Ndume Olatushani: ‘Art Found Me, and It Saved My Life’

M.V. Black Lives Matter group brings “Disrupt Death Row” exhibit to the Island. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Like most first encounters during the pandemic, I initially met Ndume Olatushani over a Zoom call. It was late May, and members of the Martha’s Vineyard Black Lives Matter (MVBLM) group had invited my editor and me to hear about their latest initiative, and the extraordinary man who lay at the heart of it. Simply put, they had a story for us — one that would tie in the most devastating failures of our criminal justice system, a decades-long search for redemption, and MVBLM’s continued dedication to fighting systemic racism. 

There was a palpable energy on the call — an uncommon feat for the virtual format — before Ndume joined. The members of MVBLM explained how they met him, weaving the story of mutual connections together in fragments as people jumped in, interrupted, and sometimes even spoke over one another in excitement. 

When Ndume arrived, he appeared in one of eight boxes on my screen. Animated and inviting, he quickly commanded the call. While he spoke casually, each thought he shared with the group revealed deep insight shaped by his harrowing experience. The members of MVBLM appeared thrilled to be in his presence, and I too was quickly captivated. 

“I tell people now that I was an artist before I found myself on death row,” Ndume began. “But the truth is that before I found myself sitting on death row, I had no interest in creating no art. Art found me, and I’m telling you, it literally and figuratively saved my life.”

For 28 years, Ndume was incarcerated in the state of Tennessee for a crime he did not commit. In that time, he spent two decades on death row, locked in a 4- by 9-foot cell and awaiting execution by electric chair. Failed by the criminal justice system at each opportunity, he never lost hope that he would one day be freed. 

Over many conversations I had with Ndume, he often said that the truth is stranger than fiction. After a fellow inmate botched a portrait he had commissioned, after his mother’s tragic death, and after a vision appeared to him in his sleep, Ndume began to paint. Through his work, he met the woman who would lead the 17-year fight for his freedom and life. Without art, love, and personal conviction, Ndume says he would have “six feet of dirt” on him by now. 

Here is his story. 

 

Early life

Ndume Olatushani was born in St. Louis in 1958. The seventh of 11 children, he lived with family in the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in the economically depressed DeSoto-Carr neighborhood. Their two apartments, made entirely of concrete, were located on the 11th floor, joined by a small vestibule.

As a result of low occupancy rates, poor funding for maintenance, and certain architectural features, such as the “skip-stop” elevators that opened onto only every third floor, Pruit-Igoe quickly became notorious as a hotbed for criminal activity. By the time Ndume was 18, the city of St. Louis would declare the project a failure, and demolish all 33 towers.

“I mean, rape, robbery, and murder seemed like it was the order of the day,” Ndume recalls, his tone matter-of-fact. 

Still, as a child he found a comforting solidarity within Pruitt-Igoe. In the face of municipal indifference, the residents of the project often looked after one another when no one else would.

At times, Ndume remembers the lights would go out in the entire building, leaving residents vulnerable in a thick darkness. One muggy summer evening, Ndume was playing around with the other project kids in what they called “the breezeway,” a space behind the tower only accessible by sneaking underneath the building, when everything went dark. Unable to safely climb the flights of stairs back to his apartment, Ndume was stranded. An older woman, whose name and appearance now escape Ndume decades later, grabbed his hand. 

“Boy, come over here until the lights come back on,” she told him, pulling him into her apartment alongside her own children. 

“Even though there was a lot of crazy stuff going on,” Ndume says, “I still felt a sense of community.”

Ndume’s mother’s name was Florence, but everybody called her Moosie. Unsure of the true origin of the nickname, Ndume and his siblings used to say it was after the Mossi tribe in West Africa. Moosie was a small woman — slim and short in stature — with an immense heart, and when Ndume speaks of her, the warmth of her memory surrounds him. She worked at an upholstery factory in downtown St. Louis, and Ndume’s father, LeRoy Johnson, worked as a construction worker until his death in 1966. 

Despite his harsh surroundings, Ndume says he was unaware his family was impoverished. They always had food on the table — oftentimes spaghetti and green beans — and his siblings were never without shelter, clothing, and an abundance of love. 

Moosie’s maternal instinct extended far beyond their own apartment, making the residents of Pruitt-Igoe a network of familial ties.

“My mother was such that every time we sat down and ate, if we weren’t taking a plate to somebody else in the project, they were sitting at our table eating with us,” Ndume says. 

