Freedom Denied

Why Dawud Malik won’t be getting out of prison anytime soon.

Dawud Malik has spent nearly 44 years behind bars, making him the third-longest-serving inmate in Washington. In 1967, when he was 19, Malik was convicted along with 17-year-old Leodis Smith of taking part in a violent crime spree in Seattle that included two murders, four armed robberies, and an assault. But, according to a unanimous ruling last week by the state's Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB), the 65-year-old Malik is still not done paying his debt to society. That he may have been wrongfully convicted—a predicament detailed in a Seattle Weekly cover story in March—was a fact apparently ignored by the ISRB in their decision to keep Malik locked up. Malik has already been paroled off the two murder convictions and one robbery. He is now serving consecutive sentences for the remaining robberies and the assault. In their ruling, handed down April 4, the ISRB paroled Malik off one robbery, leaving him with two counts left to serve. That means he faces a minimum of four more years in prison, with a statutory maximum of 40 years. Malik—who changed his name from David Washington Riggins after converting to Islam—has exhausted the appeals and clemency processes, so the ISRB's decision is binding. Kelly Canary, Malik's attorney, affiliated with the Innocence Project Northwest, asked the ISRB to redetermine the minimum time her client could serve to make him eligible for immediate release. It was an unusual request—ISRB spokeswoman Robin Riley said that in her 30 years with the state Department of Corrections, she's only encountered a handful of such cases—but Malik is an unusual prisoner. During his years of incarceration, he has earned a high-school diploma and a bachelor's degree in sociology. He also helped create four separate nonprofit organizations to empower and educate his fellow inmates, and a program to mentor at-risk youth. In a letter entitled "Decisions and Reasons," the ISRB—a four-person panel of prison officials, which only handles cases in which the convictions were handed down prior to 1984—writes that though Malik has "participated in numerous offender change programs and other offerings in [an] attempt to improve himself," three recent incidents in which Malik was cited for breaking prison rules ultimately led them to believe he is not ready to return to society: one in which he refused to submit a urine sample for analysis, one for "disruptive behavior," and one for refusing a cell assignment. Canary says Malik refused his cell for religious reasons. "It was on the tier that housed guide dogs," she writes in an e-mail. "Due to Mr. Malik's faith, he asked to be housed away from the dogs in order to pray in a more ritually clean environment. Once the superintendent of the prison understood that this housing assignment interfered with Dawud's free exercise of religion, he moved him to a cell away from the dogs. However, the infraction remained on his record." The ISRB noted that Malik has received "a tremendous amount of local support," including several letters from prominent members of the Seattle establishment. His advocates include Larry Gossett, chairman of the King County Council; Carl Mack, former president of the local NAACP chapter; and King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who previously opposed Malik's clemency petitions but urged the ISRB to be lenient in this instance. In addition to Malik's educational and humanitarian achievements, he has maintained his innocence in all but one crime—he admits to taking part in the robbery/assault—from the moment he was arrested. Over the years he has produced compelling evidence in support of his claims. The conviction came during a period of racial turmoil in Seattle, and included conflicting accounts from multiple eyewitnesses, as well a judge's decision to make several key pieces of potentially exonerating evidence inadmissible in court. Malik's attorney was later convicted of a crime himself, and spent several years in prison. Malik's case was one of the first to be pursued by attorneys for the Innocence Project Northwest, a program affiliated with the University of Washington's School of Law that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. The organization has successfully overturned 15 convictions in Washington, but a lack of DNA evidence in Malik's case led Canary to try a different strategy. Malik agreed to set aside all claims of innocence, and simply ask the ISRB to release him because he has been rehabilitated. With his request denied, Malik's next hearing with the ISRB won't be for another two years. In the meantime he'll continue to be housed at the Stafford Creek Correctional Facility in Aberdeen. "After nearly 45 years of incarceration, Dawud has grown accustomed to disappointment," says Canary. "He is handling the board's decision better than me. I am very saddened by the news and saddened that Dawud will not have the chance to rejoin his community and his family for the foreseeable future."

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