Supporters of a pardon think lie sent man to prison

April 08, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

CHARLES REYNOLDS lied through his teeth. He lied so slickly, so slyly, so completely that were there a Prevaricator's Hall of Fame, Reynolds would be the poster boy for it and the charter member. George Washington or Honest Abe Lincoln he wasn't. So saith supporters of Marshall "Eddie" Conway.

To briefly recap: Reynolds was the chief prosecution witness in the trial of Conway, a former Black Panther Party member who was convicted of murdering Officer Donald Sager and wounding Officer Stanley Sierakowski in April 1970. Conway was sentenced to life in prison, has served 31 years and is now in the Maryland House of Corrections at Jessup.

In early March, City Councilman Norman Handy - backed by several of his colleagues - passed a resolution urging Gov. Parris Glendening to pardon Conway. In Wednesday's column, Sager's widow, Fraternal Order of Police President Gary McLhinney and Peter Ward, who prosecuted Conway, expressed their disagreement with the resolution. They're convinced of Conway's guilt.

Others are just as convinced of Conway's innocence. Paul Coates is one of them, and he insists that Reynolds lied on the stand. Now a book publisher, Coates was formerly the captain of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. He said he knows, for certain, of one lie Reynolds told on the stand. Coates said last week that he knows because the lie was about him.

"Reynolds testified that Eddie told him he, Jack Ivory Johnson and James Powell shot the officers as part of a Panther initiation rite, on my orders," Coates recalled. The problem with that, Coates contends, is that he was not only not the captain of the Baltimore BPP in April 1970, he wasn't even in the organization.

"I was a community organizer," Coates said of his activities then. He was, though, a Panther sympathizer and attended a meeting in New York that summer to tell BPP officials about the many Panthers who had been arrested here, including John Clark, the captain at the time of the Sager-Sierakowski shooting. Party officials promptly appointed Coates captain. Suspecting Conway was getting railroaded, Coates attended his trial every day. He was in court when Reynolds fingered him as the brains behind the massacre.

"Can you imagine being in court," Coates asked, "and having someone, completely out of the blue, accuse you of giving that order?"

There was no such order, Coates maintained when the defense called him to the stand, and maintains to this day (he has never been charged in connection with the shooting), and there certainly was no BPP cop-killing initiation rite, another charge that was part of Reynolds' testimony. Coates dismissed all of Reynolds' statements as lies, including the incriminating bit in which Conway supposedly told Reynolds about removing Sierakowski's watch after he was shot. Ward says the fact that Reynolds knew that detail means that Conway told him. Coates thinks Reynolds got that information the same way he got other details about the case - from prosecutors and police.

Coates made a plea to all those who believe Conway is guilty to review the facts and see if they pass the smell test, especially the series of events that led up to Reynolds' testimony that seem, at best, suspicious.

Reynolds' testimony matched exactly what Johnson, one of Conway's co-defendants, told police in a confession. Johnson later said the confession was obtained by coercion and torture. When he was brought to court, Johnson clammed up. Prosecutors couldn't pry his lips open with a crowbar. He refused to say anything about the shooting.

But by a happy coincidence, Reynolds, in a prison cell out in Michigan where he was serving time for passing bad checks, had an epiphany and just happened to remember every detail of things Conway supposedly told him when they were cellmates at the city jail in May 1970. Reynolds said Conway told him about the initiation rite, that Coates ordered the shooting, that Conway provided marijuana and cough syrup to Johnson and Powell so they could get high. Conway opened up to a complete stranger and told him vital information that could get him sent to death row or imprisoned for life. Coates didn't describe Conway as a genius, but he doubts that Conway or any other human being could be that stupid.

Brunetta Ajide, who was in the BPP at the same time Conway was, agrees with Coates.

"I think he deserves [a pardon]," Ajide said. "I do not think he shot that policeman. He had too much to lose. He worked at the post office. He wasn't the type to kill. And I can't see him telling the other inmate he did it."

As for the cop-killing initiation? Ajide said she joined the BPP simply by filling out an application, the same way hundreds of others did. She and Coates wonder why, with all the police informants and undercover agents rife within the BPP, Baltimore's prosecutors found it necessary to bring in a jailhouse snitch - who admitted from the stand that he was looking for parole (he got it) - to nail Conway.

"The party was full of them," Coates said of the informants, undercover cops and agents provocateurs - government operatives who specialized in urging radicals to commit violent and illegal acts - in the BPP. Ajide says FBI agents offered her a car and a house to turn informant.

With each side in the Conway pardon controversy claiming the moral higher ground, it will not likely die soon.

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