Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris and the Alabama Death Sentence
By om Gardner
Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 10-14
“It’s Time for a New Beginning.” proclaims a campaign billboard for Alabama’s new governor-elect, Fob James. With Wallace gone and anyone new coming in, many Alabamans have responded to that slogan with a new sense of hope for their state.
Yet only 15 minutes from that billboard, a few miles from the 1-65 interstate in southern Alabama, stands a grim reminder that the old Alabama is institutionalized in too many concrete forms to be transformed with one campaign slogan.
Stretching for hundreds of acres in Escambia County is a vast plantation owned by the state. There are no stately mansions with white columns and verandas. There are, however, slave laborers. But the slave gangs, while mostly Black, are integrated. In the foggy dawn light they doubletime out to vegetable and cane fields, where they labor from “can-see to can’t-see” under the watchful eyes of shotgun-toting guards on horseback. If a slave should run, haying hounds will chase him down, and whether he returns dead or alive depends on the whim of his captor.
Some historians claim that Escambia County, Alabama, was the last county in the Confederacy to free its slaves. But it is now 1979, and “slave labor” administered by the state Department of Corrections is still the dominant form of labor relations in Escambia County, Alabama.
The name of the “slave quarters” was changed to G.K Fountain Correctional Center when the citizens of nearby Atmore demanded in 1974 that the name be changed to disassociate their town from the notorious Atmore prison. It was Atmore prison that Heywood Patterson in his autobiographical Scottsboro Boy described as “The Southernmost part of Hell.” Many say it still is, despite the name change.
Across the highway is the newer, but no more humane, maximum security Holman state prison. Deep in the rear corner of Holman prison is a chair. It was brought there from the old Kilby prison near Montgomery. With a new coat of yellow paint, it resembles that new plastic furniture with the modern square look. But it’s different – it kills people. Its last victim was a woman in 1965.
In the cells adjacent to that chair are 42 prisoners, all on death row, all scheduled to die by that faceless yellow executioner.
How one of Alabama’s death row inmates got there is a story which, in itself, raises serious questions about the competence of the Alabama judicial system to impose such a final sentence on anyone.
Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris
The facts in the case of Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris are unique in some respects. But in several others his case reveals fundamental flaws in the judicial and corrections systems of Alabama; flaws that any serious “new beginning” in Alabama must correct as its first order of business.
Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris is a 33-year-old Black man who is on Alabama’s death row after a chain of judicial atrocities. He was convicted in February 1975 of first degree murder for participating in a protest in which an Atmore prison guard died. The guard was killed during the violent suppression of the prisoners’ protest in Atmore’s segregation unit on January 18, 1974.
The state did not prove that the inmate, Johnny Harris, killed Luell Barrow, the guard who died. At a July 1975 pre-trial hearing. Assistant Attorney General George Van Tassel stated, “It is not our position that this defendant (Johnny Harris) was actually holding the knife or anything else. We don’t contend that this defendant stabbed the guard.”
It was merely for his alleged participation in protesting conditions later described by Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson as “barbaric, cruel and unusual” and “unconstitutional” that Johnny Harris was sentenced to death.
William Baxley, then Attorney General of Alabama, personally prosecuted Johnny Harris. Apparently aware that he had not proved Harris’ supposed connection to the. death of the guard, Baxley told thejury, “If you don’t want to believe that this defendant is guilty on circumstantial
evidence, then put it out of your mind and look at the la on aiding and abetting. If you are convinced that any of these people (other prisoners) committed first-degree murder,” Baxley reasoned for the jury, “then Harris is guilty as well.”
The all-White, male Baldwin county jury from which Basley had systematically struck the few Blacks and women in the prospective jury pool, returned a verdict of first-degree murder.
