Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wrongfully convicted civil rights activist, exiled 40 years, speaks to Innocence Project students

Frederick Umoja with daughter, Project for Innocence staff

Alyssa Boone (second from left) is pictured with Frederick Umoja, his daughter, and Project for Innocence staff, attorney Alice White and clinical associate professor Elizabeth Cateforis.

Law professors are fond of telling their students not to “lose sight of the forest for the trees.” However, often as a law student, my here and now seems like little more than a string of reading assignments that teach me the divergent tax treatment of support, property and alimony, or how to navigate an endless maze of statutes. While I know there are greater goals for my career in the long term, I have a hard time feeling like I’m accomplishing it in the day to day.

The greater goals that brought many of us to law school are things like justice, equality, and opportunity. Justice is a big concept, but it’s alive and well in the crowded offices at the Innocence Project.

Technically, we’re the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies. I started the Project this semester, and one of my first assignments was Rev. Frederick Umoja’s case. I knew that he was wrongfully convicted, along with several other people, in Kansas about 40 years ago. He fled to Africa and has been there since, even though his daughter is in the U.S. and hasn’t seen him that entire time. After the Project helped him wipe his record clean, he enlisted the Project to help him find a way back. I’d hardly started working on his case when Beth, my supervisor, caught me outside the law school and said, “You know Mr. Umoja’s case?” I started to explain that I finally had a chance to start working on it as she said, “He’ll be in class tomorrow, so apparently he’s worked some of it out on his own.”

I was a little dumbstruck. His case had seemed so complicated and remote. Up until then, I’d been reading about a string of administrative problems that were mostly rooted in events that occurred in foreign countries. Suddenly, his story couldn’t be more real.

And the next day, there he was. Rev. Umoja showed up with his daughter, Jackie Johnson. His voice filled the room as he shared his story. He first told us about his time in Kansas. He was an activist for racial equality, but as he explained it, such activists were divided into two groups: those who proceeded with violence and those who believed there was another way. Umoja believed there was another way. However, racial tensions ran high, and many people refused to distinguish between these groups, labeling all equal rights activists as violent extremists. These same people accused Umoja and eight others in a trial full of fabricated evidence and racial prejudice.

Frederick Umoja speaks

Umoja wasn’t worried because he knew he had done nothing wrong. However, he was convicted, and he lost on appeal. At this point, he looked at us and asked, “How could a nation that claims to be the epitome of justice and equality, a nation that prides itself on being a civil nation, allow this to happen?” The fact remains that our country allowed this to happen. As a result, Umoja fled to Tanzania, leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter, eventually settling in Liberia.

For 40 years, Umoja lived through brutal civil wars, counseling child militants. He sought to teach children the value of education and the path to self-awareness.

He described living in a community where bodies littered the streets. The bones became a part of the landscape, such that children would play football with the discarded skulls.

Umoja described being under attack. He was once shot at for four hours while hiding inside his home. Eventually, his attackers got in and a young boy put his AK-47 in Umoja’s mouth. As he tells it, “He asked me, ‘Why didn’t you let us in?’ and I took his AK from my mouth.” He motioned gently, moving the gun aside. “And I said, ‘Because you were shooting at me.’” The boy seemed to respect Umoja’s resistance to violence. Later that night, that same boy came back, along with others, and asked Umoja for water. The Reverend not only gave them water, but also fed them. They sat down with him, and he asked them all, “Who are you?” None of the boys knew, and Umoja began helping them find their purposes and identities. Every week, they would come by Umoja’s house and talk.

In his time there, Umoja counseled 5,000 youth combatants like those boys. Only two returned to fight. He taught at a high school that became the top high school in Liberia and worked to establish a university there. Recently, attorneys and student interns at the Innocence Project helped get Umoja clemency. His record is cleared, and he repeatedly expressed his gratitude. He is thrilled to be reunited with his daughter, Jackie Johnson.

When class was over, I got to speak with Ms. Johnson. I asked her when she and her father had first reconnected.

“A year before last June,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. I didn’t know anything. I’d been trying to find anything I could, but in the ’80s we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have cell phones. I asked my mom, but she would always say, ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older,’ and one day I was older, and she was dead. I asked my grandma where the papers were, but she had Alzheimer’s, and she couldn’t tell me.”

Johnson told me that she has barely slept since her father bought his airplane ticket, and even less since he arrived. They have stayed up until the early hours of the morning, and he has told her all about his life. She asks him for more stories until neither can keep their eyes open.

“He’s the best dad in the world,” she said. “Nobody has a dad like him. Nobody.”

When I was a senior at KU, finishing up my degree in flute performance and frantically applying to law schools, I didn’t know why I was doing it. Rev. Umoja and Ms. Johnson are why I am in law school. They are why most of us do it: because our legal education allows us to be the voice of justice in our community.

Sometimes our work becomes routine and our day-to-day tasks seem mundane. Rev. Umoja was a helpful reminder that those tasks are just trees in an impressive forest.

Alyssa Boone, 3L and Student Ambassador

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