|Don't worry: as of yesterday, this "political prisoner" is free... after all, he only killed a white cop...|
Former Black Panther leader Marshall "Eddie" Conway walked free Tuesday after spending four decades behind bars for killing a Baltimore police officer — making his one of the highest-profile cases affected by a high court decision that has cut short prison sentences for dozens of felons in recent years.
Conway, now 67, always said that he was innocent, alleging political motives in the prosecution of a 1970 shooting that killed Officer Donald Sager, 35, and injured another officer. Over the years many supporters, including prominent Baltimore politicians, have joined his cause.
Police union officials and Sager's family said they still believe Conway was guilty. But prosecutors — faced with the prospect of retrying a more than 40-year-old case built on the testimony of a fellow police officer and a jailhouse interview — said they could not have convicted him again.
Back in 2001 (then only a city council member) Baltimore's current City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young voted on a resolution to pardon black 'political prisoner' cop killer, Marshall "Eddie" Conway
Conway sought a new trial under a 2012 decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which said verdicts before 1980 were invalid because of faulty jury instructions. Under a deal with prosecutors, Conway agreed to abandon his court fight in exchange for his release on time served.
Conway walked out of the courthouse about 3 p.m. and then went to a friend's house to eat a plate of vegetable lasagna with his two sons and other supporters, according to Dominique Stevenson, a longtime advocate who co-wrote a book with him. Conway declined to be interviewed.
"He's just taking it all in," Stevenson said.
Supporters have long believed that Conway was set up because of his role with the Black Panthers, and on Tuesday the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others hailed his release, calling it a "monumental day" and "an important page turner in this tragic story."
But Sager's son, who was 7 at the time of his father's death, said he was devastated.
David Sager said he was warned of the outcome more than a month ago in a meeting with Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.
David Sager said he debated whether to attend Tuesday's hearing. He decided against it.
"My mother passed away two years ago, and in a way I'm glad that she's not around to see this," he said. "This is a very sad day. I think this is another tragedy on our justice system, one of a string of tragedies."
Police union officials said they were troubled by the release. Gene Ryan, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said it was "difficult" to learn that Conway would not serve out his life in prison.
He blamed the appellate courts for creating the circumstances that have led to Conway and others winning release.
Since the 2012 ruling by Maryland's highest court, dozens have fought their convictions and prosecutors have made deals to release many of them, opening old wounds for victims' families.
In Conway's case, Bernstein said that dealing with someone convicted of killing a police officer created "a different set of issues and concerns."
Bernstein did not believe prosecutors would have been able to convict Conway in a retrial after so many years. "It's about ... whether there's sufficient evidence to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed this crime," he said.
In 2001, the Baltimore City Council, including now-President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, passed a resolution urging Gov. Parris N. Glendening to pardon Conway, calling him a political prisoner innocent of murder. Through a spokeswoman, Young declined to comment Tuesday night.
NAACP chapter President Tessa Hill-Aston said the organization does not discount the fact that a police officer lost his life in the 1970 shooting. But she said Conway's prosecution came during an era in which black leaders were targeted by government officials to silence them.
"There were lots of African-American men who were accused and had bad trials," she said.
Dr. Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., a former Baltimore NAACP president who helped organize rallies on Conway's behalf, said Conway was convicted with no physical evidence and that the officer who identified Conway did not see him at the crime scene.
"I continue to keep the family of the deceased officer in prayer, but Eddie had said from day one that he hadn't done it and folks have to remember that this was when the COINTEL program was at its height," Cheatham said. "They did not have a witness who saw him there. They had no fingerprints or evidence there. They basically convicted him on the basis of what we now call an informant."
A City Council resolution urging Gov. Parris N. Glendening to pardon a man convicted of killing a police officer is sparking complaints from the police union, whose president wants lawmakers to publicly apologize.
"I demand that the City Council take immediate action to rescind this resolution in order to avoid exposing the wounds of our Fallen Heroes," wrote Officer Gary McLhinney, the union president, in a letter to the bill's sponsor, Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr. "The actions of the City Council are so egregious."
Council members who voted last month to urge a pardon for former Black Panther member Marshall "Eddie" Conway say he is a political prisoner innocent of murder.
They call the case circumstantial and question the integrity of a jailhouse informant who testified that Conway described the shooting to him.
"The union is entitled to its opinion," Handy said. "I'm simply expressing mine. He was convicted on at best spurious evidence."
|Will black Baltimore give him a ticker tap parade (as they did the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl in 2013?)|
"I think it's just ludicrous," Juanita Sager, Donald Sager's widow, said last week. "I'm totally opposed to even the thought of [a pardon]. He [Conway] not only took my husband's life, he took my life and my son's life. We still pay for that." Sager's son was 7 when his father was killed.
Now there's something for Handy and the resolution's co-sponsors - Helen Holton, Paula Johnson Branch, Bernard "Jack" Young, Keiffer Mitchell, Agnes Welch, Bea Gaddy, Robert Curran, Cathy Pugh, Lisa Stancil and Kenneth Harris - to ponder: If Sager's widow and son are still suffering, if they're still paying, why shouldn't Conway continue to do the same?