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Olatushani thus directed the anger he felt at the Shelby County prosecutors, and the larger prison and policing system of which they're merely a part, into his studies, his art, and into being a role model to younger kids facing the same risks he did.
In 1995, he legally changed his name to Ndume Olatushani. Ndume is a Swahili word for masculinity, and Olatushani means "unifier." It suits him. He looks directly into your eyes when he speaks, and he has the posture of an undefeated soldier.
Despite his intelligence and good humor, though, Olatushani was serving hard time. And Moyes had only begun to explore his case in earnest. Moyes and Olatushani pored over his case like determined chess players preparing for a match that would span decades. And unlike many death penalty appeals, there was no biological evidence to rely on.
"What it takes to get somebody out of prison in those cases [with DNA evidence] is pretty linear and clear," Moyes explains, "and despite barriers that come up, that can happen in some sort of a reasonable timeframe. But when there's not any biological evidence to test, what it takes to crack it open is incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming."
That means being able to keep straight a brain-fogging amount of detail: maiden names mixed with aliases mixed with street names where certain people grew up. Such a case, Moyes says, almost has to become your life's work — an obsession. After moving to Nashville, it became hers. To help with his defense, she took the step of enrolling in Vanderbilt Law School.
She proved to have acumen for the ins and outs of legal study. In 2002 she was awarded the law school's Founder's Medal — the highest honor bestowed on a single graduate out of every graduating class.
In the meantime, a skilled attorney had begun examining Olatushani's case. Before she'd even entered law school, Moyes had sent the case to David Herrington, of the large international firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. In the mid-'90s, the firm's New York branch decided for the first time to take on a death penalty case. Herrington says they grew increasingly despondent in the face of file after file of seemingly hopeless cases. After a certain point, though, the attorneys realized that they were going to have to pick up the next case that came through, no matter what.
Maybe fate made Olatushani's that next case. Regardless, Herrington remembers being immediately excited by its prospects.
"Two things stood out right away," he says. "The first was the withheld evidence that pointed [in another direction]. What one might suspect is that they consciously or unconsciously disregarded leads for other ones. It was a pretty blatant and clear-cut violation of the Brady Rule." The Brady Rule, named for Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence in the government's possession to the defense.
The second thing that signaled potential, Herrington says, is that the jury that condemned Olatushani, a black man, for murdering Belenchia, a white man, was made up exclusively of white jurors. Since the population of Memphis is roughly 50 percent African-American, an all-white jury is an anomaly.
The more Herrington began to dig into police records and the details of the initial trial, the more convinced he became that Olatushani had gotten a raw deal. Two independent eyewitnesses identified the perpetrator to police as one Michael Brown, whose criminal record included ties to a group of associates known as the Brown Gang. One of these eyewitnesses also identified another Brown Gang member, Charles Keller, as a participant in the crime.
At the original trial, the prosecution called one of these eyewitnesses to testify that he had seen two individuals changing license plates on the getaway car just before the crime. "But, remarkably," the Cleary team's 2011 brief states, "the prosecution never disclosed, and so the jury never learned, that [the witness] in fact had identified 'without any hesitation' two men he saw changing the license plates, Michael Brown and Charles Keller — and *not* Erskine Johnson."
The second chunk of suppressed evidence connected the Brown Gang to the getaway car — a 1982 maroon station wagon. A teenager at the store that morning before the crime took place saw the perpetrators changing the license plate on the getaway car. When he told his mother, she urged him to go back and to really pay attention to what they were doing, in case something criminal was going on. When police showed him a photo array of suspects, he immediately picked out two people — Michael Brown and his cousin Charles Keller.
Still another eyewitness was able to connect the Brown Gang with the getaway car. A neighbor was able to describe the maroon wagon, which was distinctive because a piece of chrome was missing from the left rear side. He said he saw members of the Brown Gang driving it weeks before the crime. When police took him to the lot where they were storing the car, he made a positive ID.
A third piece of suppressed evidence undermined the only physical evidence against Olatushani that the jury saw — his palm print on the getaway car. In the original trial, police offered evidence that Olatushani's print had been lifted from a specific vector of the getaway car. But according to their own report, they didn't lift a print from that part of the car.
There remained one key piece of information the defense team couldn't unlock: the testimony of Elizabeth Starks, who had testified that Olatushani had been at her house, and had confessed to the crime.
It was Moyes who found the missing piece in Olatushani's defense.
"The police had gotten this tip," Moyes explains, "that whomever the perpetrators were, they were cousins of Elizabeth Starks and they had been staying with her that weekend. And so she also ended up saying that it was Ndume who was staying with her that weekend. But first, she said it was a woman named Shirley and some of Shirley's friends. And then at trial she testified that she identified Ndume, but only after the police kept putting his picture in front of her repeatedly.
"At some point — again, this is where the mastery of the police reports come in, and how invested in the case you are — but at some point, I was reading the police report and I was reading about this woman whose name was Betty Jo Ford, and she was a member of the Brown Gang. And I noticed that one of the addresses that she'd given police as her former address was familiar. I said, 'Wait a second, Dison is the name of the street that Elizabeth's mother lives on.' "
She looked up a map online and discovered that the distance was only a matter of blocks. In other words, Elizabeth and Betty Jo had lived within blocks of each other.
"I had this moment like, 'Oh my God, they know each other.' Because that would kind of explain everything. That they were, the Browns were, the people who were at her house that weekend."
So Moyes went back and examined the original case. "Prosecution withheld this information as well," she explains, "but when Elizabeth had first talked to the police, she told them that it had been this woman Shirley who had been at her house. It ends up that Betty Jo Ford, her alias is Shirley Banks. When I went looking for Betty Jo, nobody knew her as Betty. You had to ask for Shirley if you wanted people to know you were talking about Betty Jo."