When Ndume was 10 years old, his family moved out of the projects to a neighborhood in the Central West End of St. Louis. Now in a three-story, brick home, they were one of only three Black families on the block.

This transition, Ndume says, marked his real introduction to racism.

At his new, predominantly white school, Ndume was tormented by his peers, who often fired racial slurs in his direction. The verbal altercations often became physical, and Ndume was quickly labeled the “problem child” for the fights he found himself in. Soon, his teachers disregarded his academic potential as well.

In a small classroom in the fifth grade, Ndume’s white teacher asked her class the ritualistic question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ndume’s answer had been the same since he was a young child. Before he even knew the term “veterinarian,” he would tell his mother he wanted to be an animal doctor. Yet when he told the teacher of his ambition, she suggested he consider other options, like construction, or something else with his hands. 

“That was the thing that really hurt,” Ndume, now 63, reflects. “At the time, I was a kid. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the importance of what she was saying. But I’m telling you, that had an effect on me. When I was sitting on death row and just trying to look back and assess where my life took different trajectories, I thought of that.”

“And I’m telling you,” he added, a hint of defiance in his voice, “had I had that solid foundation, you would be talking to a veterinarian today.” 

By his teenage years, Ndume had dropped out of high school. Already painted as a thug by his peers, teachers, and community, he fell into a life of petty crime, racking up charges for theft and burglary by the time he was 18.

This criminal record, Ndume believes, would eventually allow prosecutors to steal 28 years from his life.

 

October 1983 (A Tale of Two Octobers)

Ndume can’t remember a time his family didn’t have a large party for Moosie’s birthday, and Oct. 1, 1983, was no different. At the brick home in St. Louis, a hundred or more family members and friends gathered in the early evening to celebrate Ndume’s mother. R&B emanated from the backyard as partygoers danced, drank, and enjoyed a feast of chicken, beef, and a host of sides. Not a big drinker himself, Ndume sipped on a single cup of cognac, and stayed until 3 or 4 am. The next morning, he made sure to wake up in time to drive his two sons to Moosie’s house so they could attend an early church service. 

That same morning, nearly 300 miles away in the city of Memphis, Joe Belenchia was murdered during an attempted robbery of the Food Rite supermarket he owned. According to eyewitness testimonies, between 8:30 and 9 am, armed robbers entered the store and killed Belenchia before escaping in a maroon station wagon. Upon discovering the vehicle, police traced the license plate to the St. Louis airport.

Ndume’s life would soon depend on his very whereabouts that October morning, because the car’s connection to St. Louis alone would be enough to make him a prime suspect in the case. 

 

The trial

On Dec. 1, 1985, Ndume found himself in a windowless courtroom in Memphis. Dressed in a suit, he contained his anxiety and indignation. The air was stuffy. It was his first time in the state of Tennessee.

Memphis is a majority-Black city, yet before Ndume sat 12 white jurors. In a move now heavily scrutinized and regulated, the prosecution had utilized each of its peremptory strikes to remove all Black jurors from the trial.

“I was tried by an all-white jury in a predominantly Black city, being accused of killing a white person in the South,” Ndume says. “So you already know the table was set for them to do what they actually did.” 

In addition to eyewitness testimonies — who would admit on the stand that police had shown them photos of Ndume, identifying him as the perpetrator — the prosecution presented three pieces of damaging evidence. 

First, a police report that identified a palm print, taken from above the rear passenger door of the maroon station wagon, as Ndume’s. Second, the testimony of a woman Ndume had previously had a relationship with, who claimed he had confessed to the crime. Third, the testimony of a woman named Elizabeth Starks, who told the court Ndume had visited her home in Memphis that weekend.

In Ndume’s corner was a criminal lawyer with no experience in capital cases. Underqualified, the attorney failed to call credible witnesses to corroborate Ndumi’s alibi, and missed opportunities to ask eyewitnessses imperative follow-up questions that could have identified the true perpetrators. 

Halfway through the trial, the prosecution offered Ndume a plea deal: a 25-year sentence that could have him home in six or seven years. He refused to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.

In the prosecution’s closing argument, they undermined Ndume’s alibi by asserting his family “never provided proof” that his mother’s birthday was even on Oct. 1. What they didn’t tell the jury was that they had a copy of Moosie’s driver’s license on file. 

After two hours of deliberation, the jury found Ndume guilty of first-degree murder. 

The trial proceeded to the penalty phase. For Ndume, the most agonizing part of this process was not that his own life hung in the balance. It was watching his mother’s pain as she begged the court to save her son from execution.

