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Defiant Texas Death Row Activist Executed

On March 15, 2000, the state of Texas killed Kamau (Ponchai) Wilkerson. He proved to be a fighter to the end.

Kamau was among seven Texas death row prisoners who stunned the world with a bold escape attempt on Thanksgiving Day 1998 [See: Daring Death Row Escape Shakes Up Texas, PLN, April '99]. In reaction to that incident (one of the seven actually escaped but later drowned in a creek about a mile from the prison), Texas prison officials instituted harsh reprisals. One of the changes involved relocating death row from the old Huntsville prison to a newer high-tech supermax prison, the Terrell Unit, near Livingston, Texas [See: Texas Death Row Hunger Strike, PLN, April '00].

On February 21, Kamau Wilkerson and Howard Guidry (another participant in the 1998 Thanksgiving Day escape attempt) took a Terrell Unit guard hostage and held her for nearly 13 hours. Prison officials said the guard, 57-year-old Jeanette Bledsoe, was escorting Guidry back to his cell at about 4:15 p.m. when she was overpowered by Wilkerson who had somehow managed to jimmie his cell door open.

Bledsoe was taken to a small cage-like room adjacent to death row and placed on the floor with one leg shackled. Officials said one of the hostage-takers was armed with a makeshift knife and the other had a 2-foot-long piece of metal used to open the food slot on each prison cell. Security camera footage showed that Guidry and Wilkerson treated their hostage with respect, a prison spokesman said.

The hostage-takers demanded to meet with community anti-death penalty activists. They were allowed to talk with Njeri Shakur of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Deloyd Parker of Shape Community Center and Kofi Tahara of the National Black United Front.

After meeting with the delegation and airing their demands (improved conditions of confinement for death row prisoners and a moritorium on executions) Wilkerson and Guidry surrendered to authorities at about 5 a.m.

Bledsoe, who was released unharmed, underwent a routine examination at the prison infirmary. She had been working as a prison guard for three years and has a son who is also a guard at the Terrell Unit.

Guidry and Wilkerson, both members of the death-row movement Panthers United for Revolutionary Education (PURE) were placed on 24-hour lockdown status, along with other death row prisoners who were charged by the warden with "communicating with two Black offenders" and "hampering negotiations in a hostage situation." Four weeks later, the lockdown was still in place the day the state of Texas came to kill a defiant Kamau.

"I will not cooperate with your act of murder," Kamau told Warden Robert Treon March 15th when asked about a last meal.

Kamau refused to eat a last meal. He also declined to sign papers requesting family, friends or a spiritual advisor to view his execution. He refused to sign away his remains or cooperate in any way with the government executioners' "standard procedures."

When guards came to transport him from the Terrell Unit in Livingston to the Huntsville death house, Kamau refused to leave his cell. A "goon squad" was called to subdue him. They gassed him with pepper spray and hog-tied him with chains.

Guards had to use "additional restraints" to bind Kamau to the death house gurney. The warden asked if he had a final statement: "This is not a capital case," Kamau replied.

When the lethal mix of chemicals started pumping into his veins, Kamau unveiled a final surprise for his captors and executioners. In one last act of rebellion and defiance, the 28-year-old revolutionary, organizer and death-row activist stunned observers by spitting a small handcuff key out of his mouth.

"The secret, as of Wilkerson," he whispered.

He was pronounced dead at 6:24 p.m. He was the 210th person to be killed by the Texas Death machine since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and the 123rd to die on presidential candidate G.W. Bush's watch as Texas governor.

Sources: Workers World, Associated Press, New York Times

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