As one witness at the hearing put it, "Mostly every time I seen Betty I'll see Liz, or if I see Liz, Betty ain't too far away."
"Finding the address felt like I was cracking the case open," Moyes says. "Before, you had all of this evidence about the Browns, but there was also all of this evidence against Ndume. But then, all of a sudden, one of the most critical pieces of evidence against him — this woman who puts him in Memphis and in the getaway car — all of a sudden it becomes clear that you can't possibly believe her."
But part of what was so alarming about Moyes' discovery is that it had taken so long to uncover it. All of that evidence — from Starks' testimony about Shirley to the absent palm print to the Brown Gang — was in the original police reports. The jury that convicted Olatushani just didn't hear it.
"The way they do things is brazen in a way," Moyes says. "It's all right there in the police reports, and then ten years later they hand it over to you. And within that they note the different things they found against the Browns. And it's in black-and-white — it's not hidden."
On the strength of this evidence, Herrington was able to bring new scrutiny to Olatushani's case. In 1999, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that the prosecution had indeed violated the Brady Rule and suppressed evidence. The court vacated his death sentence, and in 2004 he was resentenced to life with possibility for parole.
That only began seven frustrating years of legal maneuvering, as the defense worked to get him a new trial. When victory finally came, in 2012, it was bittersweet. In the end, Olatushani accepted a somewhat controversial deal known as an Alford plea, little known until it was used to free the West Memphis Three.
Under its terms — which allow a defendant to plead guilty yet assert his innocence, while conceding that sufficient evidence exists for a conviction — Ndume Olatushani is now a free man. The downside is that no one will ever be held accountable for the years he unjustly served for Joe Belenchia's murder.
"It wasn't a hearing about them and their conduct," Moyes says. "It was a hearing about whether the absence of that evidence at Ndume's trial might have made a difference. That's one thing that's so troubling — that even in passing there was never a court that scolded them for it, even tangentially."
No member of the Brown Gang was ever formally accused.
Last June, as he was 17 years ago, Ndume Olatushani was brought into a holding cell at a prison in Shelby County. This time, though, there was a marked difference: He wasn't coming in. He was going out.
Anne-Marie Moyes didn't expect to show much reaction to Olatushani's release. She'd played that sequence through in her mind almost every day for 20 years. Sitting at their living room table now, Olatushani teases her, saying that the moment she saw him on the outside, she dropped to her knees crying.
It was a mixture of exhaustion and relief, Moyes says. The look they exchange speaks volumes.
In prison, the condemned man wore his hair in long braids. "It would have been rather easy for me to get a haircut," Olatushani says, "but for me, my hair was a symbol of defiance. Oftentimes, particularity black people are made to try to fit into these boxes that I think the larger dominant culture seems comfortable with. But for me, I shouldn't have been in there, and I wasn't going to conform to make you feel good about yourself with respect to how I present myself."
Soon after he was released, though, he decided to cut it. He handed Moyes the clippers.
"I felt like it was time for a change, and I no longer had those reasons to feel like I needed to [defy]," he explains, smiling. "And I was putting on a suit for the first time in a long time, and I felt like that was important as well to look presentable. I wanted to set the right example."
As a victory present, during the couple's New York stay, Herrington's firm offered to send them to a Broadway show. They ended up delegating the task of getting tickets to one of the firm's secretaries, Moyes says. Without any knowledge of the case's details, she brought back tickets to a play she'd picked at random. It turned out to be Memphis — a musical that broaches themes of injustice, interracial romance and civil rights. Olatushani and Moyes sat in the third row.
"The play is about the Memphis music scene and how black music crossed over to the white audience," Moyes remembers. "It was awesome, it was perfect. It was this super high-energy upbeat musical, with a fast pace, totally captivating. If you wanted to see one show on Broadway, this was the one. We were really glad that it worked out.
"But they were worried that we'd be traumatized or offended," Moyes adds, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. She takes out a photograph of the couple. They stand smiling like young lovers on their first big date, posed under the giant Broadway marquee reading "MEMPHIS."
Both of them are flipping the bird.
Oct. 2, 1983
Joseph Belenchia murdered in Memphis
Dec. 7, 1985
Ndume Olatushani convicted of felony murder; returns to California to serve prior sentence
Oct. 3, 1988
Tennessee Supreme Court affirms conviction
March 20, 1989
U.S. Supreme Court denies petition for a writ of certiorari
April 22, 1997
Post-conviction trial court denies request for relief
Aug. 12, 1999
Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals finds prosecution violated Brady Rule by suppressing evidence, vacates death sentence
Jan. 19, 2001
Tennessee Supreme Court affirms decision to vacate death sentence, and remands for new sentencing hearing
Nov. 15, 2004
Olatushani resentenced to life with the possibility for parole
April 22, 2005
Olatushani files petition for writ of error coram nobis in Shelby County
March 14, 2006
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge John P. Colton Jr. grants motion for evidentiary hearing
May 31, 2007
Judge Colton holds hearing, denies petition
June 11, 2007
Olatushani files timely notice of appeal
Sept. 30, 2009
Court reverses Judge Colton's petition denial, remands case for reconsideration
August 11, 2010
Judge Colton again enters order denying petition's writ of error coram nobis
August 19, 2010
Olatushani files timely notice of appeal
Jan. 10, 2011
Olatushani files appeal of order denying petition for writ of error coram nobis
Dec. 9, 2011
Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals grants petition for writ of error coram nobis, overturning murder conviction and remanding for a new trial
Ndume Olatushani released
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