Monday, November 03, 2008

Fifty Years later, the Oldest Survivor of Death Row USA Casts Ballot for Obama

Journey of Hope Member Moreese “Pops” Bickham, 91 years old, the oldest survivor of Death Row USA, with Sister Helen Prejean.

By Joan Cheever

Moreese Bickham spent 13, 695 days behind bars; 37 years and six months in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He stayed 14 years and 10 months on Louisiana's death row.

But the 91 year-old Bickham is not looking back. He's focused on living in the Free World in a country he hopes will soon be governed by the first African American president .

"In all my life, I never thought I'd see this day. A black American going to be the next president of the United States of America," Bickham said. "I am the grandson of a slave. Born in Tylertown, Mississippi and farmed my grandma's land. And then we had the poll tax."

Between 1889 and 1910, 11 Southern states adopted a poll tax, targeted to disenfranchise black Americans. The poll tax wasn't eliminated until 1964 when the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

But one month ago, on a crisp fall afternoon in late September, I drive Mr. Bickham to the Obama headquarters in the small Pacific Northwest town where he currently resides, to make sure he is registered to vote. I have known Moreese Bickham since 1996, the year he was released from prison. He is a subject in my book, Back From the Dead: One woman's search for the men who walked off America's death row. (John Wiley & Sons 2006).

In the past 18 months, Mr. Bickham and I have often talked of the 2008 presidential election. During a fishing trip in mid-June, after the Democratic primary, our conversation turned to the very real possibility of an Obama presidency. And the impact it would have on all Americans.

After the recent media reports of voter intimidation, especially in regards to convicted felons, I became alarmed that this former Death Row inmate might not be allowed to vote - a man who survived seven execution dates, three heart attacks, prostate cancer, and a questionable conviction for murder, in the first place.

Three weeks after visiting Mr. Bickham, with more news of voting list purges and intimidation primarily in six swing states, I call a family meeting and tell my two teenagers and husband, that we must make an emergency trip to North Carolina. That's how we ended up last week in the Cary, NC Obama office for our dual "family political vacation" and on site civics lesson.

But on the afternoon with Mr. Bickham, he does not share my fear about whether he can vote. He knows that he can. He voted in the 2004 presidential election. He has confidence in the 2008 electoral process and the patience of a 91-year-old African American.

The campaign office is empty when we walk in at 3 pm. Angela and Ann, Obama volunteers, are busy organizing stacks of campaign literature.

"Good afternoon, ladies. My name is Bickham. Moreese Bickham," he says, and tips his black felt hat. "I'm here to make sure I'm registered to vote. Was born in Tylertown, Mississippi in 1917."

The two women jump up and grab a folding chair, opening it and asking the World War II Navy veteran to sit down.

"I got here my Veterans Administration ID card. Now here's my Social Security card. Miss Joan here told me to bring proof of address. So I have."

Mr. Bickham became eligible to vote the day he was released from prison. He has never been on parole. In January 1996, he walked out as a free man, after serving almost 40 years. During his time inside, Mr. Bickham had an no disciplinary infractions; he received his GED and became an ordained Methodist minister. During the last two years in Angola, Mr. Bickham worked as the caretaker of the prison cemetery. On the last day in Angola, he went to a funeral for a fellow inmate.

Mr. Bickham was sent to Death Row for the July 12, 1958 murders of two white police officers in Mandeville, Lourisiana, an area where Jim Crow segregation prevailed in the 1950s and where there was an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the early morning hours of July 12, Mr. Bickham and his girlfriend got into a fight at Buck's Bar in Mandeville; one of the officers broke up the fight and gave Mr. Bickham's girlfriend a ride home. The then 41-year-old Bickham, who had no prior record, said the officer called him a "Nigger" and threatened to kill him. But prosecutors maintained that Mr. Bickham returned to his home and waited to ambush the two officers.

Mr. Bickham says when they arrived, he put his hands up to surrender. But one of the officers shot him in the chest and then both officers continued to shoot. He then returned fire and moments later, both officers were dead.

"I pray all the time for forgiveness. It always weighs heavy on my mind. I didn't feel like I had a choice that night. It was me or them."

Mr. Bickham was more surprised that he was still alive on the day of his trial.

"My two great grandfathers were lynched. So I was surprised that I didn't end up at the lynching tree."

In closing arguments, his own lawyer called him "a darky on a Saturday night." The all-white male jury took only two hours to find Moreese Bickham guilty and sentence him to death.

On June 29, 1972, the United States abolished the death penalty in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia, ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional. On that day in the Summer of '72, in Death Houses in 30 states and the District of Columbia, 587 men and two women were sitting on Death Row.

Their death sentences were commuted to life in prison. Many have never been released or have died behind bars. But more than half have walked out of prison and many never returned. Of those men who did reoffend, most committed minor parole violations or lesser felony offenses and were reincarcerated for a short time.

