The Lamber Goodnow Team recently introduced you to the incredible plight of Shabaka Shakur. Now, a chance to see and hear the brave man as he begins a new life ….
I was wrongly convicted for two homicides. The basis of my conviction was a false confession that was fabricated by a detective trying to close a case, and it took twenty seven and a half years for them to finally overturn the conviction. I was elated. It took me twenty something years of fighting this case to finally win my freedom, so I was ecstatic.
The most important thing I think I’ve learned is about people. I don’t think that this is about systems failing, it’s about people. Detective Louis Garcello, the detective in my case, he was a person who decided on his own that he was going to do what he did. And throughout the years I have had people who turned a blind eye. It’s not the system per se, it’s people.
By the same token, it was people who, at the end, helped me get out. People who supported me, a judge who stood up and said, “You know, something is wrong with this conviction.” He gave me a hearing. An attorney who decided that he was going to take the case pro bono, and law students who helped me along the way because they believed in the case. So it’s about people more than it is about a system.
The thing about hope is that sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it’s not. It was times when I was depressed, it was times when I thought I would never get out. But more times I always felt there was going to be something that was going to open the doors for me. I knew that there was something wrong about my conviction, and I just knew that sooner or later somebody was going to see it. So I kept fighting to get the case heard, to get somebody’s attention, figuring that…I never believed that everybody’s bad. So I had to believe that somebody was going to look at this case and see that there was a problem and do something about it and that kept me going.
I think what kept me going is wanting the truth to be known. My mother and my father saw me incarcerated for something that I didn’t do. My mother unfortunately and this is sad event that my mother died prior to me being released. So she never had the opportunity to see the conviction overturned. And unfortunately my father, to some extent, hasn’t had that opportunity either. He’s alive but he suffers from memory loss. Even though he sees me, the very next day he still thinks I’m incarcerated. So both of those people that were important in my life have never really seen me released, and I think that that was one of the driving forces that kept me motivated to continue to fight.
I believe that the problem is that we get involved in the politics instead of just seeking justice. A lot of the politics at the time of my incarceration which was in the 1980s when there was a crack epidemic, when New York City was full of crime was that incarceration was the key to cleaning up the streets. Incarcerated by a war on crime and unfortunately when you start that type of momentum, people get dragged in that are innocent, you know what I’m saying. And it’s not just me, it’s a lot more people who are still innocent because during that time the focus was incarcerating as many people as possible.
Now people are starting to see that that was a mistake. And seeing that that was a mistake, they’re starting to see that you have a lot of people incarcerated that shouldn’t be in prison. Fortunately, like I said, it’s about people. People’s mindset change and in the change of the mindset they are able to cause changes in the system.
I don’t have faith in any system. I have faith in the people, and that’s the key thing to me. Like I said, you’re always going to have those bad seeds. You know, Detective Garcello was one officer, and I’m sure there’s quite a few others. But the majority of officers are out there to do a job, and I think that they’re trying to do their job.
You have attorneys, in my case, that I felt was ineffective, but the majority of attorneys are out there to do a good job and they try to do their job. So I have faith overall in people, and I think that people have to have faith in themselves. They have to be able to have the integrity to say when something is wrong to not let it go, not to turn a blind eye. But to speak up and that’s what happened toward the end of my case, and that’s why I’m free. At the beginning people were willing to turn a blind eye unfortunately.
I think that a lot of good came out of this. I’m going to tell you why. One, while I was in prison I was able to educate myself. I got a college degree in prison. I learned the law. I was able to do my own legal work to get me out. And also, throughout those years my situation inspired a lot of other people. Since I’ve been home, I get a lot of calls from guys in prison who tell me all the time that, “We saw you go through the process, like we were in prison with you. And when everybody else was in the yard playing basketball, you was in the law library studying. You was in the college program. You were doing the things and your focus was always on getting out, and you were able to get out.” So they see that, and they’re inspired now to do the same thing to say, “Okay, I’ve got to focus on my freedom because it can happen.” One person being able to do it inspires other people to do it, and I think that’s the key.
What’s going on with my life right now is this, I’m working as a paralegal at a law firm and most of the cases we deal with are wrongful convictions. I also am the co-founder of a non-profit called “Absolutely Innocent Inc.” which also deals with wrongful convictions. But we wanted to do it different because we have a lot of non-profits that deal with wrongful convictions is that not only do we deal with the wrongfully convicted individual inside the prison, but we’re creating a support network for the families because a lot of families don’t know what to do.
They don’t know what to do when their son or their husband or their brother or their sister, for that case, are incarcerated, and they go running to attorneys who are overwhelmed. So we’re creating a support network to try to teach them that in certain situations you can be a vital asset to those people who are locked up. So that’s what I’m doing right now. That’s kind of like being incarcerated. I learned the law, and it’s become like my passion to really work with that. And I think that’s what I’m going to continue to do.