Kwame Ajamu

Kwame Ajamu spent twenty-eight years in prison, two years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

“I was sitting in the holding cell in the courthouse before they brought us back to the old jail. I had got sentenced to die, and I was just 17. I’ll never forget the deputy that came to get me was an older black man. He might have been maybe 60-61 years old. And I never forget, he came to the cell and he looked at me and said, ‘Come on baby, I have to take you back.’ And that’s when I realized my life would change forever. Because up to that point the guards weren’t nice to nobody. But I could see the father in him, you know. I could see the hurt on his face. He was going to take this kid to a cell, and he knew they were sending him to die. I could just see it. And it radiated. I got it. I got it. I never forgot him.”

Kwame Ajamu, Chairman of the Board of Witness to Innocence, was sentenced to death as a teenager in 1975 along with his brother Wiley Bridgeman and friend Ricky Jackson. He was wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years, from age 17-45. In 2014, he was fully exonerated, having lived 39 years with the stigma of wrongful conviction.

Kwame dedicates his life to death penalty abolition and criminal justice reform. His advocacy for incarcerated people and their loved ones began in prison, where he worked to establish educational programs and mentored fellow inmates. His own future uncertain, he lobbied successfully for a culinary school so others would have employable skills. Today, he lives in Ohio with LaShawn Ajamu, his wife of 16 years, and shares his story with audiences worldwide, including legislators, judges, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel.

Despite his ordeal in a cell just wide enough to stretch his arms, with execution looming, Kwame forgives the then 13-year-old who falsely testified against him, recognizing how he was cruelly coerced by police. He focuses instead on the systemic racism and injustice that hurts not only the falsely accused and imprisoned, but their families and those who work in the system.

© 2024 Martin Schoeller
Death Row Exonerees

︎Moving Portraits
︎Short Documentaries

Through partnership with Witness to Innocence, Martin photographed, interviewed, and filmed death row exonerees, recording and sharing their stories of how they were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit.* 

I have been living in the US for 25 years and, as a German national raised in the shadow of the Nazi regime, remain appalled by state-sponsored murder. In this series I partnered with Witness to Innocence, the organization founded by activist Sister Helen Prejan and death row exoneree, Ray Krone.  As they fight to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and to shine a harsh light on the profound, damning flaws in the ways these laws are applied, 189 women and men that were sentenced to die have been exonerated.

I wanted to present viewers with a harrowing, interactive account of the stories of innocent people forced to endure government-sanctioned horror.  These women and men bear dignified witness to the unacceptable costs of a misguided system of laws in desperate need of revision and a prison system that focuses on retaliation and rehabilitation.
– Martin Schoeller

*individual texts courtesy of Witness to Innocence

2020, Death Row Exonerees, Fotografiska, New York, New York, USA
2020, Works, NRW Forum, Berlin, Germany

Selected Press
Sentenced to death, but innocent: These are stories of justice gone wrong, National Geographic, USA
Martin Schoeller: Moving Portraits, Witness to Innocence, USA
Martin Schoeller: Death Row Exonerees, Air Mail Arts Intel, USA
Death Row Exonerees, ArtForum, USA
Martin Schoeller/Death Row Exonerees, Flaunt Magazine, USA
Interview: Martin Schoeller at Fotografiska New York Re-Opening, Musée Magazine, USA
Death Row Exonerees: behind a powerful photo project on injustice, The Guardian, USA
Martin Schoeller: ‘I am trying to show a humanity I think we all share’, TimeOut Shanghai, China
Death Row Exonerees Exhibit Featured in the Guardian, Witness to Innocence, USA