The constitutionality of the death penalty continues to be a controversial issue in 2008 as is the right of ex-felons to vote, especially in this presidential election.

Across the country, approximately 5.3 million people cannot vote because of criminal convictions, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the American Civil Liberties Union. About a quarter of those are incarcerated and another third are on probation or parole.

According to the ACLU, the most liberal voting rights states are Vermont and Maine. Felons there don't lose their voting privileges at all and can even vote while incarcerated. The two most restrictive states are Virginia and Kentucky where convicted felons are disenfranchised for life unless they receive a pardon by the governor. The remaining 46 states fall somewhere in between. Some states restore voting rights upon release from prison; others upon completion of probation and parole and still others impose a waiting period or other contingencies.

Each state has different processes, exceptions and limits on eligibility requirements.

One of the biggest obstacles in getting ex-felons to the poll on Election Day or during the Early Voting process, is education. Many do not know of their right to vote. Even election board officials are confused.

Researchers from the Brennan Center found that half the election officials interviewed in Colorado didn't know that residents on probation were allowed to vote. Confusion also reigns in the swing state of Ohio. Officials in New York, New Jersey and Washington state created voting requirements that made registering almost impossible.

In North Carolina - a swing state -- the voting rights of ex-felons are automatically restored but only after individuals serve probation, parole and pay court fees.

Most ex-felons are unaware of their voting rights and that is the biggest challenge, said Dennis W. Gaddy, in a telephone interview.

Gaddy, a convicted felon, graduate of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Campbell University School of Law, is the founder and executive director of Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative, grass-roots, nonprofit organization, devoted to helping felons successfully re-enter the community.

"There's the old myth of thinking they can't and then some are apathetic about the whole voting process," Gaddy said. "That's why CSI makes sure that our clients have partners and mentors. To help them with the process. "

This year, CSI is handing out flyers to their clients about their voting rights.

"The Advantages of Early Voting" from clearly spells out deadlines, Early Voting and Election Day poll locations, phone numbers and information about the One Stop Early Voting and Registration, along with a list of the paper documentation needed for the registration (not voting) process.

The pamphlet from the North Carolina State Board of Elections called "Knowing Your Rights - A Misdemeanant and Ex-Felon's Guide to Voting in North Carolina" is confusing and the word, "Misdemeanant" stops me. For a few seconds.

It's not user-friendly but then, not everyone believes that convicted felons have a right to vote.

Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Sterling, Virginia said felony voting restrictions are similar to laws prohibiting children, noncitizens or the mentally incompetent from voting.

In an Oct. 18, 2008 article for National Review online, Clegg wrote: "The reason we don't let felons vote has nothing to do with race and everything to do with common sense. Individuals who have shown they are unwilling to follow the law cannot claim the right to make laws for the rest of us. "

Clegg added: "We have certain minimum standards of trustworthiness before we let people participate in the serious business of self-government, and people who commit serious crimes don't meet those standards."

But one convicted felon says registering to vote is an integral part of re-entry. She believes it plays an important role - psychologically -- in determining whether an ex-felon is successful in the Free World.

I meet Rhoda M. Bruington, a CSI administrative aide, on the outside - in the waiting room in the Wake County JobLink Career Center, where CSI has an office. The JobLink waiting room looks like every other large, impersonal bureaucratic office. Actually it resembles a doctor's office in a strip center.

It's 11:30 am. on Monday, eight days before the presidential election. There are at least 10 people ahead of me in the check-in line and the waiting area is standing room only.

Bruington conducts intake for CSI, interviewing ex-felons to assess their needs and tell them about the different educational, job and life skill programs available to assist in re-entry. She tells me people were lined up in the parking lot when the office first opened.

"You should've been here then. Well, actually it's good that you weren't," said Bruington, a 63- year-old convicted armed robber, with a slight, East Coast accent. "The line was long. They just extended the unemployment benefits. A lot of people are hurting."

Bruington, a native of Philadelphia, who lived for a time in Long Island, NY, is passionate about CSI. She hands me the agency's "Re-Entry Curriculum" - a checklist to help those who have just been released from prison. The headings include Personal Development, Job Education, Housing, Mentoring and Community Outreach.

Under Civic Education, there are two lines with boxes to be checked: "Exoffenders right to vote" and "Engagement in the electoral process."

Bruington was incarcerated for 13 years and when she was released in 2004 after serving her full sentence (not released on parole) she said the second item on her own "To Do" list, after getting a government ID, was registering to vote.

"Two days after I was released, I registered. I'm not really a political person. It was just so important to be a part of the process," Bruington said.

When I pressed further, asking why voter registration was such a high priority, she sat back, closed her eyes briefly, and then, struggling to find the right words, said: "It is so hard to describe."

She added softly: " All I can say is that when you are locked up for 13 years, it's just really important. It's a goal. It gives you a voice. And, also, responsibility."

See Also...

*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News & Radio Special: The Angola 3's Robert King Wilkerson Interview

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