Marshall Conway (born April 23, 1946) was the Minister of Defense of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. In addition to his position within the Black Panther Party he was also employed by the United States Postal Service. Conway, however, was unaware that some of the founding members of the Baltimore chapter were actually undercover police officers with the Baltimore Police Department. These officers would report daily on his particular activities within the chapter. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had also started its own investigation of Conway, recording his whereabouts, contacting his employers at the Post Office and maintaining liaison with the Baltimore Police Department.
On the night of April 23, 1970, Baltimore Police Officers Donald Sager and Stanley Sierakowski were shot by three assailants who fired at least 8 rounds at the officers while answering a domestic disturbance call. Officer Sager was slain and Officer Sierakowski was critically wounded. Two men were also arrested about an hour later near the scene of the first shooting by Officer James Welsh and Officer Roger Nolan, based on information Welsh and Nolan had received over the police radio. Two pistols were found near the location that the two men were hiding.
These two men, Jackie Powell and Jack Ivory Johnson, had either alleged affiliations to or knew members of the Baltimore Black Panther Party chapter the police determined. Immediately subsequent to the contact with the two men, Officer Roger Nolan was involved in a brief foot chase with a black male as Nolan tried to make contact with the male. The black male then fired several shots at Nolan and escaped. Nolan stated that he had previously seen this man on his assigned beat and could recognize him, although he did not know his name. Based on the affiliation of the two suspects with the Black Panther Party, Nolan was shown two photo line-ups of party members. In the first line-up, Nolan claimed that a picture of Conway taken 7 years earlier in 1963, resembled the shooter. In the second line-up, which used a current photograph of Conway, Nolan positively identified Conway as the individual that had shot at him. Welsh also positively identified Conway as the individual that Nolan had chased. The next day, Conway was arrested while working at the Post Office. Following an investigation where the ballistics of both shootings were determined to be a match, Conway was charged with both the murder of Officer Sager and the attempted murders of Officers Sierakowski and Noland. Conway happened to be working during the time of the shooting and his boss at the Postal Office verified his alibi, but this did not change his conviction. One of the weapons found with Powell and Johnson was also matched through ballistics testing to the murder of Officer Sager.
These charges, came at a time when there was already considerable media attention focused on the Baltimore Chapter of the Black Panther Party. This included front-page coverage of the multiple indictments of this case, and a mass arrest of the Baltimore Panthers for the purported torture/murder of an informant who participated in local chapter activities. In the first trial following the mass arrest, the prosecution witnesses proved to be both contradictory and not credible to the jury. The first defendant charged with the torture/murder and conspiracy was acquitted after just 2 ½ hours of jury deliberation. None of the remaining cases were ever tried, and all those arrested were released.
The FBI surveillance of Mr. Conway and the Black Panther Party in Baltimore had begun even before these events, and were part of Mr. Conway's FBI files, secured by him through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI's letter to Baltimore's Postal Inspector dated 10/22/69 provided notification that Mr. Conway, a Postal employee, was a member of the Black Panther Party. An additional memo in the file was from the Baltimore FBI, dated 11/28/69, and stated that 1) the Panthers were under constant surveillance and investigation, and 2) that the Baltimore chapter had already been infiltrated by government agents and informants. That memo refers to a "highly sensitive source who is of continuous value to the Bureau." The same memo also confirmed that from November of 1969 on, there was direct coordination of the surveillance of the Baltimore Panthers by the FBI and the Baltimore City Police Department.
Conway appealed to the court to have either Charles Garry or William Kunstler, two attorneys who consistently represented party members, represent him at his trial. Both lawyers had offered their services free of charge. The court, however denied Conway’s request. Instead of lawyers of his own choosing the court appointed a lawyer who performed no pre-trial investigation and never met with Conway. Conway therefore chose to absent himself from much of his January 1971 trial.
Prior to the trial, Johnson had confessed to the police, naming Powell and Conway as the ones who shot Officers Sager and Sierakowski. According to court testimony, Johnson stated he fired into the air because "I didn't have the heart to kill the pig." Johnson later refused to testify against Conway and claimed his statement was coerced.
The state’s case was one based partially on the evidence of a photo identification made by Officer Nolan. In an effort to strengthen their case, the state called one Charles Reynolds, a known jailhouse informant. He testified that while he shared a cell with Conway prior to trial, Conway confessed to him. However, as was verified by the court transcript, Conway protested greatly when Reynolds was placed in his cell because everyone knew he was an informant. One of the points that proved to be key to the truthfulness of Reynolds was the fact that Reynolds was told by Conway that he had taken Officer Sierakowski's watch, a fact that was not released by the police during the investigation.
Finally, the ballistic evidence connecting the weapons to the murders also played a significant role in the trial. After hearing all of the evidence, the jury convicted Conway of the murder and both he and Powell were sentenced to life in prison. Both men appealed and the appellate court upheld the convictions.
