BALTIMORE – After serving nearly 44 years for a crime he did not commit, Marshall Eddie Conway finally walked out of the Maryland House of Corrections, March 4, a free man.
The former Black Panther Party leader called immediately for a struggle to free all political prisoners across the nation. Many, like himself, Conway charged, were victims of frame-ups orchestrated under the infamous FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Speaking on the Democracy NOW news program, Conway thanked the millions of people who worked tirelessly to win his freedom. There are, he added, “political prisoners all across the country now, from the Black Panther Party” who were “victims of the COINTELPRO operation.” (Story continues after video.)
He added, “It undermined a lot of people. It painted a picture that caused people not to get fair trials …. It caused a lot of our members to get assassinated.”
Senate hearings in 1975 by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, exposed COINTELPRO’s infiltration and dirty tricks as an FBI scheme to “perpetrate violence among Black groups and among other groups,” Conway added.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the targets of COINTELPRO secretly established by the FBI in the early 1950s with the Communist Party USA being its primary target.
Conway who has always pleaded innocent, was convicted during his 1970 trial almost solely on the basis of testimony by a jailhouse snitch. The weapon used to kill the police officer, Donald Sager, was never found.
Later it was revealed that a National Security Agency undercover agent set up the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party, Conway said. “I think some of the most active people in the organization were targeted, followed around by the COINTELPRO and opportunities were created with agent provocateurs or police agents …. incidents were created that ultimately led to them destroying like 25 of our 37 chapters in a period of 18 months.”
The president has pardoned some victims of this FBI wrecking operation, he said. But political prisoners, like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier “need to have the same kind of support … to help them get free,” he said.
Conway was released under the so-called “Unger decision,” a ruling by the Appeals Court in Maryland that defendants tried in the state before 1980 were denied their constitutional rights because juries were improperly instructed that they, not the trial judge could interpret the law. It meant that defendants were denied the presumption of innocence, the right of cross-examination and many other rights aimed at insuring a fair trial.
Conway pointed out that 500 inmates were imprisoned under the faulty court procedures nullified two years ago. “Three hundred of those prisoners are dead today.” The courts are “making it right” for the 200 who remain alive today “and they should make it right.”
The Unger decision ordered the States Attorney of Maryland to retry the cases. But in many cases, Conway’s included, the prosecution is reaching agreement with defense lawyers to release the prisoner with credit for “time served,” in Conway’s case 43 years and 11 months.
This reporter interviewed Conway by telephone nearly ten years ago while he was serving at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, Md. He had just launched a petition drive demanding freedom for victims of COINTELPRO.
He spoke of the movement he led in the Maryland penitentiary system to improve the lives of thousands of inmates including creation of a library system where none had existed before, organizing classes so the inmates could earn their high school and college diplomas, providing radio and television and expanding telephone access for the prisoners.
Conway became a beloved “father figure” for many of the young inmates in the Maryland penitentiary. Many of them, now free, turned out to greet Conway on his release from Jessup. He said he plans to devote his life to the group he organized “Friends of a Friend” fighting for prison reform and to win release of the COINTELPRO frame-up victims.
Photo: Eddie Conway speaks to reporters after his March 4 release from prison (via Democracy Now).