"If I snooze, I lose my life"
An interview with Keith LaMar
By Kevin Lowery, Prisonersolidarity.org
May 20, 2006
The following is an interview with Keith LaMar (a.k.a. Bomani Shakur)
who was sentenced to death for his alleged leadership role in the brutal prison uprising of 1993, which occurred at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, Ohio. In his recently self-published book, Condemned, Bomani (which means "mighty soldier" in Swahili) argues for a general amnesty for all Lucasville prisoners, drawing from the outcome of the prison uprising at Attica during the 1970s as his model.
"What happened there also happened at Lucasville," Bomani said during the interview with his cousin Kevin Lowery, "and I believe the governor should take a 'serious look' at the similarities and proceed accordingly."
Bomani Shakur is currently on death row at Ohio's super-maximum security prison in Youngstown, and is appealing his sentence. For more information about his case, read Staughton Lynd's book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. (Temple University Press, 2004).
LOWERY: Hello, Keith, how are you? Actually, would you prefer to be called Bomani? BOMANI: Bomani is fine. Keith LaMar is my government name, and I still answer to it when need be. Bomani is a Swahili attribute that means "mighty soldier."
LOWERY: So it's something that arose out of the experience then?
BOMANI: Yes, I guess you could say that. Because of the circumstances I was confronted with, back in 1993, I chose it to serve as a constant reminder of what I needed to be in order to survive. Shakur (thankful) simply reflects my gratitude for life, for being alive I'm thankful.
LOWERY: I see. Well, Bomani it is.
BOMANI: That's fine, thanks (chuckles).
LOWERY: So tell me Bomani, how have you been doing? From what I understand, you've been on death row for ten years, a decade, living under some very deplorable conditions. How have you been maintaining?
BOMANI: It's been very difficult, to be honest. I'm still trying to learn how to take it (life) one day at a time. As you said, I've been on death row for ten years, but I've been in prison for seventeen years altogether. So yeah, it's been very, very difficult indeed. And to your question--how am I doing? It's really hard to say. I'm alive. I'm stable, which is saying a lot. I've been in solitary confinement going on thirteen years now, since 1993, so I think I'm doing all right in light of what I've been forced to endure. As mentally strong as I believe myself to be, no one gets through this madness unscathed, without some type of injury, and I'm no exception. I'm blessed in that I have incredible friends and family, as well as a wonderful wife and son. I'm doing all right.
LOWERY: I'm glad to hear that. You've written a book about your ordeal called Condemned. I've read it and it's a very moving story. The question that kept coming to mind while reading it was, "How does someone survive such overwhelming mistreatment and still possess the focus and presence of mind to communicate the experience so clearly?" I think your ability to do that was most impressive. How was it possible? BOMANI: Well, the fact that the state is trying to kill me is a great motivator. I have to stay focused. If I snooze, I lose my life, so I don't really have the luxury to sit back and allow my mind to wander. Since being on death row, I've been learning how to meditate, which I try to do about two or three times a day, and that helps. You see, being on death row isn't about sitting around waiting to be murdered. One must read and study the law, cultivate connections with people in a position to help and, more than anything, keep up with the case to make certain it's moving in the right direction. So it's a full-time job -- that is, if you want to stay alive. And then with the Lucasville cases being so political, one has to be extra vigilant to make sure one is being properly represented, which is never guaranteed.
LOWERY: That sounds pretty daunting. In your book you speak about defense attorneys intentionally selling out their clients but that you escaped this dilemma. Has that changed -- are you still being properly represented?
BOMANI: To the best of my knowledge I am. However, one can never be 100 percent certain. If you know anything about the law, then you know it's a very complicated machine. It's constantly changing and, because of that, the rules are in constant flux, making it almost impossible to know when and where to file certain things. In fact, the state is right now trying to have my federal habeas corpus petition dismissed, claiming that my attorneys filed it too late. If this happens, I could receive an execution date this year.
LOWERY: I don't understand. You mean to tell me that you could be executed this year -- is that what you are saying?
BOMANI: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Because of a new law that came into effect well after I filed my petition, the state is arguing that said case (Pace v. DiGuqlielmo, 2005 US Lexis 3705) should be applied retroactively, thus eliminating my appeal. Sounds crazy, I know, but we're right now fighting tooth and nail to prevent the state from prevailing. Initially, the courts ruled in my favor, confirming that I, in fact, filed my petition on time, but reversed itself on a technicality of sorts. It's all very complicated, really. Thankfully, the judge reversed an earlier ruling that will now allow me to further litigate the issue. If I am successful, my petition will be accepted and decided on the merits. You see, federal courts are traditionally more judicious than state courts, which is why the state is trying so hard to prevent me from reaching the federal level.
LOWERY: Is that right? What about your attorneys not filing your petition on time -- isn't that their fault? I mean, I'm sure it's my ignorance that's keeping me from comprehending "how" something like this can happen, but it sounds serious.
BOMANI: It is serious. However, I'm not prepared to say my attorneys dropped the ball. I read the law that they relied on and, based on what I read, everything was properly pursued. As I said earlier, the rules are constantly changing, making it almost impossible to know when and where to file.
