|Born||June 6, 1917|
|Died||April 2, 2016 (aged 98)|
|Occupation||Employee of the City of Mandeville, LA|
|Criminal charge||First degree murder of a Sheriff's Deputy|
|Criminal penalty||Capital punishment (commuted); Life in prison (commuted to 75 years)|
Moreese Bickham (June 6, 1917 – April 2, 2016) was a resident of Mandeville, Louisiana who was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the July 12, 1958 killing of a sheriff's deputy, reportedly a local Klan leader. In 1974, Bickham's death sentence was converted to life without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, which invalidated death penalty convictions in certain circumstances. In April, 1995, after a lengthy legal battle over his guilt or innocence in the 1958 case, the Governor of Louisiana agreed to commute Bickham's sentence to 75 years. Then, in January 1996, Bickham's attorney won a full release, and Bickham left Angola State Penitentiary after 37 1/2 years in prison. Bickham lived the rest of his life in California, and died in a nursing home in Alameda, California after a short illness, at the age of 98.
Trial and death sentence
In 1958, he lived in Mandeville, Louisiana, a town north of New Orleans. According to trial transcripts, at around 11 pm on the evening of July 12, 1958, Bickham had an argument with two sheriff's deputies in a bar called "Buck's Place" in Mandeville. At trial, prosecutors submitted evidence that Bickham's girlfriend, Florence Spencer, had been "acting unruly." At approximately 11 pm the two deputies—Gus Gill, 68, and Jake Galloway, 74—drove Spencer home. The deputies wore street clothes, and many in the community reported that they believed the two deputies were associated with the Ku Klux Klan, something not unusual for law enforcement personnel in a small, rural town in 1958 Louisiana.
Later that night, at approximately 2 am, Gill and Galloway arrived at Bickham's home on Villerey Street in Mandeville. The deputies approached Bickham's front door, and fired at Bickham, striking him in the stomach. Bickham returned fire with a shotgun. Bickham was arrested several hours later at Baton Rouge Hospital. Prosecutors had argued that he "lay in wait" at his home for the deputies to arrive, and then murdered them in cold blood. An all-white jury convicted Bickham of one count of first degree murder (premeditated homicide) and sentenced him to death by electrocution.
For fourteen years, Bickham avoided execution, winning seven stays of execution. He lived on death row in the Angola State Penitentiary, in solitary confinement 23 hours per day.
Commutation to life without parole, after Furman v. Georgia
In 1972, after the U.S. Supreme Court determined that death sentences applied in certain ways were unconstitutional, states across the South converted numerous death sentences to life without parole, before the sentences could be challenged by inmates. As part of this pattern, the State of Louisiana in 1974 converted Moreese Bickham's sentence to life without parole. Bickham was at that time released into the general prison population in Angola.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bickham worked in a variety of capacities at Angola. He assisted in the visitors' center, maintained a garden in the prison cemetery, learned leather-making, and he became ordained as a minister in the Methodist faith. In 1989, independent radio documentarian David Isay interviewed Bickham for a documentary on long-timers at Angola, entitled "Tossing Away the Keys". Bickham was freed in January 1996 through the efforts of New York City attorney Michael Alcamo.
Negotiations, sentence reduction and release
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In August 1994, New York corporate lawyer Michael Alcamo accepted Bickham's case pro bono. Working with 35-year-old trial transcripts, Alcamo investigated the circumstances of the conviction, and he presented a case to Louisiana authorities that Bickham's arrest, conviction and sentence had been improper.
Alcamo pointed out that based on the deputies' own testimony, it was apparent that Bickham had not broken any laws. If Bickham had been violent or dangerous at 11 p.m., at "Buck's Place", the two deputies would have arrested Bickham at that time. Instead, the deputies arrested Florence Spencer, a companion of Bickham. Alcamo presented the conclusion that there was no reasonable basis for Galloway and Gill to have gone to Bickham's home later, at 2:10 am. Alcamo said that it could be further inferred that the two men meant to do Bickham harm. Alcamo argued that at the least, these circumstances indicated that Bickham should have been charged with manslaughter, a lesser offense, which carried a maximum term of 25 years, or that Bickham should have been exculpated on principles of self-defense.
As a secondary position, Alcamo sought a commutation of Bickham's sentence from life without parole to 75 years.
As part of the legal strategy, Alcamo organized a national letter-writing campaign. Because local sentiment made a full pardon out of the question, Alcamo took the position that Bickham's sentence should be commuted, or reduced, to a specific term of 75 years. This would make it possible to seek a parole date or a specific release date based on Louisiana's "good time statute," which allows a sentence to be reduced by one day for each day served on good behavior.
