Wrongfully convicted death row inmate to speak in Lebanon

Staff Reports • Updated Oct 18, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Ndume Olatushani, who spent 28 years in prison and 20 years on death row, will share his story of wrongful conviction and death sentence Wednesday.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church at 30 S. Tarver St. in Lebanon.

The Rev. Stacy Rector, director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, will join Olatushani to reflect on the problems with Tennessee’s current death penalty system, including the factors that can lead to wrongful convictions. The event is co-sponsored by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Unitarian Universalist Fund for a Just Society.

Olatushani was sentenced to death in 1985 for the 1983 murder of a Memphis storeowner, Joe Belenchia, which took place during a botched robbery.

Although he had never been to Tennessee and numerous witnesses put him in St. Louis at his mother’s birthday party at the time of the crime, Olatushani was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2011, his conviction was overturned when the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that some of the state’s witnesses had close ties to other suspects, which could have led them to implicate Olatushani. He was awarded a new trial and was subsequently offered an Alford plea. This plea deal allowed Olatushani to maintain his innocence, granted him an immediate release from jail, but required that he plead guilty to a lesser charge. After 28 years in prison, Olatushani took the deal and was released June 1, 2012.

A few years into his sentence, Olatushani taught himself how to paint and has created numerous pieces. His colorful works are filled with African women, landscapes, and culture and have been on display in Vanderbilt University’s Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center. Olatushani’s story and artwork have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Nashville Scene, Pursuit Magazine and The Contributer. In addition to speaking for

Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Olatushani is a staff member of the Children’s Defense Fund, where he is working to dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline that leads many youth of color to become entangled in the criminal justice system.

Since 1976, 142 individuals have been exonerated from death rows across the country when evidence of their innocence came to light. In Tennessee, in addition to Olatushani’s release, three other death row inmates have had all charges against them dropped or were found not guilty in new trials, making them death row exonerees. Gussie Vann had all charges against him dismissed in 2011 for the 1992 murder of his daughter. Paul House and Michael McCormick both fought their wrongful convictions in Tennessee for 20 years before new evidence—including DNA—finally led to their release from death row.

“Since members of the Maryland legislature cited the real risk of executing an innocent person when they voted to repeal Maryland’s death penalty this year, this opportunity for Tennesseans to hear Ndume’s story is timelier that ever,” Rector said. 

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