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A Saga of Shame: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

By Equal Justice U.S.A.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is an African American Journalist and advocate for racial and economic justice. He is currently on death row in Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death despite evidence that seriously questions his guilt and points to his innocence. Over the last decade, appellate courts have refused to recognize the racial and political biases that violated Abu-Jamal's human and constitutional rights and led to his conviction.

Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence. What transpired the night of the shooting still remains unclear. According to eyewitnesses at the trial, Abu-Jamal was driving a cab when he came upon a Philadelphia police officer beating his brother who had been stopped for making a wrong turn onto a one-way street. Also according to eyewitnesses, someone entered the scene, fired on the officer and then fled. It is clear that Abu-Jamal was at the scene and took a bullet in the abdomen that left him bleeding on the curb when the police backup arrived. It remains unclear who fired the shots that killed the police officer.

Witnesses maintain that Abu-Jamal was beaten at the scene. One witness testified that forty-five minutes elapsed before he was taken to the hospital where Abu-Jamal maintains he was beaten again. It took two hours of surgery to remove the bullet that had perforated his Liver and lodged in his back.

All of Abu-Jamal's direct appeals have been exhausted. He is currently one of over 100 people on death row in Pennsylvania, being held at Huntingdon State Prison. In late October 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court denied his petition for a rehearing. A death warrant can be signed at any time. Like all death row inmates in Pennsylvania, he is denied contact visits. Because he has refused to cut his dreadlocks, a violation of his religious beliefs, he is under disciplinary action and lives in conditions more draconian than any other death row prisoner. He is denied family phone calls and access to television and radio. Books are deemed contraband and routinely denied, and his mail is read and of then censored by prison authorities.

Throughout his trial, the prosecution attempted to raise Abu-Jamal's political history, specifically his membership as a teenager in the Black Panther Party (BPP). The court upheld the defense's objections until the last phase of the trial - the sentencing phase. During this phase, Abu-Jamal - exercising his constitutional right to address the jury - was interrupted by the prosecuting attorney who proceeded to cross-examine him on his membership in the BPP and political views in that period. Using as evidence a 1970 Philadelphia Inquirer article which quoted Abu-Jamal (then sixteen-year old lieutenant of information for the Philadelphia branch of the BPP), the prosecution implied strongly that Abu-Jamal had been waiting twelve years for an opportunity to "kill a cop." To the nearly all-white jury, the admission of this evidence was especially damaging to Abu-Jamal.

Though the defense objected to the interruption and this line of questioning, the court overruled and exercised no restraint. Such proceedings violated not only Abu-Jamal's right to address the jury but also his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and association. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not agree, however, concluding that allowing Abu-Jamal's political views to influence the jury's sentence was not the same as punishing him for those views.

Such political bias is not a new phenomenon in the realm of criminal justice. Documents from the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that have been made public reveal that the Bureau was not only involved in harassment and surveillance of political activists, but also in the falsification and suppression of evidence that led to many convictions.

One important example is the case of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a former leader in the NYC branch of the BPP. In 1971, Bin Wahad was convicted of the attempted murder of two NYC police officers and sentenced to 25 years to life. Bin Wahad's attorney filed a federal civil rights action against the FBI and the New York Police Department in 1975. As a result of this action, 300,000 pages of COINTELPRO documentation were released, detailing an extensive campaign to destroy the BPP and other Black liberation organizations. The documents revealed that information which clearly pointed to Bin Wahad's innocence had been deliberately suppressed. Faced with reopening a politically embarrassing case, the New York State court overturned the conviction and Bin Wahad was freed on March 22, 1990.

Abu-Jamal's is not an isolated case. It needs to be understood within the broader context of injustices within the U.S. legal system.

As Quixote Center's A Saga of Shame - Racial Discrimination and the Death Penalty point out, nearly 50% of all people on death row are non-white. Black males alone make up 43% of U.S. death row inmates although they represent only 6% of the U.S. population at large. Of the 142 people executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, no execution resulted from a case involving a black victim and a white defendant.

Prison demographics are similar to those of death row. Fifty percent of the U.S. prison population, which has doubled in the last decade, is non-white. The majority were unemployed or underemployed when they entered the system. Not surprisingly, most sentences are for economic crimes such as larceny and burglary.

Put in a global context, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. An African American male is four times as likely to go to jail as his counterpart in South Africa, making the U.S. the leading incarcerator (per capita) of people of African descent in the world.

Of Pennsylvania's death row prisoners, well over half come from Philadelphia. 90% of the Philadelphia inmates are African American. Most are poor. Court appointed attorneys must go to federal court to be compensated because of the city's dire economic situation. Despite such constraints and evidence of racial discrimination, the district attorney's office continues to pursue capital cases with zeal.

The Philadelphia Police Department has earned a national reputation for its brutality, especially against the African American community. During the days of COINTELPRO, the department - headed by Frank Rizzo - had served as the FBI's "cooperating local police agency." In August 1970, Rizzo personally led a night raid on the local BPP headquarters where a SWAT team dragged the dozen or so people present (including Abu-Jamal) into the street. They were strip searched at gunpoint and kept naked on the sidewalk until they were arrested. All were soon released because no meaningful charges were ever filed.

Not surprisingly, both as police chief and mayor, Rizzo was frequently charged with brutality and racism in his words and actions.

Clearly, justice is not being served in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His case is riddled with examples of racial and political bias as well as violations of due process. The death sentence that he has received is, in itself, an injustice. Though Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1962, current Governor Robert Casey has signed 10 death warrants since taking office in 1986. You can help stop this murder before it resumes. This advocate for racial and economic justice now needs advocates for his life.

Write to Governor Robert Casey and call on him to do whatever is in his power to prevent Abu-Jamal's execution and to foster his release or retrial. Insist that the Governor stop signing death warrants.

Governor Robert Casey
Main Capitol Building, Room 225
Harrisburg, PA 17120

Send a copy of your letter to Equal Justice U.S.A.,your local newspaper and to Mumia Abu-Jamal at:

AM #8335, Drawer R
Huntingdon, PA 16652.

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