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Fifty years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit: An Olympia man tells his story

[Ed note: This is the continuation of an interview conducted by Wendy Tanowitz in June 2018. You can read the beginning in the July issue of WIP or online at]

Dawud al-Malik was sentenced to death in 1966 at age 19, and released in 2015 after 50 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence throughout. Forensic evidence that surfaced later from FBI and Seattle Police Department reports supported his contention. Dawud al-Malik currently has an appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court calling for the DNA evidence in his case to be made public and asking for a new trial so that he can be exonerated and clear his name.

The first part of the interview covered al-Malik’s early years and some particulars of his trial. In this final section, al-Malik talks about prison, post-prison life and some of the ways our system of punishment has changed over time —not always for the better. Dawud al-Malik earned an AA degree from the University of Washington and a BA from Evergreen. His study and experiences have given him insights that would serve us well in reforming our justice system.

After the Supreme Court decided that capital punishment was unconstitutional, what sentence did those prisoners get? Life without parole?

No, the system that was in effect at that particular time – a life sentence was considered 13 years and 4 months. Most of the guys sentenced to life for first degree murder did on average about 14 years. Life without parole did not come into effect until much later. Yet there was people trying to perpetuate the idea that those who had been on death row, who had been convicted of first degree murder, should stay in prison for the rest of their lives. And that was totally in error. Not only was it illegal and unconstitutional but very arbitrary in the way they applied the sentences. That’s what they call ex post facto – they can’t take a new law and make it retroactive. And the courts agreed. You can’t do that – the sentence in place at the time of conviction had to be adhered to. My initial release date was January 1991 but I wasn’t released until February 25, 2015. There are some guys who were sitting there who are still doing time from the ‘60s.

But since I’ve been out I’ve spoken at a couple of universities – the UW at Tacoma. I’m having a hard time remembering a last name name; please forgive me. I had a stroke about six months ago and it affected my short-term memory. Oh, his name is Jeff Cohen. He’s putting together a study about the US Supreme Court 1972 decision to end capital punishment. I’m looking forward to being a part of that – to see what happened to those guys; where they’re at. Then we’ll most likely have empirical evidence as to the cruelty and ineffectiveness of the death penalty. I think they already know, but this would present absolutely no doubt about the senselessness of capital punishment in this country.

Also the senselessness of life without parole?

Nothing stays the same; everything changes. You can’t just pigeonhole a person and say “you ain’t never gonna change.” It’s not true, it’s not realistic. How can you make a prediction that this person ain’t never gonna change? And people are treated so inhumanely inside, so brutally, that… what kind of outcomes can be expected?

What about the nonprofits you started?

We had an organization called Black Prisoners Forum Unlimited. We incorporated it so we could get grants. We applied for a for a program we called Social Adjustment for Minorities. All prisoners can be considered minorities. We got a grant for $250,000 to start the program. And it was very successful. Some of the guys was able to go out and get a job and come back inside at night. I was the Associate Director and a man named Chester Woods was the director—he had been a prisoner but he was released. That was in 1973, 1974. The SCOTUS ruling was in 1972.

I was a part of what they called the Resident Governing Council (RGC) at that time. At that time prisoners had a say-so into how the joint was run, which was very good. Not only did it give people responsibility and hold them accountable, it worked better. But then again, there was a lot of opposition, members that didn’t like the process, staff members that felt that prisoners had more power than them, which was stupid. They get to go home every day. We tried to make it a partnership where everybody worked together. It exists in name only these days, there is no cooperation. People are more into the punishment aspect than “habilitation.” I use the word “habilitation,” which means to make whole. To me, rehabilitation means to return to your former state, and I think there’s a huge contradiction to that. Why return to a former state if you had a messed-up mind and was lost. “Habilitation”… you’re talking making whole, wholesome, giving you information, ideas to make changes for the better.

Did you have much support when you left the system?

When I was in, I worked in the law library and the regular library, so I was able to learn a great deal about the legal system, both criminal and civil. So I was able to utilize that learning and that helped tremendously. After I got out, I worked for the Thurston County Office of Assigned Counsel (OAC) — now called Thurston County Public Defense. I got a job in Seattle at a law firm as a paralegal, but I couldn’t work there because I wasn’t allowed to be in King County.

When I got out on work-release, I worked with the OAC and also had two dishwashing jobs. I didn’t see myself as above that work. Now I’m in the process of trying to run my own business – janitorial and residential and commercial cleaning is what I’m trying to do right now. I have my own van and some of the equipment that I need. I’m trying to locate an office space where I can put the equipment and become bigger. What I want to do, though, is give guys on work-release a job so they’ll have something. Because if you don’t have a job and you get work-release, you can be returned to the penitentiary for not maintaining employment.

