By Miranda Jackson
For The Diamondback
The University of Maryland’s Prison Resistance Project has partnered with the International Socialist Organization to petition for the release of a Maryland man they say was wrongfully convicted of a crime for which he has served nearly 30 years in prison.
About 40 people attended a Thursday night forum to discuss the case of Kenneth “Kenny” Collins, who spoke to the group from prison via phone. Shujaa Graham, an exonerated death row prisoner, and Laura Lising, organizer of the Free Kenny Collins Campaign, also spoke on the panel.
“It’s only by fighting together that we can hope to win,” Lising said after sharing the story of Collins’ case.
Collins, who has a history of armed robberies, was convicted in 1988 of the first-degree murder of 34-year-old Wayne Breeden, a bank executive. The original suspect of the crime, Tony Michie, was the one who named Collins as the killer.
In 1986, Breeden withdrew $80 from an ATM and was followed home by two men who robbed, pistol-whipped and shot him in front of his Parkville home, The Baltimore Sun reported. Michie was accused of Breeden’s murder after police traced the getaway car to him, according to The Sun.
Michie’s trial for first-degree murder ended in a hung jury. In exchange for a shortened sentence, Michie identified Collins as the killer. Michie and two other witnesses agreed to testify against Collins, and he was convicted on the testimony of the three men.
No physical evidence tying Collins to the crime was presented, and his state-appointed lawyer never called a witness to testify in his favor. Collins made objections in place of his lawyer, who he said was not listening to him.
“He was not doing his job,” Collins said. “And I was being threatened by the judge that if I continued to make outbursts that I would either be taken out of the courtroom or they were going to tape my mouth shut.”
A judge sentenced Collins to death, and he spent 17 years on death row awaiting a retrial.
In 2004, The Baltimore Sun reported that Collins’ lawyer had been found “unconstitutionally ineffective,” and Collins was resentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.
It was later proven that Michie’s testimony at Collins’ trial was contradictory to what he said at his own trial, including his claim of the location of the murder weapon. And Andre Thorpe, one of the witnesses, said he was pressured into falsely testifying against Collins.
Collins has yet to receive a new trial.
The partnering organizations of the forum are calling for the campus community to sign a petition for Collins’ release, which they plan to present to Gov. Larry Hogan.
“Now, you all can be my voice,” Collins said.
Panelists said Collins’ case is indicative of a larger, systemic issue — the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In Maryland, black people represent 68 percent of the inmate population, in comparison to 28 percent of the state’s general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Graham, who spent 11 years in various California prisons and part of that time on death row, said racial disparities in the jury at his trial were one of the key reasons he was found guilty.
“I was convicted because of the idea I represent,” Graham said.
Graham urged audience members to get involved with Collins’s case, saying he knows firsthand how hopeless a life sentence can make a person feel.
“I never contemplated suicide,” Graham said, “but there were some nights where it was completely OK if I went to bed and never woke up, just because I was tired of suffering.”
Lising also asked people to join the Free Kenny Collins Campaign.
“A fundamental change needs to happen in our society,” Lising said, “and until that happens, people like Kenny and Kenny’s family will continue to pay the steepest price.”