In 1990, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay produced the Sound Portraits radio documentary “Tossing Away the Keys,” a story about about the men serving life sentences in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. One of the those featured in the piece was Moreese Bickham (pictured above), who died earlier this week at the age of 98.
In 1958, an all-white jury convicted Moreese of killing two white police officers and sentenced him to death. When the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, his sentence became life without parole. Moreese spent 37 years behind bars before receiving clemency and leaving prison in January 1996.
In memory of Moreese, this week on the StoryCorps podcast, we are bringing you Dave’s original piece, along with additional details regarding his release from prison.
In 1994, Dave, along with photographer Harvey Wang, published Holding On, a tribute to some great American characters. In the book, he wrote about Moreese—what follows is an excerpt:
Monroe Green, Joe White, Donald Buffet, Henry Patterson, and Moreese Bickham are among the longest of the long-termers incarcerated in the nation. All African-Americans, all convicted before the civil rights movement. They sat with me for hours in a bare office at Angola’s main prison complex, describing the ordeal of growing old inside a maximum-security penitentiary.
For me, the most powerful testimonial came from Moreese Bickham. Unlike the other prisoners featured in the documentary, Bickham was serving a life term as the result of a commuted death sentence. Bickham was soft-spoken and gentle, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church. For the past several years, he had spent his days tending to a small rosebush patch near one of Angola’s cafeterias. “I know it sounds funny,” he told me, clipping the stems, “but these is my company-keepers. These bushes have come to be close, close — very close to me. If you don’t see after them, they’ll just die. That’s the way some people do in prison. But me, I got a life to live, in here or out. Make the best you can out of a bad situation — that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
In the years following the broadcast of “Tossing Away the Keys,” several of the prisoners profiled in the documentary were pardoned and released. Moreese Bickham was not among them. Each time Bickham appeared before the pardon board, his appeal was strongly protested by the Mandeville Police Department. “We will do anything we can to keep him in prison,” the town’s chief of police said in a newspaper interview. “He has no business on the street after killing two police officers from ambush. Feelings are still hot in Mandeville over the murder.”
After the broadcast of the documentary I kept in touch with Bickham through occasional cards and letters.
I began to research Bickham’s story — no one had touched the trial materials in decades and I found Bickham’s 1990 version of the crime to be identical to the confession of thirty-five years ago. The trial transcript is an eerie read. The prosecution’s case against Bickham only seems to bolster his claims of self-defense. It seems that in pre-civil-rights Louisiana, self-defense was not an acceptable claim for a black man accused of killing two white law enforcement officers.
For the next eight months my friend Michael Alcamo, an attorney in New York, lobbied tirelessly on behalf of Moreese Bickham. After learning that Bickham’s health was faltering, we orchestrated a small media blitz on his behalf. We asked people to contact Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards’s office and urge him to commute Bickham’s sentence. The governor received thousands of letters and phone calls.
We were hoping Governor Edwards would sign Mr. Bickham’s commutation papers over the holidays. Christmas came and went. We pressed on. In February 1995, we received devastating news: a highly placed political insider in Louisiana, whom Michael had persuaded to take an interest in Mr. Bickham’s case, got a look at the file on the governor’s desk. While the support letters were there, so were dozens of letters of opposition. Apparently the Mandeville Police Department and local politicians had redoubled their efforts to ensure that Bickham would remain behind bars for the rest of his life. This attorney told Michael it was all over. He’d never seen anyone with that kind of law enforcement opposition have his commutation signed.
Michael began making plans to shift strategy, bringing Bickham’s case back to court on habeas corpus petition challenging the conviction on the grounds that he hadn’t received a fair trial. Freedom for Bickham seemed more elusive than ever.
Then, on the afternoon of March 13, 1995, I got an urgent message from Michael. I called him back. He was in shock. For some reason Governor Edwards had decided to sign Bickham’s commutation, making him eligible for immediate parole. We got on the phone to his family. It was pandemonium. Screams. Tears. One of his granddaughters, Selena Garrett, told us, “I feel like my grandfather’s been raised from the dead.” We understood that we were witnessing a miracle.