Who is Zolo Agona Azania?
For over 33 years Zolo Agona Azania was one of the many Black people who await execution as a result of a racially- biased criminal justice system. Politically active at the time of his arrest, Zolo remains committed to freedom for Black people and to a just world for all. He has defended his own rights and the rights of other prisoners during these many years in prison. He has won the respect of fellow prisoners and jailers alike.
Zolo is a prolific writer and an accomplished artist whose work has been exhibited in many places around the country. His writing and his art reflect who he is: A man who lives his political convictions. Zolo’s political commitment dates back over 30 years. In the early 80’s he was rehabilitating his life and working his way out of a childhood imprisoned in extreme poverty and high-crime environments. Zolo was involved in the campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday in his hometown of Gary, Indiana and he designed the button for the campaign. He was the valedictorian of his CETA federal job training class and received a scholarship to Purdue University just prior to his arrest.
Zolo spends much of his time researching the law and fighting for a reversal of his conviction. His tireless efforts have exposed the unfair and racist way his case has been handled by the authorities. Zolo turned 60 in December 2015.
Timeline of Zolo’s Case
3 men in masks and disguises rob the Gary National Bank. An exchange of gunfire ensues and George Yaros, a white Gary police lieutenant, is killed. Police pursue the suspects, resulting in a long car chase. One of the men jumps out of the car and flees the scene. Zolo is picked up a few blocks away, walking down the street near his home. He is pistol-whipped while being arrested and charged with felony murder. Two others, David North and Ralph Hutson, are also arrested.
After years of being hidden by the prosecution, a police-administered gunshot residue test turns up “inconclusive” as to whether Zolo ever fired a gun.
Prosecution succeeds in changing place of venue from Lake County to Allen County (Fort Wayne) where the Black population is three times smaller.
Zolo’s trial is a miscarriage of justice
Zolo is tried amid media and law enforcement hysteria: Police officers surround the courthouse and line the walls inside the courtroom.
Zolo’s court-appointed attorney is so intimidated by the police-state atmosphere that he does not sit at the same table as Zolo! He puts on no evidence during the trial or the death penalty phase of the trial.
Instead of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Zolo is guilty, prosecutors intimidate witnesses into making false identifications, withhold evidence, and keep Blacks off the jury.
A police officer is guilty of tampering with a witness when he threatens and intimidates Black construction worker, James McGrew. Moments before McGrew testifies the officer points to Zolo and tells McGrew to identify him as the person he saw putting incriminating items in the bushes. McGrew later testifies at a post-conviction hearing that he had told prosecutors he could not make a positive identification and identified Zolo only because he “feared for his safety”. Two other African-American witnesses also recant their testimony, saying they too were threatened and intimidated. The prosecution also suppresses evidence favorable to Zolo; he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.
The prosecution singles out Zolo, focusing their efforts on him; the other defendants receive sentences of 60 years.
The Indiana Supreme Court vacates (throws out) Zolo’s death sentence, citing “ineffective assistance of counsel” and “suppression of favorable evidence”.
Zolo faces a second sentencing trial and once again is condemned to death; the jury consists of 11 whites and no Blacks. Again, his court-appointed lawyers provide ineffective counsel and present no mitigating evidence about his life and accomplishments.
Indiana Supreme Court overturns Zolo’s second death sentence because Blacks were systematically kept off the jury pool for the 1996 sentencing trial. In fact, half of Allen County’s Black population had been eliminated from the jury pool for the previous 15 years! Unbelievably, Allen County cites a “computer glitch” as their explanation for this incredible episode of racial bias.
Lake County District Attorney’s office decides to re-try Zolo on the death sentence for a third time!
Defense team requests that the sentencing trial be returned to Lake County because Zolo has a constitutional right to be tried there. Lake County is home to three times as many Blacks as Allen County and Zolo would be more likely to receive a fair trial there. Request is denied.
Boone County Superior Court Judge Steven David rules that the state cannot seek the death penalty against Zolo. In his ruling, he argued that the state could not seek the death penalty against Zolo a third time because of the length of time that had passed since the crime was committed (24 years at that time), and that the delay was caused primarily by the state. Many of the witnesses, material and character, are now deceased and much of the evidence is either missing or destroyed. David also found that a jury at a third sentencing trial would be unduly focused on the “future dangerousness” of the convicted, depriving Zolo of an unprejudiced decision by the jury. Judge David concluded that society’s interest would be best served by barring the state from a third death sentence trial.
District States Attorney Bernard Carter appeals Judge David’s ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court.
The Indiana Supreme Court hears arguments regarding Judge David’s ruling. It is almost a year before the court announces decision.
The Indiana Supreme Court in a 3 to 2 decision reverses Boone County Superior Court Judge Steve David’s ruling that barred the state of Indiana from pursuing the death penalty in the case of Zolo. The majority opinion, tries to blame Zolo for the 25 year delay by having the audacity to file appeals to his conviction and death sentence which ultimately exposed the mistakes and misconduct by the prosecution in his trials. Ironically, it was this same Indiana Supreme Court that found there was just cause for these appeals. In his dissenting opinion Justice Boehm found the majority opinion’s arguments for attributing the delays to Zolo as “both novel and indefensible”.
On October 17, on the eve of his third death penalty trial, the State of Indiana finally abandons its 27-year campaign to execute Zolo Azania! Under an agreement brokered by Marion Superior Court Judge Robert Altice the State of Indiana dismisses the death penalty charges and agrees to have Zolo sentenced on his 1982 murder and robbery conviction. With the understanding that Zolo would earn a bachelors degree, Zolo is expected to be released in 7 years (2015). He is transferred from death row to general population. Under the terms of the agreement, Zolo does not plead guilty to any charges and is able to challenge his 1982 convictions in federal court.
Zolo is the target of harassment by the Indiana State Prison administration. During a search of his cellblock, his cell is “tossed” and much of his property confiscated, including law materials and textbooks for his college classes. Zolo’s diet often prevents him from eating food at the mess hall and he has to supplement his meals with food from the commissary.
The Indiana Department of Corrections ends all college courses in Indiana prisons as a cost saving measure, depriving Zolo of the agreed upon 3 years off his 10 year extension, and also a full scholarship and bachelors degree from Ball State University.
Zolo has his security level lowered to medium and is transferred to Miami Correctional Facility in central Indiana, making it more difficult for him to receive visitors. His legal and personal property is kept from him and he is not allowed to paint. Through legal pressure by his lawyers he eventually gets some of his property back but discovers that some of it has been stolen or damaged.
Zolo again has his security level lowered, this time to minimum, and is transferred back to Indiana State Prison, but is now housed in the Minimum Security Unit. This is considered a transitional stage to outside life. His official release date is set for February, 2017.
Zolo maintains his innocence. He has been treated in a prejudicial way and the courts will not grant him a re-trial on the facts of the case. Under these circumstances, how can we accept the guilty verdict he received?
Zolo is leading a productive life in spite of being in prison. He writes, paints and communicates with many people on the outside. What a horror it would have been to take his life!