Jazz Freed Keith LaMar’s Soul. Can It Help Him Get Off Death Row?

Keith LaMar has spent 33 years in prison, nearly all of it in solitary confinement. He is scheduled to be executed in Ohio next year, after being convicted in the 1993 killing of five fellow inmates during a prison riot.

But a cadre of jazz musicians led by Albert Marquès, a pianist, composer and New York City schoolteacher, is convinced he is not guilty. And they’ve decided to put music to work as a tool to help LaMar, who they say was denied a fair trial in the inmate deaths and should be granted a new one.

“I believe he’s innocent,” Marquès said in an interview. “But if you don’t believe that he’s innocent? Cool. Agree, at least, to judge him again. Reopen the case. Let him prove that what he tried to say, but he was not ever able to say, is false or true. Give him another chance.”

For more than a year, Marquès has organized concerts to draw attention to LaMar’s case. He is part of a wider group of civic activists and lawyers — the “Justice for Keith LaMar” campaign — that argues the government illegally withheld inmate statements that could have helped LaMar at trial and offered inmates who testified against him leniency and special deals.

An impressive roster of jazz professionals, including Salim Washington, Brian Jackson, Arturo O’Farrill and Caroline Davis, have played at the Freedom First concerts, which began on a broiling afternoon in August 2020 at the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, where some 25 musicians performed in the middle of a pandemic. There had not been a single rehearsal. They had no permit. The sound equipment was cobbled together. The budget nonexistent.

Three concerts later, Marquès and the others are producing an album this month in conjunction with LaMar. A year in the making, it will feature remarks and poetry by LaMar, a 10th grade dropout who has educated himself in prison by reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Cornel West, as well as jazz from sympathetic musicians who’ve recorded covers and fresh compositions from locations including Spain and Oregon.

“To meet someone like Keith LaMar, who’s not only incarcerated, but on death row, unfairly, unjustly, it’s a heavy thing,” said Washington, a tenor saxophonist and jazz educator with a doctorate from Harvard. “But the warmth that he has as a human, and the elegance and eloquence that he has as a scholar, and just the charge that he has for himself, and that he’s able to exude to the rest of us, is a thing of beauty.”

Beyond music’s primal power to sooth, energize and inspire, it has helped focus attention on the pleas of those incarcerated for crimes they say they did not commit. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer convicted of murder, spent almost a decade in prison before Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” raised the profile of his case. He was ultimately freed years later.

Marquès, who by day leads the music department at the Institute for Collaborative Education in Manhattan, is not Bob Dylan. Still, his efforts drew nearly 100 people last November to the most recent Freedom First concert inside a black box theater at Northwestern University.

When the prison riot erupted in 1993, LaMar, a former drug dealer, was serving an 18-years-to-life sentence after pleading guilty in 1989 to fatally shooting a man, a drug user and childhood friend, who he said had attempted to rob him.

Authorities said that during the riot, LaMar became an enforcer and used the chaos of a cellblock takeover by other prisoners to kill inmates who some viewed as “snitches.”

LaMar is adamant that he had no role in the killing of the inmates during what became known as the Lucasville prison uprising, an 11-day siege during which some inmates seized hostages and a cell block to protest conditions.

Ten people, nine inmates and a guard, died.

LaMar suggests he was a convenient scapegoat for officials, an inmate who loudly objected to prison conditions and who had refused to cooperate in the riot investigation.

“I think they came to me under the impression that I would plead guilty,” LaMar said in an interview. “And I think that that was a way for them to really kind of sweep these cases under the table.”

But multiple appeals court decisions have gone against him, and the prosecutors who handled the case, Bill Anderson and Seth Tieger, remain unswayed.

“To Bill and I, he is extremely guilty, he is where he belongs: on death row,” Tieger said in an interview. “But all of this was brought out at the trial and in all of his different appeals, and nobody has believed that anything was done wrong at all, and that this death sentence has been upheld consistently all the way through this.”

The riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility was triggered by the warden’s demand that inmates submit to tuberculosis testing that Sunni Muslim inmates objected to on religious grounds. LaMar was in a recreation yard, waiting to re-enter his cell block, when inmates inside overpowered the guards and took control. He said he briefly went in, intending to grab some personal belongings, but was told by one of the riot leaders that if he didn’t want to be involved in the takeover, he had to leave.

“And so I came back out onto the yard without retrieving my property,” LaMar said. He said he remained there until two or three in the morning.

Prosecutors said LaMar actually stayed inside the cell block, killing or ordering the killing of four inmates there, and a fifth inmate the next day after being placed in a separate cell block with other prisoners as the riot continued.

In the aftermath of the chaos, the crime scenes were too contaminated for investigators to find forensic evidence, such as DNA, to help identify the killers. So witness statements became critical.

But before the trial, when it came time to review who had identified LaMar in the killings, prosecutors balked at turning over the statements. All of the inmates had been promised confidentiality, they said.

The prosecutors asked the judge to decide what information to give the defendant. The judge ruled that the names of 43 inmates who had been interviewed by investigators should be turned over to the defense. Separately, prosecutors were to turn over 11 pages of brief summaries, without any names attached.

It was the defense’s job to figure out who had said what — a nearly impossible task, even with the additional time and funds the judge offered, said Herman Carson, one of LaMar’s trial lawyers.

