Mumia Abu-Jamal stuck in legal limbo

"I am still on death row"

By: Liliana Segura

On December 18, 2001, a U.S. district judge in Philadelphia threw out the death sentence of journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. For the abolitionists and activists around the world to whom Mumia is a hero, it should have been a day to celebrate. But the partial victory was bittersweet.

Though the judge based his ruling on the contention that jurors in Mumia’s case did not receive adequate instructions on how to weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances in reaching a verdict, the overwhelming flaws of Mumia’s trial should have been enough to win him a new trial--if not his freedom. By then, he had been in jail for two decades--earlier in the month, Mumia supporters had marched and rallied in downtown Philadelphia to mark the 20th anniversary of Mumia’s arrest.

Now, despite new evidence submitted by Mumia’s attorneys, but ignored by the judge--including a confession by a man named Arnold Beverly--Mumia was still not free.

Mumia was arrested and railroaded for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner on December 9, 1981. The story of his arrest and farcical trial have become activist lore by now. The trial was presided over by the notoriously racist Albert Sabo, a death penalty fanatic who, in addition to boasting to colleagues that he was "going to help them fry the ni--er," denied Mumia the right to represent himself and banned him from the courtroom for much of the trial. Witness testimonies were coerced by police, and the police reports themselves changed inexplicably; while an initial report asserted the "The Negro male made no statements" the night of his arrest, two months later, police produced a story claiming that Mumia had confessed to the murder while at the hospital, where he was being treated for gunshot wounds.

The two decades that have passed since Mumia’s arrest have produced a massive worldwide mobilization on his behalf. High-profile activists and celebrities like Ossie Davis and Susan Sarandon have spoken in support of Mumia, and he was even made an honorary citizen of Paris a few years ago. However, in the past couple of years, his case has suffered setbacks, due in part to a falling out with his former lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, as well as an aggressive counterattack on the right to undermine Mumia’s credibility. Furthermore, disagreements within the left have perpetuated a sense of skepticism and uncertainty over what is largely misinformation casting doubts on Mumia’s innocence (Filmmaker Michael Moore did Mumia and the movement a disservice by flippantly stating that Mumia "probably killed that guy").

Worst of all, Mumia’s continued appeals for a new trial have been denied repeatedly. Most recently, on May 17, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Mumia’s latest appeal, which cited Judge Sabo’s racism, as well as the glaring impropriety of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice--and former prosecutor--Ronald Castille’s participation on a panel that denied Mumia an earlier appeal. Castille previously worked as a Philadelphia district attorney and actively fought to uphold Mumia’s conviction during the late 1980s.

Consequently, two and a half years after his death sentence was tossed, Mumia continues to languish in prison limbo, his case stranded in a clogged, inefficient and corrupt system. Though he is no longer slated to die, he told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now in a recent interview, "I am still on death row in every sense of the word."

The fight for Mumia continues. On a beautiful spring day on April 24, 800 of Mumia’s supporters converged in Philadelphia to commemorate his 50th birthday, as well as the publication of his new book, We Want Freedom, about his years with the Black Panthers.

Suzanne Ross, co-chair of the Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition NYC described the day, "in a spirit of militance, celebration, and unity, Mumia supporters rallied at Malcolm X Park, where several speakers addressed the crowd surrounded by balloons, signs, and banners...Just before the group set off on its march, everyone joined in singing Stevie Wonder’s version of "Happy Birthday." The love for Mumia and the solidarity with his struggle were palpable."

It is time for the anti-death penalty movement to grab hold of this momentum and revive the fight for Mumia’s freedom. His case still represents the racism and political repression we see in death penalty cases every day, and his courage and strength in continuing to speak from behind prison walls are an inspiration. On the move!