Bringing closure to the Black Panther era: Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway free at last

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Update:  On March 4, 2014, after residing for 44  years in a state prison cell, Marshall “Eddie” Conway became a free man. He had been convicted of killing a Baltimore City Police Officer, Donald Sager, in 1970, in West Baltimore, and wounding another. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The officers were ambushed while sitting in their patrol car. Two other defendants beside Conway were convicted of the offense. One died in prison and another was released in 2009, because of a trial judge’s mistake in not following the correct sentencing procedure.

Conway always maintained his innocence in the police killings.

For years, Conway, now 67, has repeatedly insisted on his innocence. Leaders in Baltimore’s African-American community, like City Council President Jack Young, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham and the NAACP’s Tessa Hill-Aston, believe Conway didn’t get a “fair trial” for a variety of reasons, including the impact the FBI’s then-COINTELPRO program was having on the Black Community. More about COINTELPRO in a moment. The Civil Rights activists, while condemning the murder of the police officer, advocated for a Pardon from the governor for Conway.

Also, in Conway’s corner on this issue was Del. Clarence Davis (45-D) of Baltimore City. I recall going to Annapolis a few years back to support a “Petition,” drafted for the purpose of making a case for a Pardon for Conway. Davis submitted it to the House’s Judiciary Committee, where it was, unfortunately, never heard from again.

However, as a result, of a recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision, an individual convicted in a jury trial in a criminal case before 1980, is entitled to a “new trial,” because of a “faulty jury instruction.” Conway’s case fell in that category.

Consequently, his attorneys made a deal with the State’s Attorney, Gregg L. Bernstein. Conway gave up his right to fight in court for a reversal of his conviction and instead accepted release from prison on time served. He will also be on probation for five years. Legal experts doubt that the Conway case, if retried today, after forty long years, could result in a conviction.

Support continued through out the years to free Conway. (Public Domain)

Back Story: Now, here are relevant parts of a commentary on the Conway case, which I penned on March 29,1999, for the newspaper, “Baltimore Press.”

Although the original Black Panther Party is history,   one of its members is still languishing in prison in  Maryland. His name is Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway. A  former leader of the local Panther group, he has been behind bars for nearly 30 years.

Now, for a black man to get a fair trial, two years after the 1968 Baltimore Riots, was difficult at best. Adding to that the fact the defendant advocated  extreme  radical politics, it was pushed the envelope to its outer edge.

The Black Panther Party was the White Establishment’s worst nightmare come true. Frustrated by what many Black activists saw as the limited success of the Civil Rights Movement and the horrific murders of leaders such as the fiery Malcom X and the revered Martin Luther King, they organized to change the system by “any means necessary.” This proved, in a democratic society, to be both a seriously flawed and  self-defeating strategy.

The Establishment countered with a J. Edgar Hoover-inspired covert process called, “COINTELPRO.” It  was formed to infiltrate and disrupt Black Nationalist  organizations, and in particular, the Black Panther Party. The FBI won the battle and the Black Panther Party was totally crushed. Many of its leaders were either killed, forced underground, or sent to prison.  Some were fairly convicted of their offenses; others,  however, fell into a miscarriage of justice category.

Free at last!
Free at last!

One such case involved Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, who just  had his 1972 conviction for murder overturned in Los Angeles.  The court said the prosecution wrongly suppressed evidence that the main witness against him was a government informant who was paid by the police and FBI  to infiltrate the Black Panthers. Pratt was lucky. He was represented on appeal by the celebrated criminal defense attorney, Johnny Cochran.

The case against Conway, too, was built primarily on the most dubious kind of evidence, a jail house informer. The snitch insisted that Conway, who never wanted the guy as  his cell mate, had confessed to him about killing the police officer.

It is hard to believe that someone as politically conscious as Conway would blab to a total stranger about his supposed involvement in such an outrageous event. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have a Johnny Cochran type lawyer by his side at the trial table to protect his rights.

Sir William Blackstone, Jurist,
Sir William Blackstone, Jurist.

Conway had fired both of his lawyers. The first, who  was privately retained, in a dispute over trial strategy;  and the second, who had been appointed by the court to defend him, but who allegedly did little to prepare for the trial. Conway had refused to cooperate with him.

Back in 1970, impoverished defendants in serious felony cases had to face the music, without having the kind of  adequate legal representation to which they were rightfully entitled to under the U.S.Constitution. There wasn’t a Maryland “Public Defender” system in place at that time.

Most importantly, there was no physical evidence linking Conway to the terrible crime. While he was in  custody, two of the police officers that were involved  in the incident identified his photo as being one of the assailants on the night in question. The problem with that gambit was that Conway’s attorney wasn’t present and the witnesses were given two stacks of photos to look through.

Conway’s mug was placed in both of them, unfairly suggesting he was the culprit. In the first stack, a 1963 photo of the defendant was used and neither officer could make a positive I.D. When his 1970 photo was inserted, however, they both identified the defendant. The usual police lineup of suspects wasn’t held either.

A lot of things in this country have changed since the  tumultuous “Burn Baby Burn 60s,” especially inmate Conway himself. He has earned three college degrees while in prison, and organized a computer literacy program for his fellow inmates. His conduct, too, inside the prison system has been exemplary.

It is time to time to close the books on the Baltimore Black Panther era. It is also time to free Marshall “Eddie” Conway. Healing and reconciliation in the community require it.

Note:  The “Back Story” part of this article was originally published in “The Baltimore Press,” March, 29, 1999, and later reprinted in my book of essays, “Baltimore Iconoclast,” Writer’s Showcase, 2002.


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