Sentenced to death for 30 years, he counts on jazz to save him

NEW YORK | Music helped Keith LaMar survive nearly 30 years on death row.

Sentenced to death for 30 years, he counts on jazz to save him

NEW YORK | Music helped Keith LaMar survive nearly 30 years on death row.

At 53, two-thirds of whom are in prison, this African-American hopes that jazz will save him from an execution scheduled for November 16, 2023 for a fivefold murder he claims not to have committed.

His "last hope" is a Spanish jazz pianist and composer based in Brooklyn, Albert Marquès, who has been giving concerts for two years and has just released a record - which he composed and played with Keith LaMar on the telephone from his prison in Ohio - to raise awareness in New York about what may be yet another miscarriage of justice in the United States.

Incarcerated since the late 1980s, Keith LaMar had been convicted in 1995 of the murder of five fellow prisoners during a riot sparked on April 11, 1993 by Muslim prisoners who had refused to submit to a tuberculosis test because the serum contained alcohol.

The violence had lasted 11 days and left ten dead, including a guard, in the prison of Lucasville, Ohio.

“If when the time comes, I am an unfortunate victim of the State (that will mean) that I would not have done everything to prevent it”, he whispers on the phone to AFP, from his prison in this state in the northern United States.

Keith LaMar has been fighting for three decades to escape death.

34 years in prison

Jailed at the age of 19 for the murder of a drug addict friend who, at gunpoint, wanted to steal crack cocaine from him, he admitted his guilt at the time and was sentenced to at least 18 years in prison .

In search of rehabilitation, he completes his secondary studies in prison, enrolls in university and writes a book, Condemned, which he dictates over the phone to his publisher: "I tried with all my might to redeem myself" , he says.

Keith LaMar denounces an America where “the truth only gives you freedom if you have enough money”.

In a country where several miscarriages of justice affect mostly African-Americans, LaMar is calling for the reopening of his case, which he believes is tainted with irregularities such as the destruction of evidence and the withholding of information.

“Black in a racist country”

"When you're poor and black in a racist country, you plead guilty," he says.

Prosecutors at the time, Bill Anderson and Seith Tieger, interviewed last February by the New York Times, still judged Keith LaMar “completely guilty and where he should be: on death row”.

But the prisoner is no longer alone.

In addition to lawyers, Catalan Albert Marquès, music teacher in Brooklyn, today proclaims his "absolute" innocence.

The jazzman has been piloting a campaign and concerts in New York since the summer of 2020 with other musicians to demand “justice for Keith LaMar”. On May 20, they performed at the Jazz Gallery in New York, in the presence of AFP, for the release of a record, Freedom First, composed with the prisoner.

Concert on the phone

From his prison, on the telephone, the voluptuous but powerful voice of the fifties resounded live during a large part of the concert.

"The idea is not to play for Keith, it's to play with Keith," boasted the Spanish jazzman to AFP.

The prisoner, author of texts in which he recounts his existence and reflects on his destiny, is "one of the members of the group and earns the same as the rest of the musicians", according to the Catalan who is pleased to be "the 'friend' of the American whom he regularly visits in Ohio.

Albert Marquès is one of the “blessings of (his) life” and his “last hope”, implores Keith LaMar who hopes that his case goes beyond the middle of New York jazz.

The man has always listened to jazz, especially the famous John Coltrane. Follower of the famous "oxen" (improvisations on jazz classics), he composes and writes more and more.

"I try to do useful things, because it's the only way to give meaning to my own life," concludes Keith LaMar.