The Fight to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal: An Innocent Man on Death Row
By Carole Seligman
Note: This is a slightly edited version of a presentation at a conference called “The Death Penalty: Too Flawed to Fix” sponsored by The Campaign to End the Death Penalty, at University of California, Berkeley, October 17.
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal can only be understood in the framework of two truths about how power is exercised by the state in the U.S. today. First, over 2,000,000 people are imprisoned in the U.S. The U.S. has a higher percentage of prisoners than any country in the world including countries ruled by open monarchies and dictatorships. And though the ruling class rules under the pretence of democracy, the real situation is that of a capitalist dictatorship. Even the candidates for office must be millionaires, or billionaires, to be given a public forum. Second, the U.S. is engaged in two wars of aggression simultaneously and prepares for others by ringing the world with military bases and occupations. These realities of life today shed a great deal of light on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is an African-American journalist, essayist, intellectual, and author of several books. [This publication prints his columns frequently.] He has been on death row in Pennsylvania for nearly 22 years, much of that time in solitary confinement; sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, a crime to which another man has confessed. Every aspect of the arrest, prosecution, trial, and appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal has been tainted by the poison of racism and the abuse of the so-called justice system by the powers of corporate wealth that control the state of which the “justice” system is such a crucial part.
Mumia’s case is so important to those who are concerned with justice and fairness, because we understand that if the Pennsylvania authorities are permitted to get away with the execution of Mumia as they have gotten away with his incarceration for the bulk of his adult life, that our own lives and
freedom are endangered as well. This is the message of the struggle to free Mumia: It’s a message of solidarity. An injury to Mumia, is an injury to all who struggle for freedom, and all who speak out against injustice. The passage of a strong resolution in support of Mumia at the last NAACP national convention was a very important addition to this international support. (See July/August issue of Socialist Viewpoint.)
Mumia’s case is also important to all who are concerned with the profound issues of justice in the U.S. and worldwide because he is one of the few journalists who uses the power of the pen to expose the racist prison industrial complex, who speaks out against the death penalty, who exposes the role of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, and everywhere else; who exposes the so-called “War on Terror” for what it really is—a war against the poor and oppressed peoples of the world.
Background to the case
In 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal stumbled onto what appears to have been the assassination of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, who probably was killed, because other cops suspected he was informing the FBI about rampant police corruption. Mumia was falsely convicted of the crime in a trial that even a leading conservative commentator called “grotesquely unfair” and “clearly unconstitutional.”
And, another man has confessed! A professional hit man, Arnold Beverly, has said that he killed officer Faulkner, and that Mumia Abu-Jamal had nothing to do with it. An appeals court has ruled out hearing Arnold Beverly’s testimony because his confession was brought into court “too late.”
Philadelphia police and prosecutors used a variety of means to frame-up Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was already, at that time—in 1981—a well-known critic of the Philadelphia police. Mumia had, as a young student taken action to protest racism, he had already been a victim of police brutality for his anti-racist organizing. He had learned journalism skills as an activist in the Philadelphia and Oakland branches of the Black Panther Party as a very young man.
From the beginning, the case against Mumia was filled with police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct. Here are some examples:
Both of the prosecution’s key so-called eyewitnesses in Mumia’s case have revealed to others that they did not see the shooting! Evidence indicates their trial testimony was the result of police coercion. One was a cab driver with a felony conviction for arson, who was driving a cab without a license. One was a prostitute, also with a string of 38 convictions, who was threatened with a long prison term. These people were clearly under police and prosecutorial coercion! Investigators were able to prove their testimony was false years after Mumia’s conviction.
Several witnesses (who never testified in Mumia’s original trial) saw Police Officer Faulkner’s real killers flee the scene! These witnesses were severely harassed by the prosecution and some were even forced to leave Philadelphia.
During pre-trial hearings in 1982, Mumia begged for a line-up several times where the “identification” witnesses would have to show that they could identify him as the shooter. As one of Mumia’s former attorneys put it: “Who begs for a lineup? Only two kinds of people, the crazy or the innocent, and Mumia is not crazy.”