Baxley’s dramatic prosecution of Harris may have been a bid for white “law ‘n’ order” votes in the anticipated governor’s race. But his reenactment of the death sentence brought a memory of horror to many Black Alabamans. To them the death sentence translates into legal lynching as in the case of the “Scottsboro Boys” and many others who were not saved. A definite pattern of racial discrimination in applying the death sentence was documented by Bill Bowers, a nationally recognized expert on capital punishment, at a recent appeal hearing for Johnny Harris. He testified that between 1927 and 1965, 82 percent of all executions in Alabama were of Black people. Bowers also testified that the death sentence is far more likely to be imposed if the victim is White and the defendant Black than if the situation is reversed. In fact there is no White on death row in Alabama for the murder of a Black victim.
Yet, Baxley appealed to Harris’ White jury that, “If we can apply it (the death sentence) here, it will be a start toward bringing it back.” A local NAACP official said, “After seeing Baxley send this young man to the chair I don’t see how Black people could ever vote for him again.”
Baxley dug up an 1862 law used only seven times in Alabama’s history to use against Johnny Harris. The civil war era law mandates an automatic death sentence for anyone convicted of first degree murder while serving a life sentence.
The law assumes that the life sentence itself was received fairly, with all the constitutional protections of due process and effective assistance of counsel. In many cases, particularly those involving Black and poor defendants, that may not be a safe assumption, as we shall see in the case of Johnny Harris.
Railroaded For Desegregation?
In 1970, Johnny Harris moved with his family into an all-White neighborhood in Birmingham. They were met with garbage on their doorsteps, paint and acid on their car, and Ku Klux Klan literature slipped under their doors. The Klan activity in the neighborhood was so strong that members of the Black community on the other side of Border Street, which divides the Black and White areas, were forced to form a protective association.
The Harris family refused to he intimidated. But according to an investigator for the Harris defense team, “This is where the police came in.”
There were five Birmingham police officers living on the same street as the Harris family. Gary Thomas Rowe, a former FBI informant, testified to a Senate Committee in 1975 that the Birmingham police department worked closely with the Klan in resisting integration. The arrest of Johnny Harris could well have been a result of that close cooperation.
One of the senior arresting officers in the case was Lt. Cook, who, according to Rowe’s Senate testimony, made the arrangements with the Klan for the police to look the other way for 15 minutes while Freedom Riders were beaten severely on May 14, 1961, in the Birmingham Trailways Terminal.
On August 19, 1970, Johnny Harris was arrested on his way to work. According to Harris, his picture was taken, he was forced into a line-up (after his accuser may have been shown his photo), and then he was told that if he didn’t confess to a robbery and a rape charge more cases would be put on him.
The alleged rape victim was a young White teenager with relatives on the police force. Harris was eventually charged with four robberies – of $11, $67, $90, and $205 – and the supposed rape.
Harris gave one of his court-appointed lawyers a list of alibi witnesses who were with him in bars on the other side of town when the crimes were supposed to have occurred. But the witnesses, including bartenders who supported his alibi, were never subpoenaed to appear in court.
The attorney appointed to represent Harris on the rape charge, Louis School, according to jail records, never once visited Harris before his trial date. And he didn’t bother to investigate the alleged rape victim’s medical report.
According to their own testimony in a hearing last April that challenged the five life sentences, Harris’ appointed lawyers waived a preliminary hearing, made no motion I’m hail, failed to question the line-up procedure, neither interviewed the supposed rape victim nor looked at a medical report on the alleged rape, never questioned Harris’ illegal arrest or the warrantless search of his house, made no pretrial motions, and filed no challenge to a jury pool in ss hich Blacks were greatly underrepresented. At the recent hearing, one attorney, School, produced his file folder on the Harris case, with only seven pages of notes in it. In other words, his attorneys prepared no defense at all. And in 1970, Harris could have received the death sentence for a conviction on any of the five charges.
Testifying on his own behalf on those charges for the first time in eight years, Harris explained at the recent hearing what happened when he went to court on April 6, 1971.
School said he didn’t see how I was going to win the case sshen the court was going to take the White woman’s word over mine, because I was Black, and that he didn’t have no intention of bucking the system. He said if I didn’t take the 1).A.’s offer I was going to get the chair. I still wanted to go to trial.
