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Who is Mumia Abu-Jamal?
Mumia Abu-Jamal is an African-American writer and journalist, author of six books and hundreds of columns and articles, who has spent the last 30 years on Pennsylvania’s death row. His demand for a new trial and freedom is supported by heads of state from France to South Africa, by Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Desmund Tutu, by the European Parliament, by distinguished human rights organizations like Amnesty International, city governments from Detroit to San Francisco to Paris, scholars, religious leaders, artists, scientists, the Congressional Black Caucus and other members of U.S. Congress, the NAACP, labor unions, and by countless thousands who cherish democratic and human rights – and justice -the world over
Why is Mumia on Pennsylvania’s Death Row?
In 1982, during a time still under the influence of the corrupt and violent police regime of Mayor Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office headed by Ed Rendell (now, Governor of Pennsylvania) secured a conviction and death sentence in a jury trial, which lasted only three weeks, claiming that Mumia had murdered Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, on December 9, 1981.
What was the District Attorney’s Argument?
Philadelphia prosecutors argued, and still claim, that Mumia, while working as taxi-driver in downtown Philadelphia and who also carried a gun in his taxi due to past robberies he had suffered as cab driver, came across his brother who had been stopped by Officer Faulkner. Prosecutors argue that Mumia ran across a parking lot into the street where Faulkner was, pulled his gun and shot Faulkner in the back, and that, even though Mumia too had been wounded by a shot from Faulkner, he then stood over Faulkner, straddling his body, and shot him several times point blank in the face, as Faulkner lay on the sidewalk.
What do Mumia’s Supporters Say About the Crime?
There is no dispute that Mumia was wounded as he approached the crime scene where his brother also was. After Mumia was shot the details are unclear. It is clear that after police apprehended Mumia and while in transit to the hospital, he was beaten severely by the police. Many of those who believe Mumia is innocent claim that it is most likely that the shooter was a fourth person at the crime scene (beyond Mumia, his brother, and Faulkner), who was riding with the brother in his car and about whom jurors heard nothing at trial. Patrick O’Conner’s book, The Framing of Mumia offers the most reasoned account for that claim. Other supporters have no opinion about Mumia’s innocence, but nevertheless unite in viewing Mumia’s 1982 trial as a travesty of justice, and affirm, with Amnesty International’s 2000 case study, “that justice would best be served by a new trial.”
What do Mumia’s Critics Say About Him and the Crime?
Mumia’s critics who routinely tag him as “cop killer,” and who are led by the Fraternal Order of Police and a web site with a Board of Directors that includes Faulkner family members, former Philly Police Chief, John Timoney, and Mumia’s original prosecutor Joe McGill, have charged the following:
(a) that the prosecutors’ argument mentioned above is an open and shut case which subsequent appeals’ rulings have simply confirmed,
(b) that supporters of Mumia – whether Amnesty International or others in Philadelphia, the nation or abroad – are simply uninformed about the case against Mumia,
(c) that Mumia as a former Black Panther and revolutionary journalist was just waiting for a chance to kill a cop,
(d) that Mumia’s writings and notoriety are a mode of torture for the slain officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, who is being denied “closure,”
(e) that all the arguments made by Mumia’s attorneys and supporters are based on “myths.”
What have Mumia’s Attorneys Argued?
By 1999, Mumia’s attorneys had filed appeals at all levels of state and federal courts, arguing 29 claims showing violations of Mumia’s constitutional right to a fair trial. Many of those were discussed and confirmed also in the Amnesty International 2000 study of Mumia’s case, A Life in the Balance: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The most prominent of these claims focused on the original trial judge’s racial bias, the failure of police to do minimal forensic tests, racial bias in jury selection, providing Mumia with only ineffective and under-resourced defense counsel, rushing trial proceedings, denying Mumia the right to self-defense, giving inadequate instructions to the jury about mitigating circumstances, and the prosecutors making of venomous closing arguments to the jury. Since 1999, Mumia’s attorneys have been allowed by the federal courts to focus largely on only four areas:
(a) in relation to sentencing, whether the jury verdict form along with the judge’s instruction to the jury mislead the jury in violation of Supreme Court case law;
(b) in relation to conviction and sentencing, whether racial bias in juror selection existed to such an extent that it tended to produce an inherently biased jury and therefore an unfair trail;
(c) in relation to conviction, whether the prosecutor improperly attmpted to reduce jurors’ sense of responsibility by telling them that a guilty verdict would be subsequently vetted and subject to repeated appeals, but that a not guilty verdict could not be reviewed; and
(d) in relation to the post-conviction review hearings in 1995-1996, whether the presiding Judge Sabo, who had also presided at the trial, demonstrated unacceptable bias in his conduct.
Also in the years following 1999, Mumia’s attorneys have tried to get judicial review of (a) an affidavit by a court stenographer that Judge Sabo said in a court anteroom about his role in the case, “yeah, and I’m going to help them fry the nigger” (b) witnesses who now recant their testimony given at trial who say they were pressured by police into denying the presence of a fourth fleeing person at the scene and into naming Mumia the shooter, (c) a confession by another man who claimed to have been the actual shooter, and (d) the failure of both defense attorneys and prosecutors to present for review to any jury or judge the first photos taken at the crime scene (the Polakoff photos). Only police photos taken slightly later, and with significant differences from the Polakoff photos, were used at trial.
Where Does the Legal Case Stand Now?
Mumia’s requests for a new trial have been denied by each reviewing court. Only claim (a) of the four post-1999 claims has been a fruitful ground for relief for Mumia, so that a district federal judge, William Yohn, set aside Mumia’s death sentence in 2000. Yohn’s decision was appealed by prosecutors to the federal appeals circuit court which affirmed it. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court vacated that grant of relief and has asked the federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling in light of the highest court’s recent ruling on another case, Smith v. Spisak. During all of these appeals, Mumia has never left death row.
Last year a petition was filed in Philadephia’s Court of Common Pleas asking for a new trial based upon a newly released report from the National Academies of Science that found flaws in many forms of forensic evidence. That petition was denied and an appeal of that denial is currently pending in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Nevertheless, amid all these ongoing processes, Mumia remains on death row, with prosecutors and politicians in Pennsylvania ready to dispatch him to death as soon as a way is made clear. Even if execution is avoided, Mumia faces the sinister prospect of life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
What Grounds Do Supporters Cite When Claiming Mumia’s Innocence?
Supporters draw from, and usually combine, four kinds of argument:
(1) Procedurally and legally, no one should be denied innocence until a constitutional and fair trail has been provided. With the long list of distinguished jurists and human rights analyses that decry the many violations at trial, Mumia’s guilt remains unestablished.
(2) Those who know Mumia, his personal history, character, beliefs, principles,career development and convictions, argue that it is inconceivable that Mumia could be guilty of the cold-blooded murder of Officer Faulkner.
(3) The fourth person at the crime scene, Kenneth Freeman, who was riding in the car with Mumia’s brother and who fled the crime scene (a fact never heard or considered by the jury) was also known by his acquaintences to be harboring rancor, grievances and a temper under conditions of widespread and frequent police violence suffered by him and other citizens in 1970s and 1980s Philadelphia. Freeman as shooter has not been even considered by the courts, but that he was the shooter is more plausible than believing Mumia to be. (In 1985, Freeman was found dead in a Northeast Philly lot, reportedly hand-cuffed, naked and gagged, with a drug needle jabbed in his arm, the morning after Philadelphia police dropped a military explosive on MOVE headquarters, letting a fire burn out of control destroying over 50 blocks of West Philly.)
(4) During and after the time of Mumia’s arrest, trial and conviction, police were often convicted of corrupt procedures and of fabricating the guilt of defendants – all of which also makes plausible that Mumia, too, was “framed,” especially since he had so long been routinely singled out by police and authorities for his reporting on police violence in Philadelphia. It is known, for example, that in 1981, police and prosecutors framed four men: the first two of the four were acquitted in trials, one in 1982, and the second after spending 1,375 days on death row; the other two men spent nearly 20 years in prison for murder before released on DNA evidence and confessions by the real killers.