There are several controversies involving the trial and conviction of Conway. The trial took place just two years after the 1968 Baltimore riot, the use of the photo line-up was questioned and the reliability of the jailhouse informant was brought up. In addition, Conway fired two lawyers, the first (Nelson Kandel) over trial strategy differences and the second one that was appointed to represent him and who Conway refused to cooperate with. Conway requested that his cellmate, attorney Arthur Turco, be appointed to represent him. Turco requested bail to be able to do so, but both of these requests were denied. Conway claims to be a political prisoner.
Mr. Conway was never linked by any physical evidence to the crimes for which he was tried. There were no fingerprints, and no physical evidence linking him to either the crime scene or the weapons. Mr. Conway maintained his innocence at the trial, and continues to do so.
Mr. Conway rejected the use of a criminal defense, which in all likelihood would have ended in his acquittal, based on lack of evidence. Instead, he accepted advice to use a 'political' defense, and was wrongfully convicted. With adequate legal representation denied him, an acquittal could have been convincingly argued. At his trial, the prosecution primarily relied on the testimony of an informant, placed, in Mr. Conway's cell under suspicious circumstances and against Mr. Conway's written protests to the guards. It was to this informant that Mr. Conway supposedly then confessed. Such use of informants was common knowledge to all Black Panther Party members. The only other evidence came from the third officer who responded to the shooting, who stated he ‘followed a man who seemed to be acting suspiciously' near where the two suspects were arrested. The officer's identification of Mr. Conway came about only after he was given a set of photos and he recognized no one. The same officer was then given a second set of photos in which Mr. Conway's photo was the only one repeated from the first set, and he 'identified' Mr. Conway. Since Mr. Conway was being held in a cell at that very station house as the photos were being shown to the officer, a lineup (considered a more reliable means of identification) could easily have been arranged, but was not.
Mr. Conway was connected to the shooting of the two officers in the patrol car only by the disputed statements of Charles Reynolds, the jailhouse informant, placed in Mr. Conway's cell despite documented protests to guards by Mr. Conway. Reynolds was inexplicably transferred to Mr. Conway's cell in the Baltimore City Jail from a Maryland prison, where he was serving time on an assault conviction. Reynolds was in route to Michigan where he was wanted on forgery charges. With his record of four previous convictions, and prior service as a police informer, Reynolds wrote to Baltimore police from Detroit and offered them his testimony in exchange for intercession with the Michigan Parole Board. Nothing came of an interview done by the Baltimore police officer flown to Detroit. When it became evident that the case against Mr. Conway was weak however, one of the prosecutors flew to Detroit for a second interview, and as a result, Reynolds was brought back to Baltimore for the purpose of testifying at Mr. Conway's trial.
On most days of the trial, Mr. Conway left the courtroom while the trial proceeded because the trial judge denied him an attorney of his own choosing, or to represent himself. Instead, only the court-appointed lawyer for Mr. Conway was allowed question witnesses. That lawyer spent only 45 minutes prior to trial with his client, and during the trial often appeared to be intoxicated, (Apparent from the transcript itself is the lawyer's inadequate and inappropriate demeanor in the afternoons, following lunch recess.)
Certainly a factor in the trial was Mr. Conway's appearance to the jurors: in shackles, with his imposing height, huge Afro, and raised-fist salutes to supporters in the crowded courtroom before his refusal each day to sit at the trial table. Prior to their selection, the jurors had been exposed to weeks of inflammatory media coverage of the Black Panthers in Baltimore in connection with allegations of kidnapping and murder. This mirrored the media's negative national coverage of the Panthers throughout this period. Pervasive negative media attention has since been authoritatively attributed to the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program [“COINTELPRO”], and other national security operations, as part of their stated intention of destroying the Black Panther Party. Prior to and during the trial, stories were in both of Baltimore's daily papers and in the Afro-American each Friday. The jury was not sequestered, and could have had access to these materials.
Mr. Conway has been incarcerated since April 1970. He has now spent almost three decades [now three and a half decades] in Maryland's prison system. He is currently classified as medium security prisoner, and is being held in a maximum-security institution at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, MD.
A vicious beating by Maryland Penitentiary guards in 1974 was part of an attempt to destroy the Panther Collective, formed by Mr. Conway in the Penitentiary. As a result of that attack, Mr. Conway suffered a broken shoulder and compound fracture of his jaw, necessitating surgery and a three-month hospitalization. Although Mr. Conway filed a civil rights action against the guards, an all-white federal jury refused to hold the guards accountable for their actions. The US Court of Appeals subsequently refused to substitute its judgment for that of the jury but did acknowledge that: "The severity of the injuries ... presents a closer question of whether excessive force was used, amounting to a constitutional deprivation."