“What really hurt me more than anything was her sitting up there, begging and pleading with these 12 white people to spare my life,” he says. “Having to see her sit before these people in this sham process, begging and pleading about the mistake they was actually making — that’s the thing that hurt me the most.”

After waiving his opening remarks in the penalty phase, Ndume’s lawyer delivered a two-page closing statement — far shorter than expected for a capital punishment case. In his final moments addressing the court, he told the jury he couldn’t say whether Ndume was a good enough man to live, but that he did not deserve to die.

The jury disagreed. After less than two hours of deliberation, they sentenced him to death. 

 

Death penalty

The U.S. is the only Western democracy that still allows the death penalty, and reports have repeatedly demonstrated a pervasive racial bias in both its historical and current application. In 2014, a study conducted by the University of Washington found that jurors in Washington State were three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant than for a white defendant in similar cases. The current death row population would seem to corroborate this: Despite being only 13.4 percent of the population, black Americans make up 41.6 percent of those awaiting execution. 

The race of the victim also plays a role in capital sentencing. 

Black and white Americans are the victims of homicide at relatively equal rates. Yet, as of 2010, 66 percent of all homicide cases resulting in execution had white victims. Only 17 percent had Black victims. Two years after Ndume’s trial, the U.S. Supreme Court considered statistical evidence demonstrating that defendants in Georgia were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white than if the victim was Black. In the case, titled McCleskey v. Kemp, the court accepted that Georgia’s application of capital punishment was racially discriminatory, but concluded that racial bias was “an inevitable part of [a] criminal justice system.”

 

Jail

For many years, Ndume spent 23 hours a day in a cell made of concrete and metal bars that measured 4 feet by 9 feet — a space too narrow for him to fully stretch his arms. He could only leave — shackled and accompanied by two officers — to shower, see visitors, and spend occasional recreation time in a cage outside his unit. 

“If you can imagine, every time I came out of my cell, I had to be chained and shackled like some imaginary monster, to be taken wherever they was taking me,” Ndume says. 

Here’s a bitter example: At one point, Ndume’s cell was immediately next to the showers. Two officers would take close to 15 minutes to shackle his waist and ankles before Ndume would walk a mere three steps for a less-than-10-minute shower. 

“The whole process is just meant to dehumanize people,” Ndume says. “Give them some justification for why they’re killing you in the first place.” 

Despite how bleak his circumstances appeared, Ndume was never without hope. He was always preparing for freedom, he tells me. In his cell, Ndume’s exigency for knowledge was reignited. He was selective about the books he read, choosing only those he believed would help him move forward in life again. He estimates that during his incarceration, he read a couple of thousand books — fewer than 10 of which were fiction. 

“Certainly, there were moments of despair and moments of feeling hopeless in some ways, but those were always fleeting moments for me,” he says. “Because I was never devoid of hope that one day, I would actually be freed.”

 

Art 

In the summer of 1987, 18 months into his incarceration, Ndume commissioned another inmate on death row, a man called Prince, to create a portrait of himself for Moosie. In exchange for a few packs of cigarettes, Prince presented an acrylic painting that, despite his impressive techniques, looked nothing like Ndume. 

“I’m thinking every time I look at it, ‘Man, I could have did a better job and kept my money,” Ndume says with a laugh. 

He would never have a chance to send the portrait to his mother. In November, he received a call from his sister with unimaginable news. Moosie had been killed in a car accident on her way to a church event.

When Ndume speaks of his mother, it is one of the few times his stoicism breaks. As he recalls the last time he physically saw her, his speech begins to slow, and he takes longer pauses between each thought. He feels the weight of each word.

One year before her untimely death, Moosie visited Ndume in prison. When their time was up, he gave Moosie a kiss and goodbye. Jokingly, he said to her, “Oh girl, I wouldn’t know what to do if I ain’t have you in my life.” Looking back at him under the fluorescent lights of the visiting room, she responded, “You’ll know exactly what to do when the time comes.”

At first, he didn’t.

“For the first three days, I’m telling you, if my eyes was open, I was crying. If I wasn’t crying, I was balled up in a tear-soaked sleep,” he says. 

On the third day, as he lay on the two-inch foam mattress covering a slab of steel, Moosie appeared to him in a dream. “Get up,” Ndume heard her voice say. 

The vision appeared so clearly, Ndume says he jumped straight up, believing his nightmare was finally over. When he found himself still alone in his concrete cell, he thought back to the portrait. 

