In a Democracy Now! exclusive, former Black Panther Party leader Marshall “Eddie” Conway joins us less than 24 hours after his release from nearly 44 years in prison. Supporters describe Conway as one of the country’s longest-held political prisoners. He was convicted of killing a Baltimore police officer in 1970, for which he has always maintained his innocence. The shooting occurred at a time when federal and local authorities were infiltrating and disrupting the Black Panthers and other activist groups. At the time of the shooting, the FBI was also monitoring Conway’s actions as part of its counterintelligence program,COINTELPRO. Numerous groups have campaigned for years calling for his release, saying he never received a fair trial and was convicted largely on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informant. Politically active in prison, Conway founded Friend of a Friend, a group that helps young men, often gang members, resolve conflicts, and published a memoir, “Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.” In his first interview since being released, Marshall details his time behind bars and the government surveillance he faced as a prominent Black Panther.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Marshall “Eddie” Conway is free. The former leader of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore was released Tuesday after serving nearly 44 years in prison. His supporters described him as one of the country’s longest-held political prisoners. Conway was convicted of killing Baltimore police officer Donald Sager, who was shot dead on April 24th, 1970. Another officer was injured in the shooting. Conway has always maintained his innocence. His supporters say he never received a fair trial and that much of the case was built on the testimony of a jailhouse informant.
AMY GOODMAN: The shooting occurred at a time when federal and local authorities were infiltrating and disrupting the Black Panthers and other activist groups. It later emerged the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panthers was actually founded by undercover officers from the Baltimore Police Department. At the time of the shooting, the FBI was also monitoring Conway’s actions as part of its counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO.
Numerous groups have campaigned for years calling for Marshall “Eddie” Conway’s release. In 2001, even the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution urging the governor of Maryland to pardon him.
Conway remained politically active in prison. In 2011, AK Press published his memoir titled Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther. In prison, he also started Friend of a Friend, a group that helps young men, often gang members, resolve conflicts. It’s affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee.
Marshall “Eddie” Conway joins us now from Baltimore less than 24 hours after being released from prison. Also with him, his attorney, Bob Boyle.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Eddie Conway, how does it feel to be free?
MARSHALL “EDDIE” CONWAY: I’m not sure yet. I’m still kind of like getting adjusted to all the stimulation. I actually haven’t slept at all. But I’m enjoying the new environment.
AMY GOODMAN: You must have been shocked yesterday in that nondescript courtroom when the judge announced you were free.
MARSHALL “EDDIE” CONWAY: Yes. Well, I had anticipated that that was going to happen, but until it actually happened, I was not sure what was going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Boyle, can you explain what actually happened? On what law was Marshall “Eddie” Conway freed?
BOB BOYLE: Well, good morning, Amy, and good morning, Nermeen.
We’ve actually been trying various legal ways to get Eddie Conway out of prison for many, many years, some based on the counterintelligence program, on the unfairness of his trial, on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. A few years ago, the—then, a few years ago, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the jury instructions, which were typically given in trials in the early 1970s—in fact, up until 1980—were unconstitutional. Specifically, the judge told juries back then, and up until 1980, that the jury need not follow the instructions of the court, that the instructions are simply advisory, which means even though the judge told the jury that the prosecution had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, for example, he also told the jury, “Well, you could ignore that instruction, and it’s up to you whether to vote guilty or not guilty.”
That change in the law, or, actually, recognition that the instruction was unconstitutional, applied to Eddie Conway’s case. And along with Phil Dantes, my co-counsel, we went back to court, as did many other prisoners in the state of Maryland, earlier last year, seeking a new trial on the basis of that. The motion kind of lingered for the past year. And over the course of the last few months, we reached an agreement with the state’s attorney to resentence Mr. Conway to time served. And as a result of that agreement, he was released yesterday after, yeah, nearly 44 years in prison—actually, 43 years and 11 months.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Bob Boyle, is this likely—this change in law, is this likely to result in the release of other prisoners in Maryland, as well?
BOB BOYLE: Well, it has already resulted in the release of many prisoners in Maryland who served decades in prison. And it’s continuing. Some have been denied release, which—for some unknown reason. But, yes, it has and it also should result in the release of more.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Eddie Conway, can you talk about the experience of writing your memoir in prison? What prompted you to do that, and how did you go about doing it while you were imprisoned?