Harris testified further:
Later, they told me they didn’t have alibi witnesses subpoenaed. weren’t prepared to go to trial, and didn’t think I should fight this all the way. They said I should change my plea on the rape case and get the other four dismissed. I was [told] that there was no defense prepared: I didn’t want to get the chair. I changed my plea – not because I wasn’t innocent, but because I had no choice.
Harris thought he was pleading guilty to only one charge but found he had signed a plea to all of them when the trial judge, Joseph Jasper, sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences.
The recent challenge to the five life sentences, called a “petition for writ of error coram nobis,” was conducted before the same judge who sentenced Harris in 1971, in accordance with Alabama law. In the week-long appeal hearing, Harris’ current lawyers put forth strong evidence that Johnny Harris was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, but Judge Jasper denied Harris a new trial. In appealing that denial, his attorneys objected that the judge based his ruling, to an extent, on his own opinion that the previously appointed lawyers had done a competent job on other cases before his court, although no evidence was entered during the hearing to support such a conclusion.
On the contrary, a long line of expert witnesses called both by Harris’ defense team and by the state, including Millard Farmer of Team Defense, Ralph Knowles of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Prison Project, and noted Alabama lawyers, judges, and law professors, testified that the trial preparations by Harris’ appointed attorneys did not meet minimum standards of competent
representation, particularly in capital felony cases.
The decision of the lower court was upheld by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and is now on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
In Prison – A Struggle For Survival
The rest of Johnny Harris’ story is bound up with the desperate lives of thousands of Alabama’s prison inmates.
Faced with inhuman conditions, Alabama’s prisoners took that action which Frederick Douglas said separated the slave from a beast of burden – they rebelled.
In 1972, the prisoners, tired of ignored petitions to the public and the courts, staged a 100 percent effective workstoppage. While sugar cane rotted in the fields, the administration tried to defeat the strike with every tool at their disposal.
They threatened mass punishment with guns pointed at the prisoners sitting down in the yard. The prisoners held firm. They tried to divide the White prisoners from the Black – the prisoners remained unified. Finally, they beat, transferred and isolated over 300 prisoners, hoping to disperse the “ringleaders.”
The partially successful strike ended from a combination of repression and promised reforms. But the administration swore to destroy the prisoners’ organization, the Inmates for Action (I FA). All of the officers of the I FA were placed in Atmore’s segregation unit.
Johnny Harris, like many other prisoners, protested the conditions. In 1973 he was charged with attempted escape and placed in the segregation unit. Here he took the name Imani, which means Faith.
Even in the dark recesses of Atmore’s segregation unit, the IFA continued to conduct meetings by shouting down the hall from cell to cell. They conducted daily classes in reading and writing, political education, history, and legal and physical survival in a “lecture hail” of cells where, as Imani later write, their classmates were “familiar to them only by voice, not by sight.”
On January 18, 1974, guards entered the segregation unit with bloody uniforms, after beating an IFA member at Holman Prison across the street. According to prisoners, they said, “We ought to kill these revolutionary niggers, the way we killed Clanzy,” as they started to reach for bats and ax-handles.
Fearing that an attack was imminent, two prisoners who were out of their cells grabbed two guards hostage and freed the other prisoners from their cells within the segregation unit.
When the warden arrived he was informed by IFA Chairman George “Chagina” Dobbins that the prisoners’ sole demand was to see certain named members of the press, clergy, legislature, and prison administration in order to expose the beatings and conditions to the public.
The warden, Marion Harding, according to prisoner witnesses, told Chagina, “You’re a walking dead man.” Harding, a few minutes later, led a shooting attack by prison guards on the prisoners. The warden ordered one of the guards to shoot Chagina Dobbins. Dobbins was incapacitated by the ensuing shotgun blast of birdshot in the side.
Harold E. Martin, editor and publisher of The Advertiser Montgomery and Alabama Journal, investigated the incident immediately. On February 15. 1974. he wrote in The Advertiser:
The Board of Corrections released a statement from a “fact-finding board” that Dobbins was killed by gunshot during the riot.
