Marshall “Eddie” Conway walked free from prison this week, just one month shy of 44 years behind bars. He was convicted of the April 1970 killing of a Baltimore police officer. Conway has always maintained his innocence. At the time of his arrest and trial, he was a prominent member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party, the militant black-rights organization that was the principal focus of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal “counterintelligence program.” The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, surveilled and infiltrated Black Panther chapters from coast to coast, disrupting their organizing activities, often with violence.
The prosecution alleged Conway was behind the fatal shooting of Baltimore police officer Donald Sager. The case hinged on the testimony of a police officer and a jailhouse informant, who claimed Conway described the crime while they were sharing a cell. Former Baltimore NAACP President Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, a longtime supporter of Conway’s, told The Baltimore Sun: “This was when the COINTEL program was at its height. ... They did not have a witness who saw him there. They had no fingerprints or evidence there. They basically convicted him on the basis of what we now call an informant.” A global movement grew calling for Conway’s release. In 2001, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution asking the Maryland governor to pardon him.
Conway’s arrest happened a full year before a group of anti-war activists broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pa., and took thousands of pages of classified FBI documents and released them to the press. The word “COINTELPRO” was exposed for the first time.
One of Conway’s attorneys for more than 20 years, Bob Boyle, explained: “Mr. Conway’s trial took place in January of 1971. The break-in at the office in Media, Pennsylvania, which led to the disclosures concerning COINTELPRO, did not occur until April of 1971. So Eddie went to trial at a time when COINTELPRO was still active and the jury did not know that there was this campaign to neutralize the leadership and the organization of the Black Panther Party.”
It was in this environment that the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party was created. Conway had been in the U.S. Army in Germany and was bound for Vietnam. Then, in the summer of 1967, he saw a photo of the riots in Newark, N.J. He told me, “They put armored personnel carriers in the center of the black community, and they pointed .50 caliber machine guns at about 25 or 30 black women standing on a corner ... something was wrong with that picture, and I could probably come home and help join some efforts to reform that.”
He joined the NAACP, and he joined CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). He continued: “I looked at all the different organizations, and the Black Panther Party represented at least a serious attempt to start feeding the children, to start educating the population, to start organizing health care and stuff like that. So I joined and started working with them.”
What Conway didn’t know was that the Baltimore chapter of the Panthers was actually created by a police infiltrator. Conway became suspicious of one of the local Black Panther leaders. He told me: “There was a defense captain named Warren Hart, he worked for the National Security Agency. ... I was instrumental in exposing him after a lengthy investigation, and he fled the country.” Not long after exposing the agent, Conway was arrested for the charges that ultimately landed him in prison for close to 44 years.
He led an exemplary life behind bars, movingly detailed in his memoir, “Marshall Law.” He told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour about Maryland’s prisons: “There was a tremendous amount of young men in prison, and because there wasn’t anything constructive to do, there was a tremendous amount of violence. So I started off first trying to, one, change that violence thing, and then, two, find things that could help enhance the prisoner’s life.” He co-founded Friend of a Friend, a prison mentoring program affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, to help the youngest and most vulnerable prisoners adapt and better survive the brutal prison system.
Eddie Conway will turn 68 in April. After 44 years behind bars, you would think he would never want to set foot in a prison again. But that is not Eddie Conway. For his future, he says: “I’m going to continue to work with the Friend of a Friend organization. I think we’ve saved a lot of lives. I think we can save a lot more.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.