Saved by the actress and the bishop

A campaign backed by an IoS reader has helped prevent a terrible injustice, reports John Carlin
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Human-rights campaigners, including such disparate figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bianca Jagger and a supremely generous reader of the Independent on Sunday, have averted a monstrous injustice in Mississippi.

Azi Kambule, a young black South African, was scheduled to go on trial tomorrow and face a possible death sentence for a murder everyone knew he did not commit. Originally from Soweto, Kambule had been charged with the murder of a black American woman, even though another young man had previously admitted in court that it was he who shot her dead.

The South African youth, who was 17 at the time, has never disputed that he was with the perpetrator, Santonio Berry, on the night of the murder. From the day of his arrest he confessed he was present when Berry hijacked the car of the victim, Pamela McGill, at gunpoint in January last year. He said he remained in the car when Berry took Ms McGill, 31, into a secluded wood and fired a bullet through her head.

Two months after the murder, Berry led police to her decomposing body, and last February the district attorney prosecuting the case, John Kitchens, made a deal with him. In exchange for confessing that he had pulled the trigger and promising to testify against Kambule in court, Berry, who had a criminal record, would receive life imprisonment, without parole, instead of death.

Kambule, who had no criminal record and was in Mississippi because his mother had obtained a scholarship at a local university, pleaded not guilty, knowing that by so doing he faced the prospect of death by lethal injection.

While the law followed its mysterious course in the Deep South, in Washington a young man by the name of Ben Jealous was working with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty before going to Oxford this autumn on a Rhodes Scholarship. Mr Jealous formed the Azi Kambule Committee for Justice and lined up figures such as Archbishop Tutu to lobby the Misissippi authorities.

Mr Kitchens, who already has one death penalty conviction for a juvenile under his belt, felt nothing but contempt for his correspondents. "It's just a bunch of these anti-death-penalty zealots mouthing off," he told a local newspaper.

But as Kambule's story spread round the world, he started receiving mail from as far afield as Italy and South Korea. The publicity also came to the rescue of the defence - three months ago Mr Jealous had raised only $2,000 when he received a fax from a woman in Paris who said she had read an article about Kambule in the Independent on Sunday of 3 March and wanted to help. Mr Jealous spoke to her on the phone. What did he need, she asked. He told her he needed $20,000 (pounds 12,540). The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she would send him a cheque for $10,000.

"We're incredibly, incredibly grateful to her," said Kambule's mother, Busisiwe Chabeli Kambule. "We do believe that she's an angel. I would imagine that it was God speaking to her."

Mr Jealous added: "What that lady's money did was allow us to hire a second defence attorney. Without him we would have been so overwhelmed with work, so unable to explore other avenues, that I'm sure Azi would have been in court on Monday facing death."

The remaining stumbling block was the family of the victim. Her father is a Methodist minister and a well-known civil-rights activist, but he could not find it in his heart to let Kambule off the hook. It was largely at his behest - a black man asking a white prosecutor to send a black man to his death - that Mr Kitchens felt politically empowered to pursue the maximum penalty. Such was the rage in Mr McGill's heart that when Archbishop Tutu rang him to beg for clemency, he slammed the phone down.

The McGill family started to come under pressure, though, from Mississippi religious and political leaders, the latter anxious at the image their state would project to the world. At just the right moment Bianca Jagger, a celebrated human-rights activist in the US, who had been kept informed by Mr Jealous, persuaded the leadership of Amnesty International in London to take a step unusual in a case that has not yet gone to trial - to issue an "urgent action appeal" to its members worldwide. More letters swamped Mr Kitchens, as well as the governor and attorney general of Mississippi.

Last Wednesday, at a special court hearing, the prosecution buckled. All capital murder charges against Kambule were dropped after he pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting a car-jacking and accessory to murder after the fact. A sentencing hearing will be held on Friday, at which the prosecution is expected to seek the maximum sentence of 35 years.

"That would also be grotesque," Mr Jealous said. "We can't cry victory yet. But we've won a huge battle against what would have been an unbelievable injustice."