graduates.

The first of 16 defendants to come before U.S. Magistrate G. Fallon Faircloth, Ward was told by his lawyer, Bill Conwell, that singing David Rovic's anti-SOA song, "Behind That Gate," could land him the maximum six-month sentence, a punishment Faircloth has given to many SOA trespassers in past years.

Ward starting out just speaking the words to "Behind That Gate":

The judge condescended to the people

Said you peaceful protesters are deceptive

And to the ideas of the terrorists

I know you are receptive

So we've got to throw away the Fourth Amendment

Keep those protesters on the run

'Cause we found sandwich wrappers

Next we might just find a gun

By the time he got to the chorus, Ward was getting nervous:

We're here at Fort Benning

Please excuse me when I state

That if you're looking here for weapons

You'll find them behind that gate

If you're looking here for weapons

You'll find them behind that gate

To the surprise of many in the courtroom, including Ward's mother, Virginia Ward, and a vanload of Ward's friends from West Raleigh Presbyterian Church's campus ministry group, Faircloth listened quietly to Ward, never interrupting. After making a crack about Ward's off-key performance, Faircloth gave him a 30-day sentence, which Ward must begin serving March 21 when he self-reports to Henderson's Vance County Jail.

Ward said Conwell told him to expect six months if the singing made Faircloth angry, but besides a 17-year-old defendant, who received probation and community service, Ward received the shortest sentence of the day. But doing time in a county jail won't be easy.

"I was expecting the judge to be really mad," Ward said. "The lawyers were worried he was going to take [the singing] as an insult."

After crossing the lines with nuns and seeing West Raleigh Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Joe Ward, and N.C. State's Presbyterian campus minister, the Rev. Allen Proctor, in the courtroom, Ward said the experience has been spiritually uplifting.

"This action strengthened my faith and made me realize that these sort of government punishments are what I might have to face if I want to do work that's right in the eyes of God," Ward said.

Beginning March 21, letters to Ward can be sent to Vance County Jail, 516 Breckenridge St., Henderson, NC 27536.

In a scene from Love Lived on Death Row, Elias Syriani's daughter, Rose, speaks to the press after his clemency hearing in November 2005.
  • In a scene from Love Lived on Death Row, Elias Syriani's daughter, Rose, speaks to the press after his clemency hearing in November 2005.
Love Lived on Death Row

Getting recognition for a documentary film may require divine intervention in the very competitive world of indie films, but Chatham County filmmaker Linda Booker deserves if for Love Lived on Death Row, a film about the life and death of Elias Syriani, a 67-year-old father of four who was sentenced to death for killing his wife, was forgiven by his children, and ultimately was denied clemency by Gov. Mike Easley.

Booker, who spent many hours with Syriani's children both before and after their father's Nov. 18, 2005, execution at Raleigh's Central Prison, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the frantic efforts of the four children to keep from becoming orphans.

With help from lawyers and death penalty foes, the four siblings embarked on a national media campaign to compel Easley to commute their father's sentence to life in prison without parole. In the days preceding the execution, the kids landed spots on Good Morning America and Larry King Live, all to no avail.

The best part of Love Lived on Death Row is Booker's ability to capture a depth of human love and forgiveness that leaves the viewer both teary-eyed and joyfully hopeful about the human potential to do good.

Despite some rejection letters from film festivals, Booker remains hopeful that Love Lived on Death Row will get the recognition it so richly deserves. Booker can be reached at lbooker@blast.com.

Gandhi comes to Raleigh

Thanks to a donation from Arvind Shah of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, a silicon bronze statue of the great Indian pacifist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi now graces the central courtyard of Exploris at 201 E. Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh.

The six-foot likeness of Gandhi was made by Indian sculptor Ram Sutra. Shah raised $55,000 to fund the project, which was backed largely by the Triangle's burgeoning Indian community.

Shah also plans to make the statue interactive, with a button on the base that activates a two-minute recording of a Gandhi speech. A plaque includes Gandhi's famous words: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Walking for peace and justice

Gail Phares is looking for a few good walkers to join this year's Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, the annual Holy Week trek through North Carolina cities to call attention to a wide range of justice and peace issues.

Phares, founder of the Raleigh-based Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which has sponsored the Pilgrimage for more than 20 years, is looking for people who can be "core walkers," staying on the walk for several days or for the entire six days. The schedule includes five to 15 miles of walking per day, with back-up vehicle support all the way.

The Pilgrimage begins Palm Sunday (April 1) in Charlotte, and continues through Greensboro (April 2), Fayetteville (April 3), Goldsboro/Dudley (April 4), Durham (April 5) and concludes in Raleigh on Good Friday (April 6) with a final walk and a noon Way of the Cross program at the state capitol.

To get involved as a walker or as a volunteer, contact Phares at 856-9468 or CITCA@bellsouth.net.

Have news of the Religious Left? Contact Patrick O'Neill at pmtoneill@aol.com.

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