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No longer on death row but still fighting for life

Exonerated death row inmates get help outside the prison walls from Philadelphia-based nonprofit Witness to Innocence.

Witness to Innocence Executive Director Magdaleno Rose-Avilia stands next to a staHayden Mitman

KwameAjamuspent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

Exonerated in 2014,the formerdeath row inmate is now 59 years old, and intent on sharing his story to anyone who will listen. It is a cautionary tale, he said, and hopefully one that will help others realize how many innocent lives could be saved by eliminating capital punishment.

Ajamu, who lives inCleveland, has been working withthe Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Witness to Innocence, which seeks to end the death penalty by supporting legislation against it, while also assisting former death row inmateswho have been exonerated.

Ajamujoined Witness to Innocence shortly after his release, and shortly after finding out about the organization.

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“If there was any way I could give back by being an ambassador against the death penalty… I wanted to be on that train,” he said in an interview Wednesday from his home in Cleveland.

When he was 17, Ajamuwas wrongfully convicted of killing another man in 1975, and sentenced to death. Decades later, he was exonerated after the lone witness to the crimerecanted his testimony.

Now,Ajamuserves as a board member of Witness to Innocence and chairman of its emergency fund, which goes to supporting exonerated individuals as they adjust to life outside the prison walls.

Ajamu is among several exonerated individuals and their family members, who serve on the 10-member board, said executive director Magdaleno“Leno” Rose-Avila. The others are lawyers and authors, Rose-Avila said, all interested in ending the death penalty.

Formed in 2005, Witness to Innocence was the subject of a short documentary called, “The Gathering,” which was shown earlier this month in New York at the NYC Socially Relevant Film Festival.

Rose-Avila said he hopes to eventually make the film available to the public.

It includes stories of survival from men who have been exonerated. Men like Ajamu, who said his time spent with Witness to Innocence “gave me wings” by letting him share his message.

It’s important work, Ajamu said, noting that he firmly believes there are still innocent individuals now incarcerated and on death row in prisons throughout the country.

Rose-Avila agreed.

“There’s a lot of people held by the courts that are completely innocent,” he said on Wednesday, at the Cherry Street office of Witness to Innocence, a couple of blocks from Thomas Paine Plaza.

Long an advocate of the poor, Rose-Avila has worked with Amnesty International, rallied with farmers against the use of GMOs and helped quell disputes between gang members in Los Angeles and El Salvador.

At Witness to Innocence, he said, members travel around the country, trying to eliminate the death penalty and help reform the criminal justice system. Recent efforts include campaigns in Nebraska and California.

Another effort the group has undertaken is trying to get states to allow those who have been wrongly convicted incarcerated and put on death row access to funding reserved for crime victims.

“When you get out of prison, you don’t get any money, you don’t get any opportunities, you don’t get nothing,” Rose-Avila said. “Why shouldn’t they have access to these funds? They are victims of the same individual.”

 
 
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