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 the COINTELPRO, 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 is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Free Bobby Now,” a song about Black Panther Bobby Seale by The Lumpen, the Black Panthers Party band. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Marshall “Eddie” Conway, free after nearly 44 years in prison. Bob Boyle is also with him, one of Eddie Conway’s attorneys. I want to turn to Noam Chomsky right now, the world-renowned linguist, who talked about COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, on Democracy Now!
NOAM CHOMSKY: COINTELPRO, which you mentioned, is actually the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government. It maybe compares with Wilson’s Red Scare. But COINTELPRO went on from the late ’50s right through all of the ’60s; it finally ended, at least theoretically ended, when the courts terminated it in the early ’70s. And it was serious.
It started, as is everything, going after the Communist Party, then the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Then it extended—the women’s movement, the New Left, but particularly black nationalists. And it ended up—didn’t end up, but one of the events was a straight Gestapo-style assassination of two black organizers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, literally. I mean, the FBI set up the assassination. The Chicago police actually carried it out, broke into the apartment at 4:00 in the morning and murdered them. Fake information that came from the FBI about arms stores and so on. There was almost nothing about it. In fact, the information about this, remarkably, was released at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, as compared with this, Watergate was a tea party. There was nothing, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Noam Chomsky. Now I want to read a comment from Gene Ryan, vice president of Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police, who said Tuesday about the release of Eddie Conway, quote, “It’s a very difficult thing to learn, after all these years, that he’s not going to fulfill the sentence he was given, which was life.” Marshall “Eddie” Conway, can you respond to the Fraternal Order of Police?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Yes. The fact that I’m released indicates that there was something wrong with the way in which the court proceeded to convict us. And I’m one of 200 people that’s still alive, after 32 years of them discovering that they had given us trials and jury instructions that were wrong and faulty and flawed based on a problem with the Maryland Constitution. They were supposed to rectify that in 1982. It took us 30-some years, 32 years fighting that. And it was, at that time, 500 prisoners that was affected by it. Three hundred of those prisoners are dead today because of something the state of Maryland did that was faulty. They are making that right now. And they should make it right. And if you claim that you support the law, then you need to support it when it do justice, even if you’re opposed to that justice. And in this case, this is a case of justice being done, even though it’s delayed.
BOB BOYLE: And just one other comment—
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Boyle.
BOB BOYLE: —is that Mr. Conway’s trial took place in January of 1971. The break-in at the office in Media, Pennsylvania, which led to the disclosures concerning COINTELPRO, did not occur until April of 1971. So Eddie went to trial at a time when COINTELPRO was still active and the jury did not know that there was this campaign to neutralize the leadership and the organization of the Black Panther Party. And so, he—although it was presented—tried to be presented at trial that there was this campaign of neutralization and people being framed up, we and his lawyers at the time lacked the information to do so. So, this has to be looked at in that context, and also in the context that many of the victims of COINTELPRO, you know, remain in prison today. Many, many—there are former members of the Black Panther Party who have been in jail for 40 years or more.
And one other thing in response to the FOP, no matter what the situation is in terms of his trial, Mr. Conway served 44 years in prison. He’s 67 years old. And, you know, there comes a point, I think, with all people who aspire to justice, that, you know, there’s enough time. And how much longer, I mean, are we vindictive, in terms of keeping people in prison? Particularly people who have served decades and who are of a certain age, you know, should all be let out.
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: And—but, look, I would just like to add one thing, too. The sentence of life in Maryland is a parolable sentence, and after 15 years a person is eligible for parole. Up until it became a political football for politicians, people were serving life sentences and doing 20 and 25 years and being paroled and released and returning to society. It was only after Dukakis up in Massachusetts lost his bid for the presidential election that lifers no longer received parole, because they used the Willie Horton case to take away the parolable life in the state of Maryland, even though that was legally the sentence according to the court. So, lifers now in Maryland are doing 40 and 50 years, when, technically, the judges that sentenced them only intended for them to do 20 to 25 years. And we are not getting paroled in Maryland as lifers, based on the fact that there’s politics involved. And so now the life sentence in Maryland, which is a parolable life sentence, has been changed because of politics, not because of the law, into a nonparolable sentence. And that, in itself, is wrong.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Marshall “Eddie” Conway, you spoke earlier about the work that you did inside the prison organizing a labor union, as well as a library. Could you explain how you went about doing that? And also say a little bit more about what the conditions were like in prison for you.
