July 4, 1999

© St. Petersburg Times

Main story

‘We’d rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn’t do’

‘I had nothing … The world I left no longer existed’

‘We don’t look back’

‘Yes, I’m angry… . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated’

‘The stigma is always there’

The 13 other survivors and their stories

“You got to realize,” says Joseph Green Brown, now known to almost everyone as Shabaka, “you put a man in a cage and treat him like a dog, talk to him like a dog, feed him like a dog … there’s gonna come a time he wants to bite like a dog.”

For Shabaka, that time came 16 years ago when technicians in Florida’s death house made him listen as they tested the electric chair in which they were about to kill him.

Twice a day, he heard the lightning-like noise from his death watch cell, 30 feet away. When a prison tailor came to measure him for his burial suit, he was put back into his cell kicking and screaming. He refused to order the traditional last meal.

The long wait for his death date, the thought of his grieving mother, the senses and sounds of more than 12 years on death row — they rub Shabaka, now 49, almost as raw today as they did on Oct. 17, 1983, when he came within 15 hours of execution.

“Yes, I’m angry,” says Shabaka, who will never forget the stench that hung over the cellblock after an execution. There were 16 executions while he was at Florida State Prison, and he could have been No. 17. “Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated. The state of Florida didn’t give me nothing. They didn’t give me an apology. When they released me, they didn’t even give me bus fare home.”

Twelve years later, Shabaka — Swahili for uncompromising — puts his outrage to work trying to solve the problems of poor people. At a Washington, D.C., drop-in center, he feeds homeless drug addicts, counsels alcoholics and helps people with mental problems.

Shabaka supplements his income working at a drive-in convenience store and lecturing on capital punishment. His ordeal makes him a cause celebre on the anti-death-penalty circuit.

“It can be stressful,” he says of post-prison life. “But it’s rewarding.”

In 1974, a Hillsborough County jury convicted him of raping and murdering Earlene Treva Barksdale, a clothing store owner and wife of a prominent Tampa lawyer. The case hinged on Ronald Floyd, a man who held a grudge against Shabaka because Shabaka once turned him in for a robbery. The jury also got to see a purported smoking gun — a .38-caliber handgun that prosecutor Robert Bonanno said was the murder weapon.

An FBI ballistics expert said the handgun could not possibly have fired the fatal bullet — a witness the jury never heard from — and several months later, Floyd admitted that he lied.

Florida courts granted no relief, however, and in the fall of 1983, Gov. Bob Graham signed a death warrant. Shabaka’s mother suffered a stroke.

Death watch cells are larger but more narrow than cells on death row, and guards are positioned outside to hand the condemned their belongings, turn on their TVs and make sure they don’t commit suicide. Shabaka says he felt like a “walled animal.”

He was within 15 hours of death when a federal judge in Tampa issued a stay. Two and a half years later, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, ruling the prosecution knowingly allowed false testimony from the states’s star witness. One year later, Shabaka was released after the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office decided not to retry him.

Despite the appellate court’s stinging rebuke, Bonanno, now a Hillsborough circuit judge, remains convinced Shabaka is guilty. “He’s very fortunate,” Bonanno says. “He should have been executed.”

Shabaka says he has not forgotten — or forgiven — Bonanno, Graham or the “sick guards” he suspects were taking bets on whether he would get a stay.

There “ain’t no worse place” than death row, he says. “America ain’t no civilized place.”

After so many years trying to keep Florida from strapping him in a chair, Shabaka feels uneasy when he puts on a seat belt. When he walks into a room and closes the door, he reopens it to make sure it isn’t locked.

It’s too painful for Shabaka to talk about friends he lost while on death row, or those he might have gained. He frequently changes his telephone number because of harassment. He doesn’t want to be photographed, declines to let reporters into his home and reveals nothing about the woman he married after his release.

In prison, Shabaka became a jailhouse lawyer so he could, belatedly, defend himself. Today, as he looks down the road for new challenges, he only half-mockingly suggests he might become a death row lawyer.

His biggest victory to date? “I’m alive… . That’s good enough for me.”