Why Have Mumia’s Appeals Failed to Bring Him Relief?
Three factors are often pointed to:
(1) New laws of judicial review, passed during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, protect state decision-making on death penalty cases from thorough scrutiny by higher courts at the Federal level.
(2) The Philadelphia and Pennsylvania criminal justice systems – from police officers on the street, to District Attorney Seth Williams, Mayor Michael Nutter, and Governor Ed Rendell (the Philadelphia D.A. during Mumia’s 1982 trial), to elected justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who are supported by the Fraternal Order of Police – all of these, maintain an intense and unquestioned advocacy and application of the death penalty and routinely convey their beliefs to decision-makers in power.
(3) An exceptional politics of judicial review seems at work in Mumia’s case when courts repeatedly rule against Mumia, especially when those same courts have found in favor of identical appeals by other death row inmates. This has been analyzed in detail as “The Mumia Exception” by award-winning journalist, Linn Washington, Jr. of the Philadelphia Tribune, also Professor of Journalism, Temple University. (Washington’s essential article is available at the EMAJ web site.)
Why is Mumia’s Case and Struggle So Important? (After all, there are so many others on US death rows – over 3200 – and thousands more have suffered similar violations of due process.)
(1) Mumia’s Humanity. Mumia is a human being, with a family and a network of friends and family who value his life. His case and struggle is important, first of all, because of the threat to the life and dignity he bears simply as a human being. He is a husband, father and grandfather who, despite his isolation from his own family has maintained an extraordinary sense of humane care and advocacy for them and many others.
(2) Mumia’s Writings are Remarkably Inclusive. With hundreds of columns, prison radio commentaries, six books, and essays in venues as distinct from one another as the homeless Street News to Forbes Magazine, to the Yale Law Review, Mumia has foregrounded the struggle of many peoples. These have indcluded advocacy, at times, even for prison guards and police officers, but especially for persons who routinely are rendered voiceless – whether they are African-American, Latino/a, Asian-American, Native American, Arab-American, white American, or the often detained from immigrant populations today.
(3) Mumia’s Notoriety. Mumia’s skillful journalistic writings regularly reach both national and worldwide audiences – in Europe and throughout many sites of the global South – and this notoriety has made him a human face and story of US death row and its prisons. In the context of the namelessness and dehumanization suffered by most death row inmates and prisoners and prisoners, the notoriety of his story and struggle is an important way of keeping national and international pressure on US incarceration and execution practices.
(4) Mumia’s Case as “Primer.” Mumia’s case is frequently cited as offering a “primer” on the many problems that attend US criminal justice systems in the US: runaway prison construction and mass incarceration, police use of excessive force, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, inadequate defense counsel for poor defendants, excessively long sentences race, class and gender imapcts on imprisonment and execution in the US.
(5) Mumia’s Case Links Issues: For many, Mumia’s political analyses “connect the dots,” stimulating valuable reflection on connections between US mass incarceration, the US military industrial complex, and its wars abroad (overt and covert), US economic policies, the so-called “drug war” and “war on terror” – all of whch bring to the fore issues of empire and of the coloniality of power at work in US policies. Recently, he has addressed the tragedy in Haiti, the struggle for health care in the U.S., and the war in Afghanistan – all with unusual clarity, acumen and artistic skill.
(6) Mumia in Pennsylvania. As confined among the 225 men and women on death row in Pennsylvania (nicknamed “the Texas of the North” for having the largest number on death row among northerly US states), organizing around Mumia’s case is a way to challenge a criminal justice and judicial system in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia that has routinely been found corrupted by racialized and adversarial politics. The struggle for Mumia, thus, takes the struggle for political justice in the US to one of the most hotly contested sites in the nation.
Mumia's regularly updated website is at http://freemumia.com
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