Art, he says, had found him. 

Ndume began with small sketches of objects in his cell, using colored pencils and pens. Propping his shoes at the end of his bed, he would try to get a feel for the instrument in his hand and how to create with it. 

After a year, he began painting, and found liberation in the colorful strokes. “I’m telling you, even though I was in a 4 by 9 cell, I was actually free,” he says. “Even though I was physically confined like I was, art allowed me to maintain a sense of freedom. I didn’t let the people that was holding me there get inside my head, so to say. Because the one thing I knew was that, even though they had me physically there, and they could do whatever they wanted to me, the thing that I always knew was that they couldn’t control my mind or my thoughts.”

Surrounded by drab prison walls — a variety of off-whites and off-grays, if there was any paint at all — Ndume’s use of color was a form of resistance. His vibrant paintings symbolized for him his defiance, a spirit preserved in a colorless environment. He grins as he remembers how fellow prisoners and officers would ask him, “Man, why are you always smilin’?”

Prison guards had to cut the handles down of each paintbrush to only five inches, out of fear that prisoners would use them as weapons. To work more easily, Ndume would take wet magazine pages and newspapers, rolling each of them tightly around the cut handle. Once they dried, he says, they were almost as hard as the wood.

Even in his early years as an artist, Ndume saw his work as an opportunity to challenge people’s understanding of the criminal justice system and racism. He was drawn to portraying Black subjects because he was painting what he wanted to see: positive images of Black people that showcased the beauty of Black culture: “Everything that I’ve ever painted — it’s always had some meaning beyond what you’re looking at. It’s always been something more for me.” 

 

Anne-Marie Moyes

In the early 1990s, Anne-Marie Moyes was working for Death Penalty Focus, a California-based nonprofit that aimed to abolish capital punishment. As part of her role, Anne-Marie coordinated art shows to exhibit the works of inmates on death row. In 1990, she received a letter from Ndume. 

His paintings immediately captivated her. While many inmates focus on the prison environment in their work, Anne-Marie was astonished by Ndume’s distinctive imagery, as well as his raw talent.

“Ndume’s art was so positive, it was so colorful,” Anne-Marie says. “What struck me most was just his gift.”

Anne-Marie wrote Ndume back to coordinate the details and logistics of the show, but his work had also made her curious to learn his story. The two continued exchanging letters filled with discussions about various social and political issues, which quickly progressed to phone calls. In February 1992, they finally met.

Anne-Marie sat in a nervous anticipation in the visiting room, keeping her eyes on the door Ndume would walk through to meet her. She had built a mental image of Ndume based on his voice and letters, but still didn’t know what he actually looked like. As she waited, another inmate captured her attention.

“I just kept looking at him because he seemed like he was glowing,” says Anne-Marie. “This man just seemed like he didn’t fit there. He had this positive joy and energy about him.”

Soon enough, the inmate approached her. When he spoke, asking if she were Anne-Marie, she instantly recognized the familiar voice. 

From there, Ndume and Anne-Marie’s personal relationship developed into a deeper connection. The two came from opposing walks of life — Anne-Marie was a Johns Hopkins graduate who grew up in the metro area of New York City and Bay Area of San Francisco. Yet, Ndume says, it was these differences that drew them together. Within a year, they admitted their feelings to one another. 

What was even more immediate, however, was Anne-Marie’s conviction that Ndume was innocent.

“He never had this energy about needing to convince you or being overbearing about it,” she recalls. “There was no urgency of you believing him. He knew it was true, and he had this calmness about him.”

Unaware of the arduous road ahead, she committed herself to saving Ndume’s life.

 

Proving his innocence 

In the summer of 1995, Ndume petitioned for post-conviction relief — a phase in the appeals process that is a collateral attack on the judgment and sentencing of a previous trial. During this phase, the defense team is entitled to examine police and prosecutors’ records. From his cell, Ndume pored over these documents, piecing together how the prosecution had wrongfully built their case around him.

His discoveries were astounding. 

The records revealed that at the time of trial, prosecutors withheld two eyewitness accounts that identified the perpetrator as Michael Brown, and an accomplice as Charles Keller — both men with ties to a local crime ring known as the Brown Gang. They also withheld accounts that suggested a connection between the Brown Gang and the maroon station wagon.

Ndume also uncovered that police had offered financial compensation and a clean criminal record to the woman with whom he had previously had a relationship in exchange for her testimony against him. 

