Jimmie C. Gardner in 2019. Courtesy photo

Wrongfully imprisoned for decades, Jimmie Gardner is driven by faith and justice

(RNS) — This is Jimmie C. Gardner’s 26th year observing Ramadan. But it’s far from his first time observing the rituals of the holy month in isolation.

Of course, the sense of isolation that comes with a wrongful 110-year sentence as a brand-new Muslim in a West Virginia prison is different from a temporary stay-at-home order.

“I’m used to the solitude, though,” Gardner said from his home office in Albany, Georgia, where he has been praying alone since the state issued its shelter-at-home order. “It reminds me of the beginning, when I went into Islam in the mid-’90s, because we had to get the approval for all our congregating. So I prayed alone then, just like I am today.” 

Even so, it’s been hard for the 53-year-old to go back to the isolation now that he has also experienced praying at a mosque and breaking his fast potluck-style, passing around plates of dates and baklava with his community members.

Jimmie C. Gardner was wrongfully convicted in 1990 and given a 110-year prison sentence in West Virginia. Video screengrab

Falsely convicted of sexual assault in 1990, Gardner spent 27 years behind bars in West Virginia’s prison system. Once a Chicago Cubs pitching prospect, he saw his promising career as a professional athlete derailed abruptly when he was imprisoned based on falsified forensic evidence — and what a judge later called “a complete miscarriage of justice.”

It wasn’t until four years ago that he was finally released, with his sentence vacated and all charges dropped.

All the while, Gardner says, it was his trust in God and a sense of spiritual discipline that kept him pushing to prove his innocence, despite running into brick walls at every turn.

“I don’t cry and sulk,” he said. “I’m out, by the grace of God. I tell people it was like Jonah being in the belly of the whale. I was protected the whole time. It’s like being in the eye of the storm and not getting wet. I give all praise to God.”

In 1987, Gardner was pitching for West Virginia’s now-defunct minor league Charleston Wheelers, then the Chicago Cubs’ farm team, when three women were attacked in two separate assaults in the area. Two of the women were sexually assaulted. 

Police began questioning each black player on the team and more than 100 other black men in town, based on the description from the victims. Gardner willingly participated, knowing he had nothing to do with the crimes. Even when Gardner was arrested two years later, he declined to hire an attorney, certain that a trial would clear up the situation.

Jimmie Gardner was a pitching prospect in the Chicago Cubs farm system during the mid-1980s. Video screengrab

After all, Gardner had been on the mound pitching on the night of one of the attacks. The sexual assault victim had described her attacker as a 6-foot-tall light-skinned black man; Gardner is dark-skinned, and 6 feet 4. Police said the suspect’s blood type was Type O; Gardner’s blood is Type A.

And, as Gardner found out years later while in prison, the state police’s chief serontologist and expert witness in the case, Fred Zain — who falsely testified that the DNA and fingerprints at the crime scene matched Gardner’s — was already under investigation for fraud.

Sentenced to 110 years behind bars for a crime he had no connection to, Gardner was filled with rage. He got in a fight soon after entering prison and was punished with two years of solitary confinement.

That isolation was a gift from God, Gardner said.

“It was at that time that I said to myself, ‘You know, I’m fighting for my life. I got to learn the law, I have to really hone in and really have priorities and make sure I’m putting myself in a position to regain my liberty and prove my innocence,’” he said.

That time in solitary focused him. He began meditating, cleaning up his diet, working out to get his mind and body in top shape. He took every opportunity for education that he could, earning three degrees while inside. He spent as much time in the library as he could, throwing himself into studying the law as well as exploring different faiths, from Hinduism to Wicca.

That’s when Gardner, who grew up Baptist, found Islam. In 1994, he took the shahada and declared his faith in Islam.

“That’s what helped me — the transition from unconsciousness to consciousness,” he said. “I credit my faith in Allah. I asked Allah back in 1995 to please bless me with the opportunity to be capable of being a voice for the voiceless, to give me the microphone. I wanted to speak, because I couldn’t get heard.”

An undated photo of Jimmie C. Gardner during his incarceration. Courtesy photo

Even when the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that any inmate whose trial included Zain’s testimony or evidence handled by him was entitled to a hearing, the hearings set to determine whether Gardner’s case should be retried or dismissed all fell through due to some issue or another. 

One day in prison, he recalled, he looked around at all the other Muslim inmates he prayed alongside and realized he was the only one of the original set there when he arrived. 

“We had all started Islam together, offering our salat, doing all our Ramadan,” Gardner remembered. “And all those guys went home after 18 years, after 20 years. Some of them died. And I’m still there. And one day it hit me … I’m the oldest guy here.”

It would be 23 years before he was finally granted the chance for an appeal hearing. He filed six habeas corpus petitions, though he went through 13 attorneys who declined to file one on his behalf. He wrote hundreds of letters to court officials, international human rights activists, Innocence Project organizations around the country and politicians, including President Barack Obama.

“I filed probably a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of legal mail,” he recalled. “All I did every day was file. I was filing to every court and organization I could.”

Nothing worked until 2013, when a U.S. district judge noted that no action had been taken in the case despite three separate rulings from the West Virginia Supreme Court remanding it back to Superior Court. Pointing to some of the holes Gardner described in an appeal, the judge overturned the conviction in 2016, leaving the state threatening for months to call for a new trial.

Decades after Zain’s long history of fraud and misconduct was exposed, Gardner was finally set free.

Jimmie C. Gardner in 2019. Courtesy photo

“Oh, it's been an arduous fight and a wonderful ride,” he said. “When you're going through something, recognize that Allah will not place a burden upon you that's greater than you can handle. You're going through it, you can handle it. Put it in your head that this is only a small stepping stone.”

Now, for the past two and a half years, he’s been locked in litigation to get some form of compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment. A trial date that had finally been set was pushed back due to COVID-19.

But his longer battle is to advocate for justice for others like him – others who have been wrongfully imprisoned, whose lives have been turned upside down due to racism embedded in the country’s criminal justice systems.

Now a board member for the Georgia Innocence Project, Gardner shares his story at prisons, schools, churches and civic organizations across the country, and he holds virtual visits with prisoners. He also founded his nonprofit, Gardner House Inc. in Beckley, West Virginia, two years ago to provide housing, food, skills training and counseling for formerly incarcerated people returning to the outside.

And the coronavirus outbreak has only brought new urgency to that work. 

Gardner’s own family is among those hit hard by the pandemic. His nephew, uncle and several cousins all tested positive for the disease, and a relative who died in March may have had it as well. Several acquaintances and students in his leadership classes have died, too.

But social distancing and public health protocols required to address the pandemic are utterly impossible to follow in prison facilities, he said.

“If an individual gets sick in your cell, nine times out of 10, you’re going to catch that,” he said. “He has to go to the toilet and sink with you, and you don’t have sprays and hand sanitizer. You shouldn’t die behind bars. You should have the opportunity to be taken care of.”