Through 1994, working from a corporate law office in Manhattan, Alcamo focused public attention on the case, arranging radio interviews on public radio stations in New York City and Chicago. Twice, Bickham was able to join a radio program with his family members, speaking with them for the first time in decades. Finally, in January 1995, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards granted the request for a sentence reduction to 75 years.
Alcamo then immediately requested a hearing for a release on parole, for which an inmate is eligible after having served a third of his sentence. However, despite the passage of 37 years, the parole hearing drew massive news coverage and local protests. In April 1995, after a highly contentious hearing at the Louisiana State Parole Board, Bickham's request for parole was denied.
Alcamo then negotiated with the prison warden, Burl Cain, to obtain and review Bickham's prison record. Alcamo argued that Bickham's prison record was sufficiently exemplary that under the State of Louisiana's "Good Time Statute", Bickham could be eligible for a sentence reduction of one day for each day served with good behavior.
After a review of the prison record, the Angola warden agreed to certify as to Bickham's good behavior during his 37 years of incarceration. Alcamo then petitioned the State under the good-time statute, that Bickham should be releasable as a free man after serving a term of 37.5 years. Alcamo argued that once the State Penitentiary staff had certified Bickham's prison record, the inmate's release would be non-discretionary.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections agreed with this analysis. At 12:01 am on January 10, 1996, Alcamo was accompanied by journalist David Isay, and escorted Bickham from the prison. Bickham was thus a free man, not subject to parole.
Fulfilling a promise he had made on Bickham's behalf to the State of Louisiana, Alcamo then drove with Isay and Bickham through the night across the state; then out of Louisiana into Mississippi. The next day, Alcamo and Isay escorted Bickham to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, and Bickham flew to Oakland, CA to join his family.
At the time of his death Bickham resided in California and was an active participant in the movement to abolish capital punishment in the United States. David Isay is the creator of StoryCorps, a national enterprise to record oral histories. Michael Alcamo works in finance.
In 2001, Edwin Edwards, the Louisiana Governor who commuted Bickham's sentence, was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to ten years in federal prison. In 2010, Bickham wrote to President Barack Obama to ask the President to release Edwards a year early, but the request was not granted.
Burl Cain, the Angola prison warden, resigned from his post in 2015 after pressure arose over his business dealings with relatives of inmates. Over a period of several years, Cain had entered into business partnerships with two men who had close ties with state inmates. Cain was trying to develop a subdivision in West Feliciana Parish, about 30 miles from Angola. He transacted with two businessmen, one the stepfather of a double-murderer and the other a friend of a killer who helped underwrite the convict's appeals.
Bickham is the subject of two contemporary songs: "Half a Life Away," by Stiff Little Fingers, a moving ballad that misstates certain facts of Bickham's case and "Rosebush Inside" by Sean Hayes.
Bickham's story was also featured on NPR's Snap Judgment with Glen Washington in show 329 entitled "Found." In the radio feature, as a follow up to his profile in StoryCorps, and the retelling of his story by Sean Hayes in his song Rosebush Inside, Hayes tells of meeting Bickham and his family in person at a live performance.
Bickham was quoted by Harvard Prof. Dan Gilbert as saying upon release "I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience." Bearing in mind that Bickham spent fourteen years in solitary confinement, Gilbert has cited Bickham's quote as evidence that happiness is achievable in any condition. Prof. Gilbert acknowledged that he had erroneously stated that Bickham had been exonerated "through DNA evidence," when, in fact DNA was not involved in any aspect of the effort to free Bickham.
- Sack, Kevin. New York Times: After 37 Years, Inmate Tastes Freedom (January 1996)
- "Tossing Away the Keys". Sound Portraits. Archived from the original on 2014-02-21. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
- Sack, Kevin (January 11, 1996). ""After 37 Years in Prison, Inmate Tastes Freedom."". www.nytimes.com. The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
- Burns/McCallum. "Half a Life Away - Lyrics". Hope Street (album). Retrieved 4 June 2013.
- Hayes, Sean. "Rosebush Inside (Moreese Bickham) - Lyrics". Retrieved 4 June 2013.
- Sack, Kevin. "After 37 Years in Prison, Inmate Tastes Freedom". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
- Mustain, Gene (14 January 1996). "He Savors Freedom After 38 Yrs". New York Daily News. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience.
- Locke, Michelle (31 March 1996). "Convict Returns To Different World After 37 Years". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
- Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness at TED
- Gilbert, Daniel. "Corrections, The Case of Moreese Bickham". www.ted.com. TED Talks. Retrieved November 1, 2017.