16 years on death row: Harold Wilson’s story

By Felicia Melvin
November 12, 2009

“You were told and shown you were here to die.” Can you imagine being confined for a crime you didn’t commit? Or better yet can you imagine watching the suffering of others while awaiting your death under the toughest conditions possible? These are the inner thoughts of the 122nd exonerated death row prisoner in U.S history.

Harold Wilson grew up in south Philadelphia on 18th and South Street, a poor area in Philadelphia. He is the youngest of seven.

“I always been the one, my father didn’t trust no one else, I was the first to go deep fishing with my father,” Wilson said. His mother and father were strong figures in Wilson’s life. Unfortunately his father passed away due to alcoholism.

“I became a man the day my dad died, my god was dead,” Wilson said. “I worked since I was 13 years old. I was the only one at 24 who owned his own business. I always generated income and didn’t let the society intimidate me,” Wilson said.

Before his arrest, Wilson was a Plymouth Meeting health care employee and father of two children.

On April 10, 1988 three murders occurred. The police showed up at Wilson’s mother’s home with a search warrant and a plastic bag. They searched her basement and five minutes later came upstairs with a jacket that had blood on it. Wilson was charged with three counts of first degree murder and robbery charges.

“I thought I was going to go down to the police station and answer some questions and that would be it, that didn’t happen,” Wilson said.

Wilson spent over 17 years as a prisoner on death row. When Wilson first arrived to prison, he was introduced to a man named Robert Cook. Cook was a Jehovah’s Witness, who was trialed and convicted by the same district attorney who falsely convicted Wilson. Cook showed Wilson how to represent himself as “not a regular inmate.” Cook contacted Wilson’s family and told them he would help Wilson if they agreed not to send him a television or radio. Television and radio would distract him from handling his legal matters.

“Other inmates wouldn’t speak up to the harsh living environments in order to keep their cable,” Wilson said. Wilson referred to TV and radio as “pacifiers,” a way to keep inmates quiet.

“I know that, being here today, spirituality is real.Drugs, homosexuality and bad medicines. I had to shun all those things to be saved; other inmates wouldn’t,” Wilson said.

As a prisoner, Wilson educated himself in the law library, which was sometimes available to prisoners on death row. Over the years he contacted over 50 law firms for assistance and they all rejected him.

“Life teaches a lesson to be learned. When others get arrested for mistakes of others they often commit suicide, I never thought of that. I shunned the radio and TV and spent most of my time in the law library,” Wilson said.

“I would read medical books. I caused a lot of people on death row to stop smoking and exercise. I studied Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhism, Islam, African-American history and Christianity. I saw myself as a monk in a synagogue forced to live among the condemned,” Wilson said.

“I felt overwhelmed by spirituality. I know more than anyone oneness with god,” Wilson said.

Today Wilson calls the justice system as “a rage to punish,” and says that in today’s society “racism is real.”

“Even though we have Obama it is still alive. In south Philly racism is high. We need to educate our youth and our schools in our criminal justice system,” Wilson said.

On Nov. 15, 2005 Wilson was set free due to DNA evidence. Now, as a free man, Wilson is an activist for the abolishment of the death penalty.

“I thought Wilson’s words were moving because innocent people die every day, the legal system is so messed up and unfair. He gave me inspiration to try harder in school, by saying we as students can make a difference,” Chelbi Mims, communication major, said.

“Today life is good. I enjoy who I am and what I do today. What keeps me going is knowing I can make a difference. It’s all right to be wrong if we can find a means to be right,” Wilson said.

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Felicia Melvin

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