“That list of names and statements, it was like, ‘Judge, you could give me another five years; these guys aren’t going to talk if we just walk in there cold and say, ‘Hey, which one of these 43 statements did you make?’” Carson said.

Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, and Justin Murray, an associate professor at New York Law School who researches disclosure disputes in criminal proceedings, called the judge’s decision unusual, one that unfairly handicapped LaMar’s lawyers.

“People have tried to reopen the Lucasville cases, and it seems like the courts are just like, ‘Oh, this is that black hole called Lucasville,’” Godsey said. “‘We’re not going to look at it.’”

Given the death of the prison guard, LaMar’s trial in 1995 was moved to avoid any prejudicial climate to the adjoining county, just 30 miles away and also overwhelmingly white. Prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove the only two Black potential jurors, so LaMar’s case was heard by an all-white jury.

Eight inmates testified that LaMar was involved in the killings. Six, including Stacey Gordon, said LaMar had led the “death squad.” But a year earlier, Gordon had given a sworn statement to investigators in which he said he had not seen LaMar in the cell block, and that he did not know who LaMar was.

That statement was never turned over to the defense, one of a number that defense lawyers have argued would have helped LaMar, but were withheld. Initially charged with attempted murder and seven counts of assault in connection with the riot, Gordon testified after reaching a plea agreement for only two assaults.

Dana Hansen Chavis, a lawyer for LaMar, said Gordon’s statement could have been used to impeach his credibility and should have been turned over under the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.

“Before we, as a society, actually go through with taking the life of another human being,” Chavis said in an interview, “I believe that we need to be absolutely sure that society has followed all of the rules in posing the punishment and is absolutely sure that that person is guilty of the crime.”

The prosecutors said that they had not withheld any evidence that was exculpatory from LaMar’s lawyers.

“They were very, very aggressive attorneys,” Tieger said. “And we turned over everything that we were required to under the rules of discovery.”

LaMar took the stand at trial and testified that he had not been involved in the killings. Five inmates testified for the defense, four of whom said they had seen LaMar in the recreation yard shortly after the riot started. Two said they saw him in the yard throughout the day.

But the jury ultimately convicted LaMar in the murders and sentenced him to death, a decision that has been upheld through several appeals.

In ruling against LaMar, some appellate panels found that, even if the withheld evidence had been exculpatory, it would not have outweighed other evidence and led to a different verdict. Several found that any withheld evidence was not “material” to his defense because they said statements from inmates who implicated themselves or others in the killings did not preclude LaMar from having had a role, since so many prisoners had taken part.

Dwayne Svette, the son of one of the inmates LaMar was convicted of killing, said those trying to help LaMar are misguided.

“I understand,” Svette said, “that there’s been people on death row before and they’ve got released because some evidence came up where they was actually not the people who did the crime. But that’s not the case in this man.”

For those who have taken up LaMar’s cause, the evidence that he has been treated unjustly appears quite substantial and they have been equally impressed by his drive to overturn the verdict. In 2013, he spent eight months writing “Condemned,” an autobiographical book that details his experience from the day of the uprising through his time on death row. LaMar wrote the memoir on a typewriter, then dictated the story over the phone to a friend who transcribed each word.

During his time in prison, LaMar became a student of jazz, and credits the music — especially “A Love Supreme,” the jazz journey by John Coltrane — with teaching him to improvise, to avoid being engulfed by his own anger. The Coltrane work is often played at the Freedom First concerts.

LaMar came to the attention of the musicians after talking to Mother Jones about his case and his experience in making the best use of his time while in solitary confinement. Brian Jackson, a jazz musician who frequently collaborated with Gil Scott-Heron, then reached out to LaMar and they created a podcast about music and justice that attracted additional interest.

LaMar typically calls in to the Freedom First concerts from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown to say hello, offer remarks and poetry and listen to the music, his words at times interrupted by a tinny voice.

“This call,” the voice says, “is originating from an Ohio correctional facility, and may be recorded and monitored.”

On a bitterly cold Saturday in mid-November, LaMar called into the Northwestern theater outside Chicago for the most recent concert. He read poetry, both others’ and his own, like his poem “Tell ’Em the Truth.”

“Children of slaves who braved the worst of it, so we, their children and grandchildren, could make the most of it,” LaMar read. “To shield us from the pain of knowing the truth, they never explained what kind of society we were born into.”

The concert had opened with a Coltrane piece: “Alabama,” which some believe the jazz great wrote in response to the killing of four African American girls in a 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Later, the composer and alto saxophonist Caroline Davis blew the first haunting notes of “A Love Supreme” — the music that LaMar says freed him, at least internally.

“This music was born out of suffering, I think,” Davis, a former composer-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony, said in an interview. “That essence of it is what, in its musical form, people can feel. People can sense that suffering. But there’s also a lot of joy in the music.”

Marquès said he is hopeful about the ability of the music to broaden support for LaMar’s case. But, he said, he had already benefited personally: LaMar, who he met in person last summer, has become one of his best friends.

“There is a human connection,” he said, “that goes beyond those walls that are between us. And it’s very powerful. All of this comes from love.”

Robert Chiarito contributed reporting from Illinois. Susan Beachy contributed research.