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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 first installment of an interview with Dawud al-Malik conducted at the end of June. Read the second half in the August issue of WIP.]

Dawud al-Malik was sentenced to death in 1966 at age 19 and released on parole in Feb. 2015, after a total of 50 years in prison, seven in solitary. He has maintained his innocence from the beginning. His appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court calls for the DNA evidence in his case to be made public. He is asking for a new trial so that he can be exonerated and clear his name.

His case has all the elements of a racist system: a white judge who did not allow the testimony of black witnesses; prosecutorial misconduct; attorney malfeasance; and withholding of evidence. His conviction took place in the context of race riots in Watts (Los Angeles) in 1965, in protest of police violence. A few years later, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

While he was inside, Dawud started four nonprofits and got an AA degree from UW and a Bachelor’s from Evergreen. It was a pleasure to talk with Dawud about his extraordinary life experiences and his vision for the future. He has much to teach us about maintaining one’s humanity for five decades in a prison environment based on fear, punishment, dehumanization, and cruelty.

Wendy: Tell me about your childhood and early years.

Dawud: I was the tenth of 14 children. There was a lot of competition for pretty much everything. You had to earn your niche. But at the same time, our older brothers and sisters took care of us. A lot of love in the house; maybe we didn’t have a lot of material things but my mother and father was married for almost 60 years. They did their best to raise us, taught us the right things. My father was a Baptist minister.

Your interactions with police in your early years?

It was combative in the sense that sometimes they seen me and I wouldn’t be doing anything, just walking down the street. I guess because of my older brothers’ interaction with them, it kind of passed down the line, so I became a target. When I was about 12-13 years old, they would take me across the floating bridge to Bellevue and leave me out there so I’d have to walk home. I think they was hoping something bad would happen to me as a black boy walking in white neighborhoods.

Was this after you had been suspended from school?

Yes. I was on patrol duty after school when a young white dude spit on me. I socked him and that was pretty much it. There was a black friend, may he rest in peace, Leonard Stratton, he waited for me until after I finished my patrol duty. So we went back to the school and told the principal what had occurred and what I had done and he told me not to worry about it, go home, which I did.

The next morning I went to school and in my first class I was paged to report to the principal’s office. When I got there the kid who had spit on me and who I had slapped — his mother was there. During that conversation I was told to go back to my classroom and pick up my books, and I was kicked out of school. I was told that no other public school would accept me. I was going to an alternative school at that time called Pacific, it was the school of last resort more or less. So later on, after I was kicked out, they told me to report to the Youth Center and I went down there with my mother and father for a truancy hearing. And I was detained.

Hadn’t they already thrown you out of school?

Yes, that was the Catch–22. At that time you had to be 16 years old in order to drop out of school, and I was only about 13 or 14. I was in the youth center for four months. It was the first time I had ever been away from home. And then I was shipped to what they call Fort Worden, in Port Townsend. I stayed there 6-8 weeks at a diagnostic center, and from there I was assigned to Green Hill School for Boys and that was it. That was my first encounter with the juvenile system. First time ever. But then again they would put you there if you was a foster kid; if you didn’t have a place to live, you could be sent to Youth Center or boys school.

Were any of your brothers or sisters victims of violence?

I had a sister that was brutally murdered. She was stabbed 60-80 times, and they never found the culprit. She was in her late 20s and at that time I was in my mid-thirties. It happened in 1979 when I was at the Monroe Reformatory where I had been transferred from Walla Walla Penitentiary. Recently the family asked them to reopen the case and investigate, even though it’s been almost 40 years — because they didn’t do any investigation at the time. A couple of nephews was also killed. [There’s no resolution to this day.]

You maintain that you did not commit the crimes for which you were sentenced. Tell us about your trial.

When I went to trial in 1966, I was charged with two counts of murder, four robberies and an assault and tried by an all-white jury. I was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death—to be hung by the neck until dead—for one of the murders. The evidence showed that I was innocent of both murders and three of the robberies, as I know I was and they knew I was. But I guess I fit the mold – I was a body—and they convicted me. Many years later, in 1992, forensic evidence surfaced in FBI reports and Seattle Police Department reports that showed that none of the forensic evidence matched my character. But before that, in 1972, the US Supreme Court [SCOTUS] had made a decision that capital punishment in its current form was unconstitutional and illegal. There was approximately 619 on Death Row across the country, and all of us was released back into the general prison population.

In 1992 or 1993 I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get all my police reports, FBI reports and whatnot, and that’s when it was discovered that the prosecutor had suppressed and withheld evidence. I filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus with the help of the Innocence Project Northwest at the Univ. of Washington (UW) – one of their attorneys initiated the process.