But State Toxicologist Nelson Gruhhs. who viewed Dobbins’ body at Mobile General Hospital, said that Dobbins died from nine stab sounds in his head caused by a heavy.sharp instrument wielded with enough force to penetrate the frontal bone in to places.
Who stabbed Dohbins and when is a mystery!
That “mystery” never resulted in any criminal indictments b the state of Alabama. even though Dobbins was apparently murdered after being shot and while in the custody of state officials.
One of the prisoners charged with the killing of the guard-hostage was Frank X. Moore. Moore was released from prison shortly after the incident, but was re-arrested at the gate on the murder charge and held on an impossible S250,000 bail in Escambia County Jail. While awaiting trial. Frank X. Moore, an IFA member, was “found” hanging in his cell. Sheriff Scotty Byrnes said it was “suicide.” But autopsy photos indicate a struggle.
Two months after the incident in Atmore, another IFA member at Holman Prison was beaten to death. Tommy “Yukeena” Dotson had smuggled out to a visitor a “death
list” of IFA members allegedly found on the warden’s desk by a trustee. According to the Mobile Press Register, the warden denied the existence of such a list. But on March 12. 1974, Tommy “Yukeena” Dotson, said to be next on the list after Chagina Dobbins, was killed. He was removed, naked and handcuffed, from his cell, and, according to testimony, on the order of a captain, was beaten with ax-handles until his skull was caved in. Undisputed inmate witnesses said a second group of guards then came along, beat him some more, and threw his limp body down a flight of stairs.
An attempt by the state to cover up this murder by prosecuting other IFA members for an alleged escape attempt supposedly planned with Dotson, fell on its face. The state’s witnesses so contradicted each other’s testimony that Escambia County Judge Douglas Webb directed a verdict of “Not Guilty” for the accused inmates. But when this reporter asked Attorney General Bill BaxIcy 1 the state would prosecute any guards for the murder of Dotson, he replied, “There was no criminal negligence: they were doing their job.”
The guards were also “doing their job” during the January 18 Atmore rebellion. At the murder trial of IFA member Gamba Mani (Oscar Johnson), Paul Echols, a White inmate from Georgia, testified:
When the guards came in shooting, some of us got in cells… They told us to come out with our hands behind our head or we would get shot … As we got to the lobby, they beat us while they made us strip … They took all of our a itches, rings, and money . . . and stomped on them. Then the made us crawl on our hands and knees putting our hands and heads on the next man’s ass while they heat us. I Iic made us hark that day. I guess to low grade us and iiov, us the were superior.
Another inmate, Claude Harris, testified,
The guards lined up on both sides of the wall and beat us as we crawled through their gauntlet. We crawled up to the visiting room. There were two tables there, one for signing a statement, and the other for medical treatment We had to make and sign a statement before even getting patched up.
Instead of either indictment or reprimand for this barbaric group torture. Warden Marion Harding was praised by the Attorney General. Baxley said at the Harris trial, “The State of Alabama can be proud to have men like Warden Harding in charge of its institutions.” With the “mystery” of Chagina Dobbins’ death still hanging over him, Marion Harding left the Alabama prison system to take an administrative job with the federally-funded Law Enforcement Protection Agency, and has since become Auburn, Alabama’s police chief.
Meanwhile, Johnny “Imani” Harris sits on death row fighting against an execution for a crime he didn’t commit in a place where he should never have been. With a dedicated team of lawyers, and growing national and international support, Imani and his hard working defense committee are hopeful that his execution can be stopped. But such a triumph for justice, however important, is only the beginning.
Imani wrote in a recent letter,
Before the U.S. government goes degrading other countries about the way they treat theirs and American prisoners, why don’t they look at the way American prisoners are being treated here in this country. Where they and we are still citizens. Yes, stop and look at the way these prisons are run and the way we are treated.
In his Inaugural Address on January 15, Fob James told his public, “It is time to end racism and discrimination in Alabama.” If the new Governor truly wants to give Alabama a “new beginning,” there is no more pressing place to stop, look and act than the Alabama prison and judicial systems.
Tom Gardner is an Atlanta free-lance writer who is active on the defense committee for Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris.