Anne-Marie Moyes fell in love with a gifted artist…and an inmate on death row.
He was innocent of the murder for which he’d been sentenced to die.
So she went to law school to help set him free.
AN ARTIST BEHIND BARS
A painting hangs in the sun-washed dining room of Anne-Marie Moyes’ bungalow: dark-skinned women swathed in luminous reds, blues, and yellows huddle together, gazing toward a misty, shimmering African horizon.
The man who dreamed this colorful panorama onto canvas—now Moyes’ husband—has never seen any lush African landscapes. Before June of 2012, he’d seen little of the world beyond his beaten-down St. Louis neighborhood and, for nearly 27 years, the muted gray walls of his prison cell.
There is nothing gray in Ndume Olatushani’s paintings, which is what struck Moyes when she first saw his work more than twenty years ago. She was working for a California nonprofit as an anti-death penalty advocate, organizing prison art shows to draw attention to the cause. Olatushani, an inmate on death row in Tennessee, had taught himself to paint. Beautifully. “A lot of prison art ends up sort of being a representation of what people are experiencing in there,” she says. “His paintings, they just stood out…these colorful, positive images that didn’t carry any of the darkness of the place where they were created.
“And then there was his striking talent,” she adds. “He was clearly gifted.”
Over a period of many months, Olatushani and Moyes became pen pals, then friends. Eventually, she would become his life preserver, and later, his wife. But at first, he was afraid to reach out, afraid he might grasp her too tightly.
Like many longtime inmates, Olatushani was careful about whom he trusted. At first, he didn’t even tell Moyes that he’d been wrongly convicted of the crime for which he was sentenced to death. “I had to figure out the right time and the right people to talk to,” he says. “Because most people have bought into this lie that everybody in prison is guilty, and…saying that they’re innocent.”
Gradually, he began to share with her details of his journey to death row. “There wasn’t this desperate energy to convince me,” Moyes says. “He had this inner peace that this was the truth, and that at some point it was going to come out.
“It’s hard to explain, but it made me less questioning,” she adds, “because he had such a peacefulness about him.”
In a word, Moyes believed him. She scoured his memory with questions, looked up old police reports, read trial transcripts, and marveled at what she learned—that Olatushani, it seemed to her, had been a victim not of mere incompetence, but of institutional corruption and egregious injustice.
“In order to advocate for him, I needed to understand his case and the legal issues in it,” she says. “I was immersed in thinking about what had happened to him, and at some point I realized I wanted to go to law school.”
In 2002, Moyes graduated first in her class from Vanderbilt University Law School. She took a job with the Metro public defender’s office as a trial lawyer, and on the weekends, she dug into the facts of Olatushani’s case, with the help of University of Memphis professor Margaret Vandiver. Together, they retraced the error-ridden investigation that led to Olatushani’s conviction.
The two-year search sent her back to the streets of Memphis, seeking out the original cast of characters: eyewitnesses to the robbery-murder, those who testified against Olatushani, and people who likely were involved in the crime.
Moyes had to learn to navigate an unfamiliar cultural landscape, one in which potential witnesses aren’t always easy to find and can be even harder to convince to talk. There were no actual addresses, no easy leads, no DNA evidence to quickly overturn the case. Just boots-on-the-ground hard work, word-of-mouth trails to follow, and a network of aliases like “Car Wash” (so-named because that’s where he worked) and “Poo-poo,”
Despite the obstacles, Moyes’s investigation brought to light much of what Olatushani’s original trial left in the dark.
Moyes had an early win in her re-investigation: A witness recanted. “That was really hopeful,” she says. “That immediately was exciting and energized us to keep doing what we were doing.”
“I remember saying to someone, ‘I’m going to get him out. This is going to happen.’” -Anne-Marie Moyes
In tandem with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, an international law firm that had taken on Olatushani’s case in the 1990s, Moyes uncovered key evidence that the prosecution had withheld. What they found pointed to an entirely different set of perpetrators.
“We’ve always referred to this other group of suspects as the ‘Brown Gang,’” Moyes says. “Two brothers, Michael and Eric Brown, their cousin-in-law Charles Keller, and two prostitutes that worked for them.”
The Browns had a history of stealing cars from the Hertz rental service in St. Louis. Two separate eyewitnesses had picked them out of a lineup of photos. Furthermore, police had taken a statement from another witness placing the Browns in the getaway car the weekend of the crime.
Then came a break that convinced Moyes that her efforts would pay off: Poring through police reports, she noticed that a witness who testified that Olatushani had stayed at her house the weekend of the crime shared a childhood address with a woman in the Brown Gang.
“I looked it up on Mapquest, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s like within a block or two of each other… I bet they knew each other,’” she says. “It was that seed, and I followed it through, and a witness I visited in prison confirmed that these two women were cousins, that they hung out all the time. She said they were like this.” Moyes crosses her fingers tightly.
“That was the point I remember saying to someone, ‘I’m going to get him out. This is going to happen.’”
Even as evidence against Olatushani crumbled, the system that so summarily sentenced him to death moved agonizingly slowly to deliver him real justice. In 1999, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that prosecutors had withheld evidence—in violation of the Brady Rule—and the court overturned his death sentence.
It wasn’t until 2004 that he was resentenced to life in prison, and for seven years after that, Olatushani’s case remained locked in a bureaucratic prison, as his legal team filed again and again for a new trial. There were petitions and motions, Olatushani remembers, laughing ruefully. “In Memphis I had to have a hearing to see if I was going to be allowed to have a hearing,” he says.
All along, Moyes held onto her belief that she could help set him free. By that point, she wasn’t just certain of Olatushani’s innocence—she was sure that she was in love.
“For me, there’s this whole other story of my personal journey through it,” Moyes says. “There were people I was close to…that felt like I was throwing my life away. It created real tension in relationships. It can be a really isolating thing. People were quick to think I was crazy.”
In 2011, Olatushani’s lawyers argued his case at the Court of Criminal Appeals, but as the defendant, he wasn’t allowed to be present. “For the first time, it felt like the court was holding the state’s feet to the fire,” Moyes recalls. “The whole energy of the argument just felt different, like the tide had shifted.”
They waited four months for the decision to arrive. Finally, the court overturned Olatushani’s original conviction.
Olatushani didn’t saunter out of prison, soaking in the murky summer sunshine, for another six months. Moyes explains that often, in cases that are overturned, the state has the option to appeal, and then go back and retry the case. (A new case wouldn’t qualify as double jeopardy if there is a procedural error or if there is new evidence the state withheld.
Rather than face another trial, and potentially, more jail time, Olatushani accepted an Alford Plea—a twisty legal maneuver in which a defendant pleads guilty while asserting innocence and conceding that there’s sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution. He won his freedom, but in exchange for an incomplete victory.
“You can dress it up how you want to dress it up, but at the end of the day…a group of people attempted to take my life.” —Ndume Olatushani
“It allows the state to save face,” Moyes says. As the law stands, she explains, the Alford Plea offers prosecutors immunity from criminal or civil repercussions for their actions during a case…which means that no one will ever be held accountable for Olatushani’s wrongful conviction, and all those lost years.
That’s something that Olatushani still can’t understand.
“I think prosecutors should be subject to criminal penalties,” he says. “You can dress it up how you want to dress it up, but at the end of the day you have a group of people that attempted to take my life. If you attempted to take my life, you’d be facing a penalty, and prosecutors should be subject to it, too. They would probably be much more ethical about doing their job if they knew that they were really going to suffer criminal or civil consequences.”
Unfortunately, Ndume Olatushani was the only person involved in the case who had so suffer criminal consequences. On June 1, 2012, after serving 26 years, 11 months, and 5 days, he strode out of a drab, gray prison existence and into the brightly-hued, sun-washed world of his artistic imaginings.
Three weeks later, he and Moyes got married.
Ten months free, Olatushani feeds frosted mini-wheats to his three-year-old daughter, whom Moyes adopted in 2009. The little girl is engrossed in a video on the small screen of a smartphone, mostly ignoring her adoptive dad, except to accept the occasional spoonful of cereal.
The chatter of Disney characters and songs pours out of the small phone in his daughter’s hands. Olatushani points her way and laughs. “The only real struggle is trying to get used to all these technological advances that have been made,” he says, listing on his fingers all the inventions that didn’t exist when he went to jail in 1983: computers, cell phones, the Internet. “This little girl still knows more about this phone than I do.”
They share the dining room table with twelve tiny pots bursting with tiny seedlings: tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, kale, thyme, and oregano fill the sunny room with aromas of earth and spice.
Olatushani eyes the green sprouts, amazed. “For a lot of years I was sitting there, talking about wanting to get home so I could grow a garden and eat some better food than what I was getting,” he says.
“To be sitting where I’m sitting…” he shakes his head and gathers his composure. “Look at that stuff! It speaks to everything, what it feels like. You know, new life.”