Mumia never got a jury of his peers. Black jurors were disqualified from serving on the jury for bogus reasons. This was the norm historically in the U.S. and was true in Philadelphia long after the Civil Rights Movement was underway. The Philadelphia prosecutor’s office had actually produced a film to teach prosecutors how to exclude Blacks from juries after a Supreme Court ruling that it was unconstitutional to do so. On the credits of the film is the name of Ronald Castille, who was a prosecutor at the time of Mumia’s trial. Now, the same Castille serves on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He has refused to recuse himself from ruling on Mumia’s appeals to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court even though he was involved in the original prosecution! And of course, in another way that effects all death penalty cases, the prosecution made sure that only pro-death penalty jurors would be able to serve on Mumia’s jury.
The judge who presided over Mumia’s trial, Albert Sabo, was well known as a hanging judge who had sentenced record numbers of defendants, especially Black defendants, to death. His overt racism was attested to in a sworn deposition. Sabo also had record numbers of his rulings overturned on appeals. He was not only a racist, but he was a highly incompetent judge. In a sworn deposition by a competent court stenographer, Terri Maurer-Carter, she says that she heard Judge Sabo commenting about Mumia Abu-Jamal to others in the courthouse, “Yeah, and I’m going to help ‘em fry the nigger!”
At the original trial, evidence was presented that Mumia confessed to having shot Officer Faulkner. This so-called confession was fabricated by the cops who suddenly “remembered” it two months after his arrest. The prosecution arranged for another police officer, who had, in a written report, claimed that Mumia had made no comments at all while he was in the hospital, to be “on vacation” during the trial and unavailable to testify, although it was proven that he was at home.
Many of those who helped frame Mumia, or kept him on death row, have risen to the highest levels of national politics including Tom Ridge, current head of Homeland Security, and Ed Rendell, leader in the national Democratic Party. As Mumia has pointed out, “They seek my silence more than my death.”
These are just some of the many facts in this egregious case of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct, which, if not countered, will lead to the death of an innocent man. There is much more—including ballistics evidence; the fact that routine tests about whether a gun was fired and whether a suspect or a victim had evidence of having fired a gun on his hand were never done; or if they were done, their results were conveniently discounted; or missing bullet fragments, and many more pieces of evidence. Mumia himself was shot and badly wounded at the scene of the crime. The prosecution claimed that Officer Faulkner shot him while falling down and yet the trajectory of the bullet was down, not up, as it would have had to be if their story was true. These are only a few of the many, many important problems in this case.
None of these facts have been considered by appeals courts!
Where is Mumia’s case Now?
Mumia’s attorney, Robert Bryan, says, “Mumia’s case is now moving forward on the fast track. He is in grave danger. Pennsylvania state authorities want to silence his voice and are pressing hard once again for the death penalty…. In over three decades of litigating death-penalty cases, I have not seen one in which the government wants so badly to kill a client.”
Mumia’s current case is proceeding on several legal fronts: Three jurisdictions are being presented with appeals. The defense is bringing the issues of the jury’s exclusion of Black jurors and 15 other important issues to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court. A Writ of Certiori (to ascertain the ability to appeal) on the issues of Ronald Castille’s refusal to recuse himself from ruling on Mumia’s previous appeal and the issue of Maurer-Carter’s affidavit about Judge Sabo’s overt racism and prejudice against Mumia during his first trial is before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania State Court will hear an appeal of the phony confession that the prosecution used to convict Mumia in 1981. And an appeal is before Judge Yohn regarding a stay of proceedings until a lower court rules on the applicability of the Banks decision, an important precedent that says that juries do not have to be unanimous in considering mitigating factors in a death sentence case.
In other words, every legal avenue is being pursued to win Mumia’s freedom in the courts. But, because, as Mumia himself has well documented, and history has proven, the American judicial system is not just; we would be foolish to rely on these appeals alone to provide justice. That is why groups like the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and many other organizations exist. Justice requires a mass movement. Justice must be won in the streets. Justice must be taken by the power of numbers.
A new national Task Force to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal has been formed. This group represents a new unity in the movement. Organizations and individuals who have played an important part in the struggle to free Mumia over the last years have come together to work on the last stages of his case. They have called for East and West Coast Mobilizations to Free Mumia on Saturday, April 23, 2005. This will be an opportunity to organize on Mumia’s behalf and win new supporters for his freedom.
Remember, if the government can succeed in killing Mumia, not one of us is safe from false charges and conviction!
Mumia Abu-Jamal is the canary in the mine shaft. In the current assault on civil liberties, executing a clearly innocent political prisoner would be a body blow against all those who work for social justice.