Marshall Eddie Conway – a former member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party and one of the longest-held political prisoners in America – walked out of the Mitchell Courthouse downtown a free man, March 4, after 43 years and 11 months in prison.
Conway, 67 was convicted of killing Baltimore Police Officer Donald Sager and injuring another officer during a shooting in 1970, a charge Conway has denied from the beginning. He says he was imprisoned due to a scheme connected to the shooting crafted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), which monitored and infiltrated various left-wing organizations from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s.
Fewer than 24 hours after his release Conway was interviewed on National Public Radio’s, “Democracy Now.”
“I actually haven’t slept at all, but I’m enjoying the new environment,” Conway said during the interview with one of his defense attorneys, Bob Boyle at his side. Boyle explained why Conway was finally released after more than four decades in prison and numerous attempts to have his conviction overturned.
“The (Maryland) Court of Appeals ruled that the jury instructions were unconstitutional…up until 1980,” Boyle said.
“Specifically, the judge told jurors back then 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, he also told the jury that you could ignore that instruction,” Boyle explained. “That…recognition that the instruction was unconstitutional applied to Eddie Conway’s case,” Boyle added.
Ultimately, about a year after the Court of Appeals ruling the State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to reduce Conway’s sentence to time served.
During the interview Conway acknowledged he joined the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s after he watched the riots in Newark unfold. “We needed to make some changes in America needed some kind of reform…so I joined,” Conway said. “I didn’t discover until later on that the chapter was organized by a national security agent and police informants,” he added.
Conway says COINTELPRO succeeded in dismantling 25 of the 37 Black Panther Party chapters across the nation in a span of 18 months and Conway’s trial for the murder of Sager took place in January of 1971 while COINTELPRO was still active.
From the time he entered prison in 1971, Conway never stopped his work as a political organizer. He founded, “Friend of a Friend,” a group that helps young men – many of them gang members – to resolve conflicts inside and outside of the prison system.
For decades numerous attorneys, individuals and organizations have worked with Conway to overturn his conviction.
Michelle Wright, head of the Department of History and the Department of Afrikaner Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County first heard of Conway’s case around 1998 when she published a story about his plight in her now defunct publication, “Natural Alternatives.”
“Shortly after that I started to go down and visit him…that’s when I really understood what the case was about,” Wright said. “That’s when I started doing the fundraisers…then I did the book on him in 2003,” added Wright who edited the book, “The Case of Marshall Eddie Conway.” She says his release is bittersweet for her.
“Forty-four years is too long and you can never give him back his life…he can never get that back, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that finally he’s out,” Wright said. “Personally, I’m just happy…that he’s going to be able to spend some time on the outside organizing because he never stopped organizing on the inside,” Wright added.
During the Democracy Now interview Conway affirmed he would continue the work he has done for decades behind bars now that he finally walks free.
“I’m going to continue to work with the Friends of a Friend program,” Conway said. “I’m going to work outside the prison system… to help save some of the lives that are being lost.”