The Innocence Project NW – how did they get involved?

I approached them. They saw that I had validity and it was the real deal. And they truly helped me. They were involved with my case for three or four years, all the way up until we went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I filed a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court myself. And in fact I have a petition pending in the Ninth Circuit Court right now. They claim they lost the DNA evidence, that the forensic evidence is no longer there and it’s been destroyed. Of course since it’s no longer there, they put the onus on me to come up with it and at the same time they’re saying that I can’t prove that they lost the evidence. I don’t know how to figure that one out!

Your appeal is to get them to find the evidence and turn it over?

Yes. But also to give me a new trial. That’s the whole point – that they can’t or won’t. It ain’t so much about the money either, because no amount of money can make up for the torture of seven years on death row and 50 years of incarceration altogether. And it ain’t about that. I want to be able to eliminate that off my record, period.

What kept you going while you were inside?

The will to live, the will to regain my freedom, even though there were naysayers saying that I’d never be released. But I refused to accept that, because I knew I was innocent and there was no way in the world I was going to give up.

Did your faith help you?

Tremendously. My faith in god, my belief in god, my trust in god, and I know it was only through him that I was able to survive. I submitted to that wholeheartedly and completely.

Dawud, how did you get your name?

When I reverted to Islam, I felt there was a need to change my name, my slave name no longer fit me. But, after I legally changed my name, if I received mail with Dawud Alisi on it or if it said Dawud, I’d be thrown in the hole, in isolation. They’d refuse to deliver incoming mail or send outgoing mail. For using my legal religious name, I spent many days in segregation and in cell confinement. I filed a lawsuit in Walla Walla Superior Court in 1977 to fight this and I was ultimately successful, but it took two – three years to settle.

Capital punishment is legal in Washington state, but the governor has imposed a moratorium.

Last year I was on a committee that spoke to the legislature about proposed legislation that would have ended capital punishment in Washington. I was amazed by the fact that there was former superintendents and directors of the prisons that opposed capital punishment. Their jobs didn’t allow them to speak out against it at the time they were working, but they were speaking out now. It changed my outlook and attitude towards them tremendously. I had a big wall there. But hearing their testimony just demolished those walls.

That’s something I’m very passionate about, trying to get that law changed. I’m going to do all within my power to change people’s mind about that process. This country is about fear, fear, fear — that’s the selling point in the system, fear of perpetrators.

I’m hoping that the study I mentioned, which will look at forensic evidence for those whose sentences were changed when SCOTUS abolished capital punishment, will produce statistics that people can look at. They’ll be looking at the 619 people that SCOTUS saved in 1972—what happened to these people?

Dan Satterberg, King County prosecutor, I’d like to give a huge shout-out to him. He used to be for capital punishment and had a change of heart and mind and it’s just beautiful to see. I would like one day to meet up with him and talk with him. He spoke before the legislature too.

What would you like people to know about the system?

That the people who are inside are eventually going be coming out. So you definitely want to start treatment with dignity and get rid of the hate that’s being pushed. Because they’re gonna get out, you want them to come out with a positive attitude. And if you look down and treat people as if they’re not human, then that’s what you’re gonna get back out.

But if you have an individual that knows and understands that they are human and can respect themselves and treat others with dignity, you’re gonna make a better society upon their return. If you mash them and smash them, they’re gonna become hard and not change. As my friend Gordie says, it’s an inside job, but you want to give them the tools to make those internal changes. If you deny them those opportunities, you’re hurting them and hurting yourselves and hurting society.

Wendy Tanowitz cares about justice. She focuses on issues related to mass incarceration and immigration.



  1. Douglas Cowan March 6, 2021

    My wife came across this article and wondered if I knew anything about it. I of course knew very little about you subsequent to the overruling by the Supreme Court of your
    death sentence. This article brought my eyes with tours several times. I was, of course, proud of you when I represented you, and a I learned several things about you over time, which only increased my pride. I did not know you had been released you from prison until my wife came across the article. I have thought of you often (I’ve been retired for close to ten years) and the article brought tears to my eyes and repeated the pride I had in you. Your article overwhelmed me and I pray that the things you have undertaken will continue to be successful. I have thought about you so many times since the Supreme Court ruled in your favor and with the above article my pride has only become greater. Thank you al-Malik.

    Doug Cowan

  2. Eileen Fuller December 28, 2021

    Thank- you so much Douglas Cowan. I just read your. Comment to Dawud. He had never seen it before.
    Dawud said everything, your reprasentation was immensely appreciated. I have often thought about you.
    Sincerely, Dawud Al Malik

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