Marshall 'Eddie' Conway

Marshall "Eddie" Conway was released Tuesday after four decades in prison. (Handout / May 11, 1995)

Released after 44 years behind bars in the shooting death of a Baltimore police officer, former Black Panther leader Marshall "Eddie" Conway said in a radio interview Wednesday that he plans to dedicate the next stage of his life to community service.

"The whole time I have been incarcerated I have always been trying to continue to do the positive work that I joined the Black Panther Party to do. And that was to feed children, to help educate people, to help organize the community, to help build a better community," Conway said during a interview Wednesday with Marc Steiner on WEAA FM.

Conway, 67, was freed from prison Tuesday after challenging his conviction in a 1970 shooting that killed Officer Donald Sager and injured another officer. Conway's case was one of dozens affected by a ruling in which Maryland's high court said verdicts before 1980 were invalid because of faulty jury instructions.

Conway and his supporters have argued that he is innocent, and that his conviction was the result of a setup because of his political activities. Though the conviction will stand, he was released on time served under an arrangement with prosecutors that saw him drop his request for retrial.

"It wasn't real for me until it actually happened because it seems like I have been up this road so many times in terms of challenging the case," he said in the radio interview. "It wasn't until I walked out onto the sidewalk that I finally said, 'OK, this is real.' "

Sager's family and police union officials have said they still believe Conway is guilty, and that they are troubled by his release.

"This is a very sad day. I think this is another tragedy on our justice system — one of a string of tragedies," the officer's son, David Sager, said Tuesday.

Conway said he hopes those opponents understand that his conviction came about in a politically charged time.

"I hope people on the other side of that spectrum will recognize the climate of those times and recognize the conditions of those times."

Conway said that during his trial, the Black Panther Party was being attacked, with many members being jailed. Supporters have said the Black Panthers were being monitored by group of federal and local law enforcement agents whose mission was to "neutralize" organizations deemed subversive.

"My case happened right in the middle of that" climate, Conway said.

Despite the fact he felt unfairly targeted, during his four decades in prison, Conway said, he was determined to continue to do positive work for the community.

But Conway, who could not be reached for further comment, said he decided he would be more effective by working with individuals, and began developing a mentoring organization called Friend of a Friend.

"They in turn went in the prison population and worked with young people," he said. "They worked to create positive individuals that ultimately start returning to the community, actually working in the community."

jkanderson@baltsun.com