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, initially, when I got in prison, obviously I was shocked. You know, I had been in Europe. I had been all across the country. I had been, you know, doing a lot of stuff. I got in prison, and I realized that there wasn’t even a library there. There was one TV for 400 people. There was two radio stations. I mean, this was like 1971, I mean, and it seemed like it was 1930 in the Maryland Penitentiary.
So, of course I started working, but I also realized that there was a tremendous amount of young people and young men in prison, and because there wasn’t anything constructive to do, there was a tremendous amount of violence. So I started off first trying to, one, change that violence thing, and then, two, find things in which could help enhance the prisoner’s life. And it took a long time, but eventually we came up with the Friends of a Friend, a mentoring program in which we actually start training other brothers that had street creds to mentor young brothers and new brothers that came into the prison system. And over the years, this has made a significant difference in terms of street organization conflicts, in terms of resolving problems and so on.
And it is those people now that’s a resource that the communities need to use, that’s been mentoring for five and 10 years. They’re still in the prison system. And the problem with that is that you can mentor and you can help people in the prison system, but they’re already stuck in the prison system. And the real problem—the solution to the problem is to address that issue before people get caught up in the prison system. And that resource in the prison system, those mentors, need to be in the community, and they need to be working with younger people before they get sucked into the prison system. By that time, it’s too late. And it’s—you can do good work on that side of the wall, but you really need to do the work to make the community safer on the other side.
AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, when you came out of prison, there were those who you had helped, who were young people, 15 at the time, who came to see you when you came out, crediting you with helping them survive. I wanted to ask about your family, Eddie, your son, grandson. How were you able to maintain contact in prison? Were you able to?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: I was able to maintain contact, but I did really a very poor job. Obviously, you sacrifice a lot when you—and you lose a lot. You suffer a lot. You lose your family. You lose all the different kind of anniversary dates. You lose the events that bond and make a family grow together. You miss those experiences. You miss the first steps and the first words of your grandchildren. You try to maintain communications as best you can. You write, you telephone and so on. But it’s never a real relationship because that wall is in between you. There’s always a barrier between you and your family. That’s inhumane, to say the least, you know.
And when you talk about trying to make people whole, put them in prison and then rehabilitate them and make them whole, and the very way you do that is to tear them away from their family and tear them away from society, you diminish their capacity to be whole right there at the beginning, right? So that’s always been a problem. That’s a problem for me. I see it. And it’s a problem for other prisoners. In some kind of way, if you want healthy, normal human beings to come from the prison system, you’re going to have to find a way to treat them normal and healthy and let them develop family ties and so on, so they won’t come out in pain and so they won’t come out torn away and without the experience of a unified family.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, Eddie Conway, how often, in the time that you were in prison, were you able to receive visitors, your family and others, or make phone calls or maintain any communication with them?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, the phone system, you can use the phone system on a kind of regular basis. In some—different policies in different institutions. Some institutions, you can use it only every other day or so on. Visits are approximately eight a month, so you get to see one or two family members, you get to see one or two friends, and you get to see maybe one or two associates, or so on, each month. So, you can maintain some kind of communications, but there’s never any real kind of like bonding there. It’s not enough for that, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t want your grandchildren to see you in prison?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, I’ve seen my grandchildren in prison. It’s always—it’s always a bad experience. It’s a bad—even though there’s excitement in those visitations, it’s also a bad experience because there’s—the way in which the visitors are treated, they are treated like criminals. They’re treated like criminals because of association. The people they’re visiting are labeled as criminals, and they are treated like that also. And then it’s also a bad experience when it’s time to leave. It’s painful for mothers to leave, to walk out of the visiting room and leave their sons in there. It’s painful for fathers to do that. It’s painful for loved ones to do that. And it’s painful for children. I mean, so there’s a lot of pain, but you have to endure that pain to maintain some kind of normality. To me, I was trying to lessen a lot of that pain, because you could see it and you could hear it and you know that it existed.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marshall “Eddie” Conway. He left prison yesterday after nearly 44 years there. You mentioned that you realized later it was a member of the National Security Agency who was involved in setting up the Black Panther Party chapter in Baltimore, Eddie?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Yes, yes. There was a—the defense captain named Warren Hart, he worked for the National Security Agency. He set up the Black Panther Party. I was instrumental in exposing him after a lengthy investigation, and he fled the country. He went to Canada. He infiltrated Stokely Carmichael’s organization, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. He was exposed up there after engaging in some skulduggery with the FBI. He went to the Caribbeans, I believe the Bahamas, and he actually undermined some of the political movements down there and actually caused a death or two. And I’m not really sure that he didn’t cause a couple deaths in Maryland in the Black Panther Party, and which is a part of what caused me to actually start investigating him, because one of our members were actually killed as a result of something that he encouraged him to do.
