Marching for Mumia

By: Ben Davis

Mumia March in Philly Visitors to downtown Philadelphia were greeted by an unexpected sight on April 19: an 800-strong demonstration for death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Activists came from Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other points on the East Coast for the event to protest the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' 2-to-1 ruling denying Mumia a new trial. According to news reports, traffic was backed up in the city center for 45 minutes as the demonstration stopped at each block along the way, showing that business should not proceed as usual while such injustice persists.

From the moment it came into the public spotlight, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has served as a symbol for everything that is wrong with the death penalty. A former Black Panther and Philadelphia journalist, Mumia was arrested in 1981 and charged with the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. His trial was a circus of racism, and since his 1982 conviction, proof of coerced witnesses, bogus evidence and the bias of the judge and prosecutors has only been underlined.

Last year, the appeals court finally agreed to hear evidence about constitutional violations that plagued Mumia's original trial. Specifically, the issues involved a prosecutor's statement to the jury that if Mumia was found guilty, he would have "appeal after appeal," thus encouraging jury members to disregard the presumption of innocence; the judge's instructions to the jury that it had to agree unanimously on mitigating evidence; the prosecutor's maneuvers to strike African-Americans from the jury pool; and the bias indicated by Judge Sabo's shocking comment that he was "going to help 'em fry the nigger."

As important as these issues are, none of them touch on questions of Mumia's actual innocence--including photos discovered last year that were taken at the 1981 crime scene by Pedro Polakoff and contradict the police's account of Faulkner's death. Last year, demonstrations by Mumia supporters outside the Today Show in New York helped get a mention of the new evidence on the air. Yet in a U.S. court, such new evidence doesn't warrant a new trial, only evidence of technical flaws in the original proceedings.

Nevertheless, anyone familiar with death penalty cases will recognize that such issues--systematic discrimination and the denial of basic rights in the rush to judgment--are utterly typical. The Circuit Court's decision to sweep these issues under the rug was not just a slap in the face, but also further evidence of the same longstanding biases.

This was acknowledged by the lone dissenting judge in the decision, Thomas Ambro, who wrote that the issue of excluding Black jurors from the case warranted a new trial, and denying this claim "goes against the grain of our prior actions." If activists needed it, this was further evidence of what Philadelphia journalist and longtime Mumia supporter Linn Washington calls the "Mumia exception," in which legal standards seemingly change to keep Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison.

So where does the case stand? The 3rd Circuit Court decision did invalidate Mumia's death sentence, meaning that if nothing else happens, America's most famous death row prisoner will receive life without parole. At the very least, this means that a man who has been described as the "voice of the voiceless," continuously speaking out for other victims of injustice from his jail cell, will not have to face the threat of having that voice immediately snuffed out.

But for a man who was railroaded and has already spent a quarter century behind bars, the decision cannot be considered justice.

Prosecutors have six months to initiate a new sentencing hearing, during which they could try to press for a fresh death sentence. In this case, Mumia's lawyers would finally have an opportunity to introduce new evidence, reopening the issue of his innocence and exposing the system to more scrutiny, even if the question involved would simply be his sentence.

Because of this, it seems unlikely that prosecutors, who have favored dragging out the case to wear down support, would take this route--though they have certainly proven vindictive enough that it is a possibility. Either way, the new developments stand as further evidence of the fundamental problems with the death penalty and the criminal (in)justice system.