Let me explain. On August 13, 1998, the Fourth District Court of Appeals affirmed my conviction. Subsequent to that, I was given ninety days in which to file "ineffective assistance of appellant counsel" (App. R. 26 (B) motion), but missed the deadline due to non-representation. Following this, I filed an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which was denied on May 15, 1998. On December 2, 2002, the United States Supreme Court denied "certiorari" (a writ of certiorari is when the U.S. Supreme Court reviews a case that was ruled on by a lower court). Okay, now is where things get tricky. When the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari (December 2, 2002), I had exactly one year from that time to file my federal habeas corpus petition, which means it had to be in by December 2, 2003. However, instead of filing my petition, my attorneys elected to revisit the App. R. 26 (B) issue in state court which, according to the law (Bronaugh v. Ohio, 235 F. 3d 280 (6th Cir. 2000)) was supposed to toll (stop) the clock on my federal statue of limitations. This occurred on November 19, 2003, two weeks "before" my time would have been up. You understand? You see, before you can bring up certain issues in federal court, they have to first be exhausted in state court; and since my attorneys went back (to state court) to argue the App. R. 26 (B) motion, the federal clock stopped. Now, on Aug. 11, 2004, about eight months "after" my federal petition should have been filed, the Ohio Supreme Court (state) denied the App. R. 26 (B) motion, thus reactivating the federal clock. My attorneys then promptly filed my federal habeas corpus petition on Aug. 16, 2004, seven days "before" the statue of limitations period expired.
LOWERY: Sounds pretty complicated.
BOMANI: Tell me about it! Like I said, the judge initially ruled in my favor but reversed himself on a technicality, which totally shocked me. It's unbelievable! But then again, in dealing with this system, one must learn to expect the unexpected.
LOWERY: Yes, I suppose you're right. Still, it's deeply disturbing to think that a person can lose their life over a technicality.
BOMANI: It happens all the time, believe it or not. But I agree with you--it's deeply disturbing, especially when that "person" is you. However, I intend to fight them!
LOWERY: Let's talk about the book, Bomani. In the book you accuse the state of knowingly using false information to indict you--and I guess my first reaction to that is "why?" Why would the state single you out and subject you to such cruelty? I don't understand that.
BOMANI: Well, in the first place, I wasn't the only one singled out; five of us were placed on death row. And yes, I know I make it sound like the state had a personal vendetta against me, but I truly don't believe it was that sinister, at least not initially. I believe my name kept coming up and, from that, the state decided that I must have been involved in something. However, as I write in the book, it wasn't until the state assembled a "team" of informants and moved them all together that I became the leader of the so-called death squad. All of a sudden, "Keith LaMar made me do it" became the constant refrain. And the reason why I said they knowingly used false information to indict me is because they did. Shortly after they pieced together a case against me, a member of the Black Gangster Disciples (BGD) came forward and admitted to killing one of the inmates I was said to have ordered dead. And the state had access to this information before, during and after my trial. I am not making this stuff up. When the state indicted me, they didn't' think I would go forward and demand a trial. They assumed I would take a "deal." Come to find out, they were using the same dead bodies, in several different scenarios, to get other guys to cop out. The whole thing was a sham! It wasn't until I was on death row and started reviewing various trial transcripts that I began to notice some of the more glaring omissions and outright fabrications. By then, of course, it was too late.
LOWERY: Why too late? If you have evidence to prove your innocence, shouldn't you be able to get some higher power to look at it?
BOMANI: You mean God? (chuckles)
LOWERY: Well, no. (very funny) I'm talking about somebody within the system with the authority to initiate an independent investigation.
BOMANI: Yes, I knew what you meant. I was being facetious. The answer to your question is, yes. The governor could intervene and do exactly what you suggest. In fact, one of the things I address in my book is the need for a moratorium. We desperately need a moratorium here in Ohio. Desperately. I mean, this is bigger than me and what might happen in any case. The whole system (specifically as it relates to the death penalty) is broke. With the help of Staughton Lynd, renowned historian who authored Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, I try to make the case for a general amnesty, using the prison uprising at Attica in the 1970s as the model. What happened there also happened at Lucasville, and I believe the governor should take a "serious look" at the similarities and proceed accordingly.
LOWERY: How can people obtain a copy of your book? You also mentioned Staughton Lynd's book -- is that also readily available?
BOMANI: Well, the book Staughton Lynd wrote can be purchased from any bookstore I imagine. You can also at: 1694 Timbers Court, Niles, OH 44446. He has become something of a spokesman for those of us who were put on death row as a result of the riot (and prisoners in general). As far as my book is concerned, we're still trying to figure out how to best distribute it. For now, people interested in reading it can contact Staughton Lynd. Since it is a private project, we're also asking that people try to make a meaningful "donation" for additional copies.
LOWERY: Okay Bomani, thank you. It's been nice talking to you. I'm sure as people become aware of what actually took place you will see more interest and involvement, or at least that's my hope.
BOMANI: Mine, too. I hope people can find the patience to pause long though to read the books and join us in our efforts to right this travesty. We need community support. I think it was Frederick Douglass who said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand," and I believe no truer words have been spoken. We have to come together and speak truth to power; that's the only way things will change.
LOWERY: I agree -- and on that note, I'll close. Thank you for your time. I wish you well.
BOMANI: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Keith LaMar, # R 317-117
(aka. Bomani Shakur)
Youngstown, OH 44501
When writing to Keith, please send him a pre-embossed stamped envelope so that he can promptly answer your letter. He is not permitted adhesive stamps, that is, regular stamps.
Kevin Lowery, Keith LaMar's cousin, conducted this interview.