As a Black man in America, I know all too well what it is like to face an angry lynch mob. I spent 20 years on death row for a crime someone else committed.
I had six death warrants and six execution dates in Ohio. All six executions were later stayed by the governor, the last came within 90 minutes of my scheduled execution. I was asked about my Last Rites, where my dead body was to be sent, and what I wanted for my last meal. But my story ends differently than most. I am the survivor of what could have been a legal lynching. My story illustrates everything that is wrong with the death penalty.
I was eventually exonerated and freed, but it was bittersweet. On the same day I was released, William Williams, the man who had become my best friend in prison, was executed. I was sentenced to death on Oct. 25, 1985 and released on Oct. 25, 2005. For me, Oct. 25 will always be the worst day of my life and the best day of my life. I watched 18 of my friends taken to the execution chamber and killed. Some had been sent to death row as teenagers.
My parents died from the agony and pain of having a son on death row. My father, Joseph Jamison, died in 1987. My mother, Essie Jamison, spent 12 years working tirelessly and desperately to save me. With a mother’s determination, she spoke at community gatherings, churches, colleges — telling anyone who would listen that her son was innocent and the death penalty must be abolished. My mother died before she could see me walk into the sunshine as a free man.
The death penalty not only kills those convicted of a crime, it destroys families. The government never compensated me for the 20 years of freedom that they took from me or apologized for what they did. There are at least 170 men and women who have been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row for crimes they didn’t commit in the United States since 1973, including 29 from Florida.
My experience is not an isolated incident. My wrongful conviction was the result of a deeply flawed system, a system that is infected with racial bias and risks the execution of the innocent. There is a double standard when it comes to finding justice in our legal system. If you are a person of color or a low-income citizen, the pursuit of justice can be an elusive one. But if you are rich, access to resources can make all the difference in the world. It can be the difference between freedom and a life behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit.
Today, I share my story with audiences across the country. I talk about the need to reform our criminal legal system, abolish the death penalty, and love and compassion for all of humanity. My wrongful conviction is powerful evidence that legal or not, lynching must end.
Derrick Jamison spent more than 20 years on death row in Ohio. He is exonerated death row survivor #119 (there are now 170). He lives in Tampa and is a Peer Specialist for Witness to Innocence and member of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and The Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing.