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A grassroot campaign that freed two sisters

Bridgit Brown

In 2005, Nancy Lockhart was working as a consultant in Chicago for the Rainbow Push Coalition when she received a letter from Mrs. Evelyn Rasco of Pensecola, Florida.

Rasco is the mother of Jamie and Gladys Scott, the two sisters convicted of armed robbery — totaling $11 — in 1994 and each given double-life sentences in the Mississippi House of Corrections.

“[Mrs. Rasco] said that she had been writing for eleven years and couldn’t get a response,” said Lockhart. “Many of the letters that had come in for help were for absurd things, like someone saying that there were aliens in their backyard or something like that. But this one seemed like a real story, and so I wrote back to her, telling her that I wasn’t going to make any promises but that I would look into her case.”

At the time, Lockhart was also pursuing a master of jurisprudence in administrative law from Loyola University School of Law in Chicago. Working with the sisters also helped her to build the foundation for what she is calling an internet-based movement.

Lockhart said she initially asked Mrs. Rasco and the sisters to explain why they believed the conviction was wrongful. What they told her is still speculative, but was enough for her to continue investigating their case.

“They said their cousin had turned state evidence on a sheriff,” Lockhart recalled. “This cousin ran a nightclub in Scott County, Mississippi, a ‘dry county’ during this time, and a place where black nightclub owners who wanted to sell alcohol had to pay some kind of bribe money to the officials. The sheriff, in fact, was indicted on bribery charges, tried and convicted, and sentenced to prison. He passed away a few years after his release, but the deputy sheriff who worked under him at the time, told Jamie and Gladys’ father that he was going to get him even if it was through his daughters.”

Lockhart was able to get a transcript of the sisters’ trial, and through her own investigation, she concluded that though there was a fight, the “armed robbery” never occurred.

“I found that  despite the reasons, the charges were still trumped-up, and from there I really wanted to see these women exonerated.”

The sisters were convicted in 1994 of leading two men into an ambush in central Mississippi the year before. Three teenagers hit each man in the head with a shotgun and took their wallets —  making off with only $11, court records said.

Initially, Lockhart wrote an article that was published on theblackcommentator.com and as a result, a Tulane University Professor, Evelyn Hall, contacted Rip Daniels, owner of WJZD radio in Gulfport, Mississippi. Daniels then discussed the story on his popular show and actually began a daily countdown of the number of years and days that the sisters had been incarcerated – approximately 16 years.

Last month, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, issued an “indefinite” suspension of the double life sentences with the stipulation that Gladys, 36, donates one of her kidneys to Jamie, 38, who requires daily dialysis.  

The sisters were released earlier this month.

“I was glad to make it through the ground floor, and what I refer to as ‘the ground floor’ was just the ability to reach out to everyday people who probably were not in a very high income bracket, but people who could forward the story on and who would post it on to their Facebook pages.”

Lockhart now has more than 3,500 friends on Facebook, who were able to share the story with their friends through the social networking site since she began posting information about the sister’s in 2008.

She also joined over a hundred other sites, including the very popular and free Blogger networking platform where she posted information on a number of countless wrongful convictions taking place throughout the United States and even abroad.

“So it wasn’t just a clicking of this button or that button, there was some analysis placed into this,” Lockhart said. “I chose a cross-section of people from various sites, and I found very quickly that the churches were very slow to start. Atheists worked very well, they were very supportive. One atheist told me that she saw that I was a Christian and said that I probably wouldn’t like her posts. I told her that I was looking for support for the sisters, and if we could find that common ground then nothing else mattered.”

The biggest support, Lockhart said, came from Blogtalkradio.com, when Raphael Louis, a candidate for Prime Minister of Canada, and who also leads the Civil Rights Party of Canada, interviewed her and Mrs. Rasco on his blogtalkradio.com forum.  

“After that,” Lockhart said, “the Poor People’s Campaign, a nonprofit based in Chicago, began talking about the story, and Queen Ifama, who has a show on blogtalkradio.com called “The Truth Terrorist,” was like an angel because she worked really hard to get the info out there.”

Lockhart says that the movement took off in January 2010, when Jamie Scott’s kidney’s began to fail. At this point, she posted daily status updates about Jamie’s condition, urging friends to sign a petition or send letters of support on their behalf.

The Scott sisters were eligible for parole in 2014, but Barbour said prison officials no longer thought they were a threat to society and Jamie’s medical condition was costing the state a lot of money — an estimated $200,000 a year.

The Scott sisters’ attorney, Chokwe Lumumba, said people have asked if Barbour, who is mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2012, suspended their sentences for political reasons.

“My guess is he did,” Lumumba said, but he still said the governor did the right thing.

The Scott sisters have received significant public support from advocacy groups, including the NAACP, which called for their release. Hundreds of people marched through downtown Jackson from the state capital to the governor’s mansion in September, chanting in unison that the women should be freed.

National NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous thanked Barbour after meeting him at the state capital in Jackson, calling his decision “a shining example” of the way a governor should use the power of clemency.

“It’s again proof that when people get engaged, keep the faith, we can win,” Jealous said.

Lockhart has published an e-book on grassroots organizing via Lulu.com, which can be purchased on through her blog.  

“I have given away more copies of it than I have sold, and I wrote it because there were so many people approaching me for assistance — some of which I could not help, and some of which I was not convinced that they were innocent, but I wrote the book to help individuals help their loved ones on their own,” she explained. “There’s a way to launch a campaign, and the book provides the on-the-ground efforts that could be used to reach out to families seeking pardons for their relatives who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.