Mr. Conway earned his high school GED while in the US Army, and while incarcerated, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Science from Coppin State College. In addition, as his interest and expertise in computers grew, he also earned an Associate of Arts degree in Computer Science and Business Studies from Essex Community College. While incarcerated, Mr. Conway was also the Inmate Coordinator for the Penitentiary Library, and worked to secure a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Conway directed the project supported by this grant which resulted in To Say Their Own Words, fifty videotaped discussion sessions between 100 prisoners and a wide-ranging group of published authors, recorded over a one year period.
Throughout his years of incarceration, Mr. Conway has provided inspiration and leadership in numerous other efforts to benefit fellow prisoners. Some examples of this are:
1) the formation of the United Prisoner's Labor Union at the Maryland Penitentiary, which signed up 500 members, and secured the support of the labor community;
2) a counseling program for youths at risk for imprisonment, which operated for 12 years, that provided court assigned youth with 10-week counseling sessions by Penitentiary inmates;
3) the ACLU-affiliated Prison Committee to Correct Prison Conditions, which was chaired by Mr. Conway, and worked with a team of ACLU lawyers to litigate overcrowding, brutality, and health issues at Maryland House of Corrections [the resulting court decree is still in effect; at the time of the suit the MHC population was 2,100, which was reduced to and remains at 1,200]; and
4) the Maryland Lifers Association, now ten years old, with chapters in three institutions, which created African-centered holiday celebrations for prisoners with their families; a program which used four computers to teach 600 prisoners computer literacy; and the first ever prison-based Touchstone Project, which is based on weekly discussions of classical literature.
IV. Current Status of Efforts to Free Eddie Mr. Conway
Mr. Conway has been unable to receive any recommendation for parole from the Parole Board in spite of encouraging meetings with them. This is because Maryland's Governor has communicated to the Parole Board his intention of not granting parole to any lifers except the aged and terminally ill. The issue of ‘no-parole for lifers’ is now under review by Maryland's highest court. Attorneys for the prisoners argued in the appeal that such a policy negates the intention of courts to impose some life sentences with the possibility of parole. If the 'no-parole for lifers' policy is allowed to stand, it will permit the executive to interfere with the exercise of judicial power which rests solely with the courts.
Meanwhile, a habeas corpus petition to Maryland's highest state court on behalf of Mr. Conway is currently being prepared by attorneys as part of an effort to exhaust legal remedies so that a Clemency Petition can be presented to the Governor. Baltimore City Mayor Kurt Schmoke has written Governor Glendening, on behalf of Mr. Conway suggesting that consideration be given to returning Mr. Conway to the community. The Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP has also called for Mr. Conway's release from prison. Church leaders have voiced their support for Mr. Conway, including the Rev. Frank Reid, Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore City. Support for Mr. Conway's release from prison has also been expressed by some members of Maryland's General Assembly, the Baltimore City Council, and by the community.
As the previously undisclosed records of the FBI and other security agencies are brought to light, Americans are reexamining what was done by the government and the courts in the name of its citizens during the turbulent period of the 1960's and 1970's. Across the country, efforts are being made to Win release for the wrongfully convicted and still-incarcerated targets of the FBI's COINTELPRO, including Marshall 'Eddie' Conway.
As one part of this effort, Amnesty International called for an independent commission of inquiry into the effects of abuses by the FBI on trials in the US. In a press release dated October 13, 1981, Amnesty International asked that the inquiry determine "whether misconduct which judges might have treated as isolated irregularities formed part of a pattern." These abuses were documented in the 144-page report released on that date, and included those that were part of the FBI's COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting target organizations such as the Black Panther Party. Amnesty international’s study was based on an examination of thousands of pages of official transcripts and documents, and cited many examples of irregularities by the FBI in the cases of activists from militant groups, including the Panthers, targeted for FBI intelligence work. According to that study:
Production of false evidence, misstatements about FBI action, harassment, infiltration of defense teams by informants and failure to make available information which the defense might have used are all shown to have occurred. (Proposal for Commission of Inquiry into the effect of domestic intelligence activities on criminal trials in the United States of America, 1981)
Document prepared by Mardon Walker, Esquire; January 1999.
"We must continue to move forward and do everything we can to outlaw legal lynching in America. We must continue to stand together in unity and to demand a moratorium on all executions. You must stay strong. You must continue to hold your heads up, and to be there. We will prevail. Keep marching Black people. They are killing me tonight. They are murdering me tonight." -- Excerpts of Last Words of Bro. Shaka Sankofa, an innocent man executed by the state of Texas, 6/22/00. www.myspace.com/nattyreb7
During his imprisonment, Conway has earned three college degrees, started a literacy program, and has been an "exemplary" prisoner. During the entire time, Conway has maintained his innocence. In February 2001, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution urging the Governor of Maryland to pardon Conway, over the strident protests of police officers. There is a "Free Eddie Conway" website that continues to lobby for his release, with the support of various groups such as the NAACP. In addition, Conway has written a book on his life, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, that was released on April 4, 2011.