Even more shocking, while the police and prosecution attested that Ndume’s palm print had been identified above the rear passenger door of the vehicle, their own report showed no print was even taken from that area of the car. 

The failure to share these reports represented a flagrant violation of the Brady Rule, which requires the prosecution to disclose all evidence favorable to the defendant at the time of the trial. 

It also represented a spark of hope: a realistic avenue for appeal.

At the start of Ndume’s new case, the state assigned him an attorney with little experience in capital punishment. In 1995, he removed himself from the case, creating a moment of opportunity for Anne-Marie to find a talented team of lawyers before the state appointed Ndume a new attorney.

For three months, Anne-Marie worked on a phone campaign to identify lawyers with the right expertise for Ndume’s case. She discovered a project that was recruiting large New York firms to take on death penalty cases in the South, and successfully advocated for them to pitch Ndume’s appeal. 

At that time, defense attorney David Herrington was a midlevel associate at the New York branch of the large international firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. Following Republican Governor George E. Pataki’s reinstatement of the death penalty, Herrington’s branch decided to take on its first death penalty case, to gain more experience in the field. Herrington and his team went through case summary after case summary, discouraged by the lack of promise each held. Feeling disheartened, his team resigned themselves to taking the next one presented to them, regardless of its contents. 

That was when they learned Ndume’s story.

“What we didn’t know just from looking at the case file was how amazing a person and human being Ndume is,” Herrington said in a recent phone conversation. “But what we did see from the case file summary Anne-Marie had put together was that there were some really egregious failures and violations of what it means to have a fair trial, and therefore, correspondingly, some good avenues to challenge the result.” 

From there, Anne-Marie, Herrington, and other members of the legal defense team embarked on a 17-year battle for Ndume’s life and freedom. 

 

Off death row

In 2001, they enjoyed their first victory. In agreement with the lower court, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that the prosecution had violated the Brady Rule, and vacated Ndume’s death sentence. This moment, however, was not one of instant relief. The state of Tennessee still had the right to conduct a new penalty phase of Ndume’s trial to reseek the death penalty. 

After years of complex legal proceedings, the prosecution determined it was unlikely they could convince a jury to resentence Ndume to death, and in November 2004, they conceded to a life sentence with possibility of parole. 

After nearly 20 years, Ndume was off death row. 

Ndume received the news the day before Thanksgiving. At the time, he was in a 12- by 12-foot concrete and wire cage outside his unit, dressed in white scrubs that read “Tennessee Department of Correction.” He heard the electric grind and pop of the metal door unlocking, and Segt. Rustin stepped into the path of grass between the enclosures. He asked for Ndume.

“You gotta come in and pack your stuff,” he said. “You’re going to be transferred off this unit.”

In a moment of shared jubilation, his fellow inmates erupted in celebratory shouts. 

“Oh man, you finna get out of here.”

“It’s just more hope for the rest of us.”

“Don’t you forget about us now.”

It was that final line that struck Ndume the most. He saw many of these people as his family. At that point, he’d spent more time with them than some members of his real family. 

“I feel like it should’ve been them as well,” he said.

When Ndume returned to his cell, it didn’t take him long to pack his few belongings — he always used to tell people he was ready to pick up and go at any minute, and was traveling light. He grabbed a white canvas laundry cart, and took everything of significance — hundreds of photographs of family and friends, letters from his mother and Anne-Marie, and his legal paperwork.

For nearly 20 years, Ndume had never been in direct sunlight. It had always been obscured, broken up by the confinement and cages he was kept in. Emerging from Unit 2, he squinted his eyes and walked into the November sun — a sun brighter than it had been for a long time.

Pushing the laundry cart to the lower side of the prison compound, to Unit 6, his legs moved freely, unchained and unshackled for the first time since he was 26 years old. A physical relief washed over him, so powerful he felt like he’d shaken a thousand-pound gorilla off his back.

“When I stepped out of there, I’m telling you, if it was a movie, the movie would’ve had me just floating,” Ndume said. “The pressure I was actually experiencing — whenever we going through something that’s abnormal, part of what helps us cope with that is that we start to internalize the abnormal as normal. So the whole time I’m living in this pressure cooker, it’s just this normal stuff. But the minute I stepped out that door, I felt this relief of pressure, a physical feeling.”

That evening, Ndume went out into the big prison yard. He took his shoes off and slowly walked alone, barefoot, before sitting and feeling the ground beneath his fingers. He was reacquainting himself with the grass. 