MARSHALL “EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, I think at some point I realized I was getting older, and I realized that I had a lot of experiences and a lot of history of things that had happened, and they hadn’t been recorded. And I think they would have been lost to history, and they would have been lessons that had been learned through organizing in prisons that other people could have used. So I think at some point I sat down, and I started writing, and I tried to capture what it was that we had tried to do during those turbulent years that George Jackson was organizing in California and Attica occurred in New York.
We were trying in the state of Maryland to organize prison labor unions. We were trying to organize education seminars, communication seminars. There was no prison library, say, in the penitentiary for 2,000 people, and so there were no books available. So we organized a prison library. All of those things were like collective, organized activities from prisoners on the ground that was an attempt to change the prison system in a way in which would be acceptable, kind of like going down the middle. We wasn’t talking about guerrilla warfare, and we wasn’t talking about tearing down the prison, but we was trying to make things available for prisoners so that they could improve their lives.
That experience, I thought, was going to be lost as I got older and older, so I decided to start writing and wrote it down, and my co-author kind of helped me shape it and develop it and whatnot. And so, we ended up producing that book. And I hope it’s something that people can see and learn and understand what we went through.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway, can you talk about why you joined the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and then what happened in 1970?
MARSHALL “EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, basically, I was in Europe. I was a sergeant in the Army in Germany, and I had served almost three years. And they had the riot in Newark, New Jersey, and they put armored personnel carriers in the center of the black community, and they pointed .50 caliber machine guns at about 25 or 30 black women standing on a corner. And as I was reading this while I was in Europe, basically it said that somebody had broke into the National Guard armory. They had came through the community, locked up all the black males in the black community. The women were out there protesting, and they basically called out the National Guard to kind of like control that protest. But I looked at the .50 caliber machine gun, and I looked at the armored personnel carrier, and I questioned what I was doing in Europe. I was on my way to Vietnam. And at that point, I decided to like leave the Army, come home, and with the concept that, well, OK, we needed to make some changes in America, America needed some kind of reform. Military vehicles shouldn’t be sitting in the middle of the intersection, and .50 caliber machine guns shouldn’t be pointed at black women in the black community. And so, something was wrong with that picture, and I could probably come home and help join some efforts to kind of reform that.
And I joined the NAACP. I joined CORE. We integrated the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel workplace and basically pressed for some white-collar jobs and whatnot. But in the process of doing all that, I kind of got the sense in America that it was—this is like the late ’60s. There was a lot of racism going on. There was a lot of organizing going on. There was a lot of activities that were actually just kind of like undermining the efforts that people in the black community was making to improve their lot. So, as I went on, I realized—I said, “Well, OK, some more serious kind of organizing needs to happen to improve the condition in the black community.” And I looked at all the different organizations, and the Black Panther Party represented at least a serious attempt to start feeding the children, to start educating the population, to start organizing healthcare and stuff like that. So I joined and started working with them.
And I didn’t discover until later on that the chapter was organized by a national security agent and police informers and so on. But we did that kind of work. And in the process of doing that kind of work, I think some of the most active people in the organization was targeted, followed around by theCOINTELPRO, and opportunities were created with agent provocateurs or police informers, or even just incidents were created, that ultimately led to them destroying like 25 of our 37 state chapters in a period of 18 months. And they locked up the primary leadership, all the national leadership, or they chased them out of the country. And then they started focusing on the secondary leadership. At that time, I was considered part of the secondary leadership. And they pretty much locked us up or framed some of us or chased some of us out of the country.
And they used an incident in Baltimore where two Black Panthers were arrested in the aftermath of a police shooting, in which one policeman died and a couple others were wounded. And they used that to lock me up. And they locked me up and pretty much put an informer in my cell and used that to justify them holding me in the prison system. They stacked the deck in terms of my photograph in two different sets of photographs. Mine was the only one duplicated. Actually, we took that to the Supreme Court and challenged it, and we challenged some other things. But by the time we found out that COINTELPRO was out there and operating, pretty much the Black Panther Party had been destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this conversation. We’re speaking with Marshall “Eddie” Conway. He is free today after nearly 44 years in prison. He was released yesterday. We’re also joined by Bob Boyle, one of Marshall “Eddie” Conway’s attorneys. This isDemocracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a minute.