Public defender Linda Borus doesn’t have to look far for inspiration as she battles, year in, year out, for men and women she believes have lives worth living outside jail.
In fact, she needs only to look at her son and remember his father to see the human beauty that can get trapped inside the label: “criminal.”
This weekend, millions of viewers across the country will be introduced to Borus, a Ferndale resident, and the Detroit convict she loved in the made-for-cable drama The Killing Yard.
The affable woman, who steadfastly refuses to tell her age, is portrayed by Rose McGowan, while her lover, Bernard Stroble, who went by the name Shango, is played by Morris Chestnut.
The movie focuses on the 1970s trial that followed the four-day Attica prison uprising and the deadly crackdown by New York state troopers that left 39 inmates and guards dead.
With the film, writer-producer and former Detroiter Bonnie Garvin sheds light on the courage and legal prowess of the late Detroit lawyer and advocate for the disenfranchised, Ernie Goodman (played by Alan Alda), who defended Shango.
And though the focus of the film is the courtroom drama — which began with Shango accused of murder and kidnapping in the most deadly prison uprising in American history and ended with him acquitted of all charges — Borus tells a different story.
She talks about Shango the man and what he became in prison. She tells of a hero who lived a life of crime, redemption and tragedy, and lost his chance at love after a terror-filled experience behind bars.
“After what he went through, the pressure of a relationship was too much,” said Borus during a recent interview.
Reborn behind bars
From Borus’ account, Shango — accused of many crimes during his life but a hero to some by the time of his death — was a strong, charismatic and well-spoken man. From Borus’ telling and from media accounts during his life and at the time of his death, this is Shango’s story:
The son of the Rev. Mozie Lee Smith, he grew up tough on the west side of Detroit, and his rap sheet in Michigan was fat. It included charges that he killed a Detroit jewelry shop owner on Christmas Eve 1965 and assaulted a Detroit cop months later. In 1966, he was nabbed in New York, convicted of manslaughter for a deadly pool-hall fight and sent north to prison at Attica.
There, like thousands of other black inmates across America who followed the example of Malcolm X, Stroble took a new name, Shango. He educated himself in philosophy and politics, becoming ever more proud to be African-American and ever more defiant of his status in society.
In September 1971, the 31-year-old decided he’d had enough of conditions at Attica prison, where a cultural clash had grown to a cacophony of anger between urban African-American inmates and rural white guards. On Sept. 9, he joined hundreds of inmates who overthrew prison authorities, took hostages, killed one guard and gained control of an enclosed area.
The rebels organized into political groups — Latino, Muslim, radical, white — and elected leaders to negotiate with the state for more showers, toilet paper, less pork in meals, more access to educational materials and exercise and other improved conditions. Shango was named a leader of the security team.
Four days later, after two white inmates involved with the uprising were murdered and negotiations were stalled, state troopers and prison guards from other sections of Attica lined the walls of “D” Yard. They opened fire, under order from New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (who later became Gerald Ford’s vice president) to take back the prison with force. More than 2,000 shotgun blasts killed 29 inmates and 10 guards, and injured dozens of others.
When the blood had dried, the state of New York built a case against Shango that was to set the stage for cases against more than 60 other inmates. He was indicted for murder and kidnapping, and accused in the stabbing deaths of the two white inmates. The state also accused inmates of slashing the throats of the 10 guards held as hostages — a claim discounted by a coroner and ultimately shown to be false.
Borus was a Columbia University graduate student in 1973 working toward her doctorate degree and assisting the National Lawyers Guild with the Attica defense when she met Shango.
Killers never found
She described the man she fell in love with as “very strong, bright, self-possessed; a person with a lot of dignity and a lot of personal authority, that you would notice as soon as you met him, he was such a strong presence. He did not have much formal education, but at the time I met him, he was so interested in catching up on his own. He was interested in literature and philosophy and political philosophy, and he loved music.”
She laughed tenderly while recalling that, true to his Detroit roots, Shango had a radio show while he was in prison “so he could listen to his music.”
She said he was a very good writer, who put down on paper the details of the torture he faced at the hands of guards who retook Attica after the uprising in a hail of gunfire. Shango was hit three times, once in the back and once in each hand.
“When I tried to move, my legs felt as if a ton had been tied to them,” he later wrote. “I couldn’t move; the thought crept on me like a nightmare. But I was too proud to panic, to scream, to cry.”
He wrote about how he was threatened with death while bleeding and unable to walk, made to lie naked on the ground and crawl through broken glass. He wrote that he was repeatedly called “nigger” while poked with guns and sticks and spit upon, and thought he might be killed when a guard spun the cylinder of a gun, pointed it at him, and pulled the trigger; not once, but twice, while he was being held in solitary confinement.
After his trial, Shango was paroled on the original manslaughter charge that landed him in Attica and was sent back to Michigan in 1975, where he had been convicted of felony murder. He appealed, and his conviction was overturned in 1979. Finally, he was free.
Borus and Shango moved to Detroit and had a son in 1980. But they split up two years later. She said he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome related to his prison experiences. He had paranoid reactions to human contact, and would freak out at any unexpected touch.
His son Markus, this year a senior at Central Michigan University with a 3.5 grade-point average, is his mother’s pride and joy. Shango never knew him.
Shango, who ran a shoe repair shop after his release, was murdered in front of his mother’s house in Detroit in 1982, about six months after the breakup with Borus. He was 42 years old. The killers were never found; charges were never filed. Media accounts at the time, including a piece in the New York Times, reported that Shango had taken to fighting heroin dealers — the infamous Young Boys Inc. — on the streets of Detroit and was executed for his efforts.
But Borus says she honors his memory by continuing to fight a system she says willingly warehouses African-American males in inhumane conditions.
She hopes The Killing Yard wakes up people to this sad reality.
“Inmates are real people, who are asking, then and now, to be recognized as human beings, not beasts. That was the message then. It’s the same message now,” Borus said. “Shango illustrates that there’s a potential for growth and change in people that we should allow and respect. Maybe we prefer to throw people away, but there’s a price to pay for that.”
The Killing Yard premieres on Showtime at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23. A special Detroit showing a fundraiser for the National Lawyers Guild takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21 in the Friends Auditorium at the Detroit Public Library. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 313-588-4047 for more info.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]