 

Elizabeth Starks

In 2002, Anne-Marie graduated at the top of her class from the Vanderbilt Law School — an accolade Ndume made sure to note, knowing she would never share it herself. 

An expert on Ndume’s case, she knew they needed someone to meticulously reinvestigate the case, re-examining each piece of evidence and reinterviewing all witnesses. With the budget too tight to hire a private investigator, she volunteered herself.

For three years, alongside Margaret Vandiver, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Memphis and personal friend, Anne-Marie spent her weekends scrutinizing police reports and traveling across the country to speak with witnesses.

In Kentucky, she found what she was looking for.

Through her investigation, Anne-Marie had developed a theory that Elizabeth Starks, the key witness in Ndume’s trial, was also connected with the Brown Gang through a woman known as Betty Jo Ford. 

In 2004, Anne-Marie and Vandiver met Dary Cunningham, a former prostitute for the Gang, in the visiting room of a Kentucky federal prison. Ann-Marie asked Cunningham if she knew Elizabeth Starks. She did not. Anne-Marie thought of new ways to ask the question, new pieces of information that could jog her memory — the street her mother lived on, the name of her brother — but to no avail. She was preparing to leave in disappointment when she thought of one more tactic: “Well, you might know her as Liz.”

“Oh, Liz?” Cunningham asked, her expression riddled with recognition. “That’s Betty Joe’s first cousin.”

Liz and Betty Joe were not cousins, but they were so close they held themselves out to be. With a direct connection to the true perpetrators of the crime, Starks was not the unbiased witness the jury had believed her to be. 

Anne-Marie and Vandiver waited until they were in the car to share their elation.“It was just this explosive moment,” Anne-Marie says. “We had been talking to so many people, trying to find that thing that would crack the case open. And this was just that moment.”

 

Alford plea

Based on the Elizabeth Starks revelation, Ndume’s defense team filed a writ of coram nobis in April 2005. A writ of coram nobis, which translates as “the error before us,” allows a court to correct its original judgment upon the discovery of a fundamental error. 

Herrington described the move as a “hail Mary,” a last-ditch attempt to bring the new evidence to court. 

For more than six years, the defense battled with the Memphis trial court, which denied their petition twice. Then, on Dec. 9, 2011, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ of coram nobis, effectively overturning Ndume’s murder conviction and remanding for a new trial.

As Herrington explained, this was not an immediate victory. The prosecution would likely work to reinstate the guilty verdict, and could even reseek the death penalty. Years of legal maneuvering lay ahead, and during this period, Ndume would have to await trial in the Shelby County Jail — one of the worst penitentiary facilities in the country.

There was, however, another option — a bittersweet shortcut called the Alford plea. 

The Alford plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty to a lesser charge. For Ndume, that meant walking out of prison a free man with the unwavering conviction he had kept for nearly three decades — that he had not murdered Joe Belenchia. It also meant pleading guilty to second-degree murder and returning home as a felon.

Up until a few hours before appearing in court, Ndume did not want to take the Alford plea. The indignant spirit that kept him from accepting the 25-year plea deal during his initial trial still ran deep. 

Then he thought of his family. At the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Ndume could physically see Anne-Marie and their 3-year-old daughter, Safiya, once a week in the visiting room. The Shelby County Jail in Memphis, over 200 miles away, only permitted noncontact visits. For two to three years, Ndume would have to remain on the fifth or sixth floor, his wife and child on the ground level, and see them through a grainy television screen. That was enough to change his mind.

On Wednesday morning, May 30, 2012, Ndume accepted the Alford plea. In just a few hours, his 28-year nightmare would be over. Outside the Shelby County Jail, friends and family — including those who had flown in from across the country — anxiously waited to see him leave as a free man. 

Then, an agonizing delay, as the Department of Correction calculated whether Ndume had in fact served the sufficient sentence for his reduced charge. If they found his time inadequate, no one knew how many more years he could remain incarcerated. The days ticked by.

 

Released

Friday morning, June 1, 2012, Ndume was waiting in his cell upstairs, still wearing hospital-like scrubs, color-coded red to indicate he was high security. A guard approached the bars: “Pack your shit, man, you’re finna be processed out of here.” 

The Department of Corrections had confirmed Ndume had served his time. Before the guard could even finish his sentence, Ndume was already gathering his possessions. 

“Everything in my body was just telling me, ‘Man, it’s finally over,’” he said.