But before that in 1986, 20 years after my conviction, I had filed a PRP—Personal Restraint Petition—and the appellate court then ruled in my favor. My attorney hadn’t called the witnesses who would have testified as to where I was at the time they claimed I had committed the crime—although my attorney mentioned their names and said to the jury and judge that he would call them. This attorney was later convicted of some kind of criminal involvement—plundering money from other clients—and he was sentenced to three or four years at McNeil Island.

But when I went back to court that time the judge said that the witnesses who came to testify who I was and what I was doing that night wasn’t credible. They’d never had a police record, had never been investigated or anything. In fact, they was outstanding pillars of the community, school teachers and everything. But the judge said they wasn’t credible.

The witnesses were black?

Yes. The attorney was white and his word, even though he had a criminal record, was more powerful than theirs. All the jurors was white also. In fact, I think they went through many jurors and there was one black person who was possible, but the attorney for the co-defendant removed him. I had asked for a separate trial from that of my co-defendant, which was denied. They said it would cost too much.

So… you were locked up for 49 years, 7 months, and some days.

I’m the longest-serving prisoner who’s been released. There are still about 5 or 6 individuals who are still incarcerated after 50 years. They do deserve a second chance.

They didn’t think how much money it would cost to lock you up for fifty years?

No. It was a very troubling time back then. That was during the ‘60s and there was a lot of protesting, as far as injustice was concerned. It was pretty convoluted. Through it all, though, I feel very blessed. In spite of my trials and tribulations, I feel blessed to have survived that entire episode, that journey. ‘Cause there’s been a lot of people that DNA has shown was innocent who was executed. I was innocent and didn’t have to go through the process of being executed. It had an effect on my mom and dad, may they rest in peace. They was traumatized by the process too, but through it all they definitely stuck with me. I didn’t feel abandoned by the family.

There was other people that was inspirational in helping me through that process. It may sound strange but the warden at Walla Walla at the time, BJ Rhay. He was a strong motivating factor and he allowed me to do a lot of things that I normally wouldn’t have been allowed to do. I was able to go out into the community, become involved, do speaking engagements. He was a good man. Staff could take you out—Take a Lifer to Dinner! I was able to go out until an incident happened that killed that whole program. One of the fellows went out and committed a robbery and murder and that stopped it.

Could you have gotten out decades earlier if you had confessed?

I could have confessed to something that I didn’t do to get out and I could have been released decades earlier. Just to please and appease. But I couldn’t live with myself. I got to be able to live with me. Daily, forensic evidence comes to surface showing that people was innocent that had confessed to certain things. The things that I know that I’m guilty of I have no problem admitting them. In fact, the Koran says that we should tell the truth at all times, even against yourself. And I’ve accepted that.

What would you like people to know about you?

That I enjoy life, that I enjoy humor, that my actions speak for themselves. That I’m a good person. I affirm that daily and I love life and I love people. Even when I was in there, I was trying to do things and make society in there better than what it was. I struggled with all my might, I fought with the system to do so. But then again there was people that, seriously, knew that changes needed to be made. Also that I’m writing a book about my experiences. I hope that it will make a difference in how people see those who are in prison and the system that treats people with such cruelty and disdain.

Wendy Tanowitz cares about justice. She focuses on issues related to mass incarceration and immigration.  If you would like to contact Dawud, you can reach Wendy at

Some ways you can help

Northwest Community Bail Fund

  • Poor people accused of crimes face a stark choice: stay in jail to fight the case or plead guilty and go home. Thus innocent people plead guilty because they can’t afford bail. NWCBF is a nonprofit organization advocating for bail reform and working to minimize the harm of the cash bail system by paying bail for people who would otherwise spend the pre-trial time in jail.
  • NWCBF, c/o Saint Mark’s Cathedral
    1245 10th Avenue E, Seattle, WA  98102 • 877-622-6223
  • CARE Fund Community Assisted Resources for Equity
  • Provides limited financial assistance to indigent Thurston County residents with cases in the criminal justice system. CARE accepts referrals from attorneys, social service workers and other professionals who work directly with clients.
  • Gateways for Incarcerated Youth
  • Bridging the gap between incarceration and education
  • Olympia Books to Prisoners
    Works to offset the dehumanizing effects of incarceration by sending quality used books free of charge to prisoners all over the US. Contact them for instructions to send..
  • InkWell uses writing and poetry to help youth express feelings, process trauma and move forward in their lives. Trained CYS volunteers visit our Crisis Residential Center, our Youth Drop-in Center, and Thurston County Juvenile Detention. 360-918-7844.

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