Mumia Abu-Jamal is a Black writer and journalist, former member of the Black Panther Party and supporter of Philadelphia’s radical MOVE Organization, who has spent the last 30 years in prison, almost all in solitary confinement 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, Desmond Tutu; by the European and Japanese parliaments and by city governments from San Francisco to Detroit to Paris; by distinguished human rights organizations like Amnesty International; by the Congressional Black Caucus and other members of the U.S. Congress; by the NAACP and labor unions; and by scholars, religious leaders, artists, scientists and countless thousands of others who cherish democracy, human rights and justice.
Why is Mumia still in prison?
In 1982 Mumia Abu-Jamal was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. For the next 30 years Mumia was held in isolation on Death Row. He was kept there even though a federal judge ordered his death sentence overturned in 2001. However, after losing numerous appeals of that order, the Philadelphia District Attorney on 7 December 2011 announced he was giving up. Mumia remains in prison under a sentence of life without parole.
What has been the state’s argument?
Philadelphia prosecutors argued, and still claim, that Mumia, while driving a taxi in downtown Philadelphia, came across his brother who had been stopped by Officer Faulkner. Prosecutors further argued that, motivated by a longstanding hatred of the police from his days as a Panther and supporter of MOVE, Mumia ran to Faulkner and shot him in the back. Then, although wounded by a return shot from Faulkner, Mumia supposedly stood over the fallen cop and shot him several times at in the face.
What do Mumia’s defenders say about the incident?
There is no dispute that Mumia was wounded as he approached the scene. However, after Mumia was shot the details are fuzzy. It is clear that after the police apprehended Mumia, he was severely beaten. It is also clear from photographic and ballistics evidence which has only recently come to light that the state’s version of what happened cannot possibly be true. Moreover, many of those who believe that Mumia is innocent claim that the most likely shooter was a fourth person at the scene (besides Mumia, his brother and Faulkner) who was riding with Mumia’s brother in the latter’s car.
At trial the existence of this person was known to the prosecution, but carefully concealed from the jury. Patrick O’Connor, in his book, ‘The Framing of Mumia’, offers the most reasoned account for this claim. Other defenders of Mumia who have no opinion as to his innocence, nevertheless unite in viewing his 1982 trial as a mockery 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 incident?
(a) that the evidence shows that Mumia’s conviction is an open-and-shut case which later appeals have confirmed;
(b) that supporters of Mumia—from Amnesty International to the European Parliament, including hundreds of thousands of people—are simply uninformed about the case;
(c) that Mumia as a former 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’.
However, the critics’ visceral campaign to kill Mumia is not extended to others who have been convicted of killing police officers. What sets Mumia apart has been his writing and oral commentaries. The critics are far more afraid of these truths getting a hearing than of getting to the truth of what really happened to Officer Faulkner.
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?
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.)
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.
Why Have Mumia’s Appeals Failed to Bring Him Relief?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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