THE HISTORY OF THE PAUL ROUGEAU COMMITTEE
Paul Rougeau time
Paul Rougeau was condemned to death in Texas. He had been arrested the day after a shot-gun which had taken place in 1978 in a Houston night-club where Paul and the police smuggled drug. Paul's brother was killed and he was wounded. Paul Rougeau was convicted for the murder of the night-club's owner's bodyguard, a policeman off duty. He always maintained he was innocent. On June 12th 1992 a letter from Paul Rougeau, who had been on death row in Texas for 15 years, appeared on the first page of the newspaper “Il Manifesto”. Paul was asking for friendship and help. Hundreds of people wrote to him. A close correspondence started between Texas and Italy.
On October 21st 1992, some penfriends of Paul Rougeau met in Rome and decided to form a Committee to help him. The Paul Rougeau Committee was thus founded. People all over Italy joined it (more than 500 persons, including personalities, associations, groups and individuals) and all over the world as well (Switzerland, France, Nederlands, England, Germany, Iran, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa…).
The Committee hired a private attorney for Paul, and, upon Paul's request, it took up also Joe Cannon's legal defense (Joe was under age when arrested and had been living on the same death row for 16 years).
From June 1992 to February 1994, the hope of Paul and all his friends for a positive solution of his case increased, while an articulate appeal to the Federal Appeal Court was being prepared. The challenge for the appeal came unexpectedly on February 17th 1994 and another desperate mobilization was organized to save Paul from the lethal injection that would kill him the first minute on the following May, 3rd.
In two months the Committee raised other funds, appealed to the US Supreme Court and to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, sent two people to control the situation in Texas, ordered other investigations, published a book with some letters from Paul, informed public opinion in the widest possible way and involved very important authorities. Thousands of fax and letters overwhelmed the Texas Governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The sweet friendship with Joe Cannon
After the tragic execution of Paul Rougeau, carried out as scheduled on May 3rd 1994, the Committee, on an explicit desire of Paul, re-organized itself to continue its activity in the name of humanity and in the interest of every person who is on death row, starting with Joe Cannon.
The Committee had been informed about Cannon’s story through his correspondence with a woman in Switzerland, Jacqueline Gsell, whom Joe considered an adopted mother. In September 1977 Joe Cannon was on probation after a conviction for house-breaking. He was entrusted to his own lawyer and resident at the house of his lawyer’s sister, Anne Walsh, a lawyer too. After a week, Joe, under the effect of a large quantity of drugs, medicines and high proof spirits, shot Anna Walsh and killed her. He was arrested shortly after while he was wandering in a confused state of mind, driving the victim's car. He was only 17 years old and was sentenced to death for Mrs.Walsh murder.
During these years the haunting sequence of traumas and tortures he suffered within his family during his childhood and adolescence, came to light. Joe in his terrible family life had not been able to develop his own intellectual capacities and suffered from serious mental problems. Paradoxically, he found on death row a place more favorable than the domestic one, he had experienced. The Committee financed Joe’s legal defense, applying also to a new attorney for help. The challenge of the appeal to the Federal Appeal Court allowed the State of Texas to set the date for the execution: April, 22nd 1998.
The Committee, with Jacqueline Gsell, Amnesty International and other abolitionist organizations in America, made a great effort to save Joe, who had become a dear friend to many Italians through his sweet and loving letters. Two popular petitions signed by about 10,000 people were sent to the Texas authorities. The Pope, the Italian Government (twice), the Italian Commission for Foreign Affairs, the European Union (for the first time in history) and a few Nobel prize winners also intervened to plead for clemency.
Protests and press conferences to save Joe were carried out both in America and Italy. The lawyer Stanley Schneider during the last months threw himself into this cause heart and soul to save Joe. The Texas authorities conscience was not upset by the request for clemency which documented precisely the terrible abuses which had been the premise to the mad crime committed by Joe Cannon. The Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency. Joe died with model behavior on April 22nd 1998.
Shaka Sankofa unyielding resistance
After Joe Cannon's execution, the activity of the Committee went along with the help to a third Texas death row inmate: on October 25th, 1998, Gary Graham was "adopted", one of the most famous condemned in the last years.
The factors of particular unfairness of the death penalty were concentrated in his case: African-American, raised in the Houston ghetto with economic and social difficulties, arrested for minor crimes when he was still a juvenile, in prison he was afterwards accused of murder. After a few months, in October 1981 - badly defended by an appointed lawyer who was scarcely paid and addict to alcoholism - Gary was sentenced to death on the basis of a single inconstant eyewitness.
During his long imprisonment Gary had acquired a clear sociopolitical conscience of his situation, thus becoming a potential leader of the U.S, abolitionist movement. In the last years he had adopted the African name of Shaka Sankofa and he had become a tough and inflexible contestant of the political system which finds its expression in capital punishment.
Beyond giving to the prisoner a moral sustain, the Paul Rougeau Committee granted him financial helps for the investigative activities aiming to prove his innocence. Of the utmost relevance has been the mobilization which -thanks to Gary, to his supporters and to his wonderful defensive team - exploded close to the date of June 22nd, 2000, the date set for his execution.
Our association participated in the mobilization by promoting a popular appeal to Texas authorities pleading for mercy. About 6000 Italian people joined the petition and among them there were social, political and cultural celebrities. The Committee has moreover solicited the intervention of European governments in favor of Gary Graham and contributed to the activation of American media.
In the last days, considering the strong criticism of press opinion about the execution, the intervention - in favor of the condemned - of famous leaders of the movement promoting civil rights for black people had shaken like never before the faith of Texas public opinion in death penalty. Anyway, Texas authorities denied clemency and Shaka Sankofa fought with all his strength opposing physically to the execution. Exhausted by the self inflicted fast and by the fight, wounded and suffering, he died after releasing a long and passionate final declaration in which he shouted to the world the need of continuing the fight against the system of capital punishment without giving up hope.
When his judicial story was approaching its end, Shaka Sankofa had declared his will to "appeal to the public opinion court" and with his last words he heartily asked to carry on with his fight independently from the fact that he was being killed.
Gary Graham's case after Shaka Sankofa's execution
The Committee has gone on - cooperating with the defense attorney and the private investigator - the work on Gary Graham's case to clarify the deep injustice of his death sentence. A particularly important step in this direction has been made by starting the production of a book about the condemned's life and his judicial events.
The book aims to give a strictly controlled information to show to the world in a clear and irrefutable way that Gary Graham had no connection with the murder for which he was sentenced to death.
The acknowledgement of a condemned innocence after his execution has taken place would give a strong aid to the abolitionist cause. Such an event would actually induce American citizens to think over death penalty issue much more than what usually happens when the innocence is acknowledged in time, even if in extremis shortly after the execution.