I met a guy last week who I hope I'll never forget. Ndume Olatushani stepped from a car at the Swiss consulate in a swank section of Los Angeles and headed poolside for cocktails and lunch with a handful of death-penalty opponents, diplomats and political cartoonists.
He was to be the guest of honor, along with Sister Mary Helen Prejean, (who wrote Dead Man Walking) at an evening opening of Windows on Death Row (Windowsondeathrow.com), paintings, drawings and cartoons by Death Row inmates, as well as anti-capital punishment editorial cartoons.
Olatushani was freed June 1, 2012, after 27 years in prison, 19 on Death Row — much of it in solitary — for a crime he didn't commit. ("Solitary" means a 4 by 4 foot cell, 23 hours a day, shackled and chained for the other hour.)
How he could emerge in one piece, with any mental faculties whatsoever, let alone speak calmly and movingly about the experience, I have no idea.
If you think Death Row is populated by the worst of the worst, not just the unluckiest of the unfortunate, if you truly don't understand the Black Lives Matter movement, I invite you to read his story. (http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/if-not-for-love-and-art-ndume-olatushani-would-have-died-on-death-row/Content?oid=3406836)
Sister Prejean delivered the expected: a practiced and passionate statistic-laden diatribe against the sheer injustices of capital punishment, of racial and economic bias, of errors and willful misconduct at every level, of institutionalized and largely invisible injustice on an unthinkable scale.
Mike Farrell, of MASH fame and longtime president of Death Penalty Focus, rose to confidently predict that the next California initiative against it would pass. (A 2012 referendum failed by just two percentage points.)
But neither the famously outspoken nun nor the veteran Hollywood actor could match Ndume's delivery for gravitas. In a steady but low voice, eyes sometimes averted, in straightforward language, he related his tale of youthful misconduct, of wrongful arrest and conviction, of studying art on the inside, of losing friends, of his ultimate exoneration and difficult transition.
He told of a fellow released prisoner moving back in with family, who, when given his choice of rooms, subconsciously selected the smallest, with dimensions matching his former cell. Touching and sobering stuff.
At the bar gathering afterwards, Sister Prejean drank single-malt scotch and held court. To my disappointment, Ndume wasn't there.
I wondered if he'd simply delivered his conscience-shaking message and gone back to his room. Solitary, but with mini-bar, cable TV and magnetic-stripe keycard.
I'm going to do what I can to bring Windows on Death Row to Lexington. I hope that a year from now I'm introducing you to Ndume Olatushani and that you don't forget him either.