But apparently, and as Bob said, there’s like political prisoners all across the country now from the Black Panther Party that has been victims of the COINTELPRO operation. It undermined a lot of people. It painted a picture that caused people not to get fair trials. It goaded people into responding to the violence that it was encouraging. It caused a lot of our members to get assassinated. It caused a lot of conflicts with other organizations that normally wouldn’t have occurred had they not been in the background manipulating different organizations with poison pen letters, etc.
As a result of the Church Committee hearings in '75, I believe it was, they determined that that operation was created to perpetrate violence among black groups and among other groups, and that was illegal activity. And some of the agents that participated in it got pardoned by the president, got presidential pardons. But all the Black Panther members that were victims of it didn't receive pardons. And they are still in prisons right now across the country. They are victims, primarily, because of the skulduggery, but also because of the climate that was created. And so, that’s the kind of operations that were going on then. Now they have kind of like legalized most of that stuff, in terms of spying and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie, as we wrap up, what gave you hope, almost 44 years behind bars?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, I appreciate you asking me that, because I want to take this opportunity to thank the tens of thousands of people that have supported me over the years and that have sent letters, postcards, marched, rallied, organized across America, around the world. Those letters, postcards, rallies, marches, organizing, etc., gave me hope, gave me encourage, gave me energy, and kept my spirit high. And it made me know that I was loved. And that same love needs to go out to the other political prisoners that remain locked up today for almost 40 years, most of them. And one of them is a little over 44 years. They need to have that same kind of support, that same kind of encouragement and that same kind of work to help get them free, because I think when you know that people work and love you, then you can do work yourself. And I think those are what political prisoners are doing, work in their particular areas, and they need to be encouraged to do that by people coming out and giving them that kind of support that I got.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Marshall “Eddie”—
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: And so, I owe a great deal.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Marshall “Eddie” Conway, now that you’re out, before we conclude, what plans do you have?
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Well, I’m going to continue to work with the Friends of a Friend organization. I think we’ve saved a lot of lives. I think we can save a lot more. I’m really proud of the young men that are out now. There are guys that three years, four years ago, they would have terrorized the community. Now they’re out feeding children. Now they’re out giving clothes out to people in the community. Now they’re out in Annapolis pursuing laws to help prison reform. And now they’re talking to young high schoolers and so on to encourage them not to get involved. And so, I can see in their work and in their practice that this is the way in which we need to try to address that problem, and so I’m going to continue to work with the Friends of a Friend program inside the prison system and outside the prison system, and try to see if we can expand it across the country to help save some of the lives that are being lost.
AMY GOODMAN: Marshall “Eddie” Conway, we want to thank you for being with us, free after forty—close to 44 years in prison, former Baltimore Black Panther leader. I also want to thank Bob Boyle, who is one of Marshall “Eddie” Conway’s attorneys. Eddie Conway, welcome to the free world.
MARSHALL ”EDDIE” CONWAY: Thank you. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, another remarkable story as we go to Colorado. Stay with us.