When he reached intake, Ndume faced one final hurdle: He had no street clothes, and the people processing him wouldn’t allow Anne-Marie to deliver the items she had brought from home.

“I don’t give a hell if y’all send me out there in draws or naked, I’m getting out of here,” Ndume told them. 

Finally, they brought him a baggy white T shirt and oversize gray sweatpants. “I knew part of it was they was really just trying to screw around with me,” he says. “The thing that they didn’t realize was that even though they thought they was sending me out looking like a bum, man, I felt like such a rich man.”

Prior to Ndume’s release, Anne-Marie warned him and his lawyers she was not the type of person to get emotional. Yet after those two days, when she received the paper confirming Ndume’s time had worked out, and he could be released that day, she fell to her knees. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience before,” Anne-Marie says. “But the intensity of everything for those last two days — it was just a moment of profound relief.”

Outside the Shelby County Jail, Anne-Marie and Herrington waited to see the moment they had been working toward for years. The friends and family that had traveled to see Ndume freed two days earlier, however, had already returned home. 

“Ultimately, it was a beautiful moment,” says Anne-Marie. “But even at that point, it was like they had stolen something from him.” 

In a video shot by Herrington, Ndume is seen taking his first steps outside the penitentiary. For the first time in nearly three decades, he stands outside of a barbed wire fence, rather than behind one. An unabridged joy spreads across his face. “Man, this is such a beautiful day,” he says repeatedly through his smile. He keeps shaking his head in a mix of relief, disbelief, and triumphant bliss. 

Anne-Marie puts her arm around him. “Even though it’s a cold June day?” she asks.

“I love it! I think it’s so nice out here,” Ndume replies, the group erupting in euphoric laughter. 

“Feels good, don’t it?” asks a stranger as they pass on the sidewalk. Ndume and the man clasp hands.

“Feels really good,” Ndume responds. 

Ndume and Anne-Marie were married at their home in Nashville less than two months after his release. While they had always planned to marry when he got out, Anne-Marie admits she forgets their anniversary nearly every year.

“If you were with somebody for all these years, and have this deep commitment and weathered all these storms that we had weathered, that date is just not the most significant thing,” she explains.

The ceremony took place in their backyard at a party to celebrate Ndume’s homecoming. There was no dress code; guests were told to wear whatever they pleased, and Ndume and Anne-Marie donned Hawaiian leis. 

Anne-Marie has always considered herself a conventional person — she prefers to fit in rather than stand out in many ways. “And yet,” she says with a laugh, “I did this thing that was so kind of radical in who I chose to love.”

“She really was the person I needed in my life,” Ndume says. “The universe sent me exactly what I needed.” 

 

Mass incarceration

Ndume’s gratitude is infectious: He’s spent the past decade traveling the world to speak with politicians, educators, and change-makers; he comes home to a loving family, and he has a career as a successful artist. 

But this is not a feel-good story. Failed by the system at each juncture, Ndume is a man who had to be exceptional in his character, talent, and good fortune merely to receive justice. With his newfound freedom, he is devoted to tackling the very institutions that stole 28 years of his life, as well as so much from so many others.

“When you look at how racism permeates the criminal justice system — it’s certainly one of the last [institutions] where you see it play out in your face,” Ndume says.

While the U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the global population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2.2 million people are currently in jail or prison, and the situation is worsening: Since 1970, the American incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent, far outpacing population growth and crime rates. 

The incarceration of Black men is disproportionately carrying this trend. According to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project, 1 in 3 Black boys born today can expect to go to prison, compared with only 1 in 17 white boys, and higher crime rates alone can not explain this overrepresentation. 

In the U.S., public correction agencies are an $80 billion industry. When all aspects of mass incarceration — such as policing, legal fees, construction, utilities, or food — are considered, that dollar amount increases to over $182 billion each year. 

“With that much money involved in locking people up in this country, somebody is going to jail,” Ndume says. “Somebody’s going, ain’t no question about that.”

When Ndume speaks of mass incarceration, he thinks back to his final day in the Shelby County Jail. A series of underground tunnels connects the jailhouse to the court building, allowing inmates to be transferred without going outside. As he walked through them for the last time, he felt he needed to be there. 

Each day, Ndume knew, hundreds of shackled black men were shuffled through these tunnels in a single file. As Ndume peered into the holding cells, he saw a sea of almost entirely Black faces staring back. It felt like stepping back in time, he says. 

“It’s all just a form of modern slavery,” he explains. “It took a different form, but it’s the same damn thing. You using Black and brown bodies to profit from. It’s the same old soup, just reheated.”

