For ten years, Mexican painter Manuel Salazar has been on Death Row, accused of murdering a policeman. But his champions, including John Paul II, believe Manuel was innocent. Next month his case is up for retrial, as Paul Donovan reports.
T4Is WEEK, VISITORS to Congress House in London will see an unusual exhibition of paintings. They constitute the oeuvre, painted behind bars, of a Catholic man who has spent more than ten years on death row for a murder many believe he did not commit.
Manuel Salazar was born to Mexican parents in Joliet, Illinois on 20 February, 1966.
On 12 September, 1984, Manuel Salazar and some friends were riding in a car in Joliet. The car, whose passengers were all black or Latinos, was stopped by the police.
Manuel had been doing some target shooting that afternoon with a gun he had not registered. He was 19 years old and knew the prejudice against Latinos that many Illinois policemen shared: he panicked, and ran from the car. Police officer Martin Murrin gave chase. Manuel Salazar threw the bag over a fence but was trapped by the policeman.
Officer Murrin proceeded to hold Manuel Salazar down and punch him repeatedly in the face. Manuel, struggling to escape, wriggled free. The police officer then drew his gun and threatened to kill Salazar. In the ensuing struggle, the gun went off whilst in the officers hand (gunpowder marks on Murrin's hands verify this) killing him.
Manuel Salazar escaped to Mexico where, according to his family, he was unrecognisable due to the beating he had received.His vision remained blurred long after the incident.
In May 198S paid agents raided the Salazars' house in Mexico, kidnappedManuel, and took him back to the United States. According to a report from the Nuevo Leon Office on Human Rights the US police paid $5,000 for the kidnap operation. Manuel was subsequently tried by an all-white jury and sentenced to death.
For 10 years Salazar had been on Death Row at Pontiac Correctional Centre in Illinois awaiting execution for the killing of police officer Martin Murrin.
As first reported in the Catholic Herald of 10 June 1994, the innocence of Manuel Salazar was supported by an international campaign led by John Paul II, and including Amnesty International, the National Black Police Association, Jeremy Corbyn MP and a British based support group.
The 29-year-old artist was visited in his US prison by Gerry Hunter of the Birmingham Six, and Judith Ward.
Jeremy Corbyn put down two Early Day Motions protesting Salazar's innocence, the most recent of which was signed by 116 MP's.
A recent hearing of the Illinois Supreme Court decided by six to one that Manuel Salazar's death sentence should be reversed.
Salazar's lawyer, Marlene Kamish, was sure that the international campaign was decisive. "The exposure in the Catholic press in Britain plus
the Early Day Motion and other Parliamentary activities proved vital in putting the international spotlight on the Illinois Supreme Court" she said.
Kamish underlined the enormity of the achievement when she quoted another recent shooting of a police officer where the police car escort trailed back seven miles from the cemetery. "That funeral" she said, "showed the enormity of the State resistance that had to he overcome in Manuel Salazar's case." She likened the reversal of the decision on Manuel Salazar to the release of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six in the UK.
At a vital time in the Mexican election process the pressure of the international campaign helped bring forth a diplomatic note from the Mexican Government to the US Government expressing outrage concerning the 1985 illegal kidnapping of Salazar from Mexican territory.
It was at this time that Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn met up to discuss the matter with the Mexican Ambassador in London.
Last September he was granted a retrial, and his lawyers have filed a petition claiming that his continuing custody is illegal because his abduction from Mexico was a violation of a US/Mexico extradition treaty. The hearing will be held on 30 May 1995.
To retry Salazar with all the new evidence available and now that he is properly represented will create much further embarrassment for a US Government that at one point faced a major rift with its close neighbour, Mexico over the case.
Native by Birth and by Blood is an exhibition of Manuel Salazar's paintings, held this week at Congress House, 23-28 Great Russell Street, London.