 

MVBLM

Chelsea Simpson, a member of MVBLM since August 2020, describes the group’s chance meeting with Ndume as “magic,” and “a little beyond comprehension.” 

Since June 2020, under the leadership of local activist Dana Nunes, MVBLM has hosted vigils to honor victims of police brutality. The practice started as a daily gathering at Beetlebung Corner, where members of the group would volunteer to share the story of an individual who lost his or her life at the hands of police. In November, as the air became more frigid and many seasonal residents returned to the mainland, the group took a brief hiatus before resuming the vigils on a weekly basis via Zoom in January. 

Inspired by Reed McDonough, another member of MVBLM who spoke at the vigil about mass incarceration, Carly and Ali Sousa volunteered in March to share the story of Pervis Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability who has maintained his innocence for 33 years while on death row in Tennessee. 

“As important as it is that we’ve been honoring all these people that have lost their lives, there is somebody that is living and breathing and needs our help,” Ali Sousa tells me. 

The group had an instant reaction to his story. They started sharing petitions, posting resources on social media, and reaching out to Pervis Payne, his sister, and his lawyer. 

Through sheer luck, coincidence, and maybe even a bit of fate, Simpson shared MVBLM’s advocacy efforts on a Zoom call for another organization, the Emerging Leaders Project. Through some unexpected connections, the ELP connected her and MVBLM with Ndume, a man they knew had sat on death row alongside Payne. 

A fervent anti-death-penalty and anti-mass-incarceration advocate, Ndume was more than happy to help MVBLM’s efforts to save Payne. In mid-April, he joined one of virtual vigils and, in an interview with Susan Sarandon, shared his own story. 

The group was awestruck — not only by his past, but by his gratitude and warmth. Ndume was a man who had been egregiously wronged, who had every reason to be hardened and bitter. And yet he exuded kindness and camaraderie. 

Determined to help Ndume share his experience and artwork, MVBLM set out to host an art exhibition on the Island. At first, it felt like a pipe dream, admits Carly Sousa. But the group pooled its resources and personal expertise, and within weeks, a handful of pivotal donations created enough momentum to make it a reality. 

“We’ve been really amazed at how quickly everything really started to come together,” says Ali Sousa. “It just really shows you don’t necessarily need to have the skills, training, or experience to put something together like this. It just takes a group of really willing and eager participants that want to pull their skill sets together and try to pull this off.”

Given Ndume’s life story, artistic talent, and commendable character, it’s easy to understand how he became such a focal point for MVBLM. Yet he always strives to redirect the focus from himself to those still trapped in the system. Knowledge, Ndume says, makes us responsible, and after sitting on death row for two decades with Payne, he believes he has the responsibility to fight for Payne’s life the way others fought for his. The mission of his MVBLM exhibit, “Disrupt Death Row: Art and Justice,” is to raise awareness and fundraise for Payne’s legal defense team, as well as the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. 

“I’m honored to be part of the work they’re doing, and the opportunity they’re giving me to showcase my art and share my story,” Ndume says to me in our final interview. “I definitely want to thank them for all their effort and issues they’re focusing on.” 

Something he’d said in our very first Zoom meeting, with all the excitement of the MVBLM members bubbling forth, came back to me: “I’m really happy to be part of this group and excited about the work you guys are doing. I can’t tell you how important it is. The fact that I’m sitting here is a testament to how important it is. Because if it weren’t for lots of good people getting involved, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

 

 

“Disrupt Death Row: Art and Justice” 

A fundraiser for the Free Pervis Payne Campaign and the Innocence Project featuring artist Ndume Olatushani. July 31, 6 to 8 pm, Kara Taylor Gallery, 24 South Road, Chilmark. Tickets here: givebutter.com/DisruptDeathRow. 

Official gallery opening on Sunday, August 1, 3 – 5 pm: a free event to allow guests to meet Ndume. The gallery will also be open from Monday to Thursday, 11 am to 5 pm. karataylorart.com.

 

Kyra Steck, who has been an intern with the Martha’s Vineyard Times and Bluedot Living Magazine, is a rising senior at Northwestern University. She has spent summers on the Island since she was 2 years old, and became a year-round resident of Chilmark in 2020. After completing the “Voices on Racism” (bit.ly/MVT-racism-voices) project last fall, Kyra was excited to continue her focus on systemic racism and feature writing, and is proud to tell Ndume’s story

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites