by Leonard I. Weinglass edited by Kaissa Adé
Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on death row in Pennsylvania since 1982. The new Governor of Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Ridge, took office on January 17. Ridge won the state house on a pro-death penalty platform, pledging to immediately start signing death warrants. Foremost among the 170 men and women on Pennsylvania's death row is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was framed in 1982 on charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer. At the time of his arrest, Mumia was a prominent journalist , and was especially known for his hard hitting reporting on issues such as police brutality-the Philadelphia Police Department is legendary for its racism and brutality-often visiting the city jail to get the unofficial side of the story. He won a major Corporation for Public Broadcasting award for a series while at WHYY. Mumia continues to write from death row and has had articles published in the Yale Law Journal, The Nation, and dozens of smaller publications. The following article is a modified version of a paper written in January by Mumia Abu-Jamal's current lawyer. In one of the most extraordinary trials in recent history, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a leading African American broadcast journalist in Philadelphia, aptly dubbed "the voice of the voiceless," was put on trial in June of 1982 and sentenced to death for the murder of a white police officer. The case was tried before Judge Albert Sabo, notorious for having put more people on death row than any other sitting judge in the US. No less distinguished was the tough and experienced prosecutor, who had previously convicted a demonstrably innocent man using what the district attorney later declared to be fabricated evidence. The only inexperienced actor in the proceedings was Mumia's court-appointed attorney, who was thrust into the role of defense counsel midway through the jury selection. He was allocated $150 to investigate the case, which involved more than 125 witnesses. By trial time, the defense had succeeded in locating just two eyewitnesses, although aware that there were many more. On the third day of jury selection, the court barred Mumia from further questioning prospective jurors, apparently, according to court observers, because his professional training in broadcast journalism was creating too favorable an impression. The judge barred Mumia on the grounds that he "intimidated the jury," and appointed an attorney to represent Mumia, denying him the right to defend himself. Under pressure from the court to expedite the selection process, which at one point included threatening Mumia's lawyer with contempt, a jury was selected that included a man whose best friend was a former Philadelphia police officer who was shot while on duty, and an alternate juror whose husband was a Philadelphia police officer. The defense counsel inexplicably failed to object or even make note of the prosecution's racist use of 11 out of 15 preemptory challenges to remove African American jurors. He even consented to the judge's summary dismissal of an African American juror who had already been selected, replacing her with an older white male who openly stated that he didn't think he "could be fair to both sides." It was undisputed that the police officer had been shot on a public street at 4 A.M. on December 9, 1981, after having stopped Mumia's brother. It was also undisputed that Mumia arrived at the scene moments later, after the officer had pummeled his brother with his flashlight. Mumia was shot through the lung, presumably by the same officer, since the bullet matched that of the officer's gun. The officer was also shot, in the back and in the face, and later died. Police who came to the scene found Mumia, critically wounded, lying next to the officer, and charged him with murder. The prosecution claimed that Mumia first shot the officer, wounding him slightly. When the officer returned fire and hit Mumia, Mumia stood over the officer, who had since fallen to the sidewalk, and shot him in the face. None of the prosecution's witnesses, however, saw it that way. None even saw Mumia get shot. The prosecution's theory was constructed out of the simple fact that the police found both Mumia and the officer lying within several feet of each other on the sidewalk and both wounded from gunshots. No attempt was made to investigate the several reports that someone else had shot the officer and fled. While Mumia's gun was found at the scene-he had a permit to carry a weapon since he had been robbed as a cabdriver-the prosecution's ballistics expert claimed he couldn't match the bullet recovered from the officer's body to Mumia's gun due to the bullet's fragmentation. The prosecution relied mainly on the testimony of four witnesses who claimed to be at or near the scene of the shootings. The court refused to have these witnesses attempt to identify Mumia in a lineup, instead allowing them to identify him as he sat at the counsel table. The most damaging witness was a female prostitute who testified that she saw Mumia shoot the officer by running up behind him, shooting him once, and then firing again after he fell to the sidewalk. Previously, she had given a number of differing accounts, most of them contradicted by the other witnesses. Another prostitute who was working the same area that night testified she was offered the same deal as the prosecution's witness: immunity from arrest in return for her testimony against Mumia. Of the three remaining witnesses, two said they saw Mumia run to the scene where the police officer was beating Mumia's brother. Both testified that gunfire erupted shortly after Mumia arrived, but neither one saw Mumia shoot the officer. The third witness, a cabdriver who pulled up behind the police car, was closest to the shooting. He told police that the shooter-which he described as a 6'2" 225-pound man-fled the scene, beating a hasty retreat before the police arrived. Mumia is 6'1" and weighs a scant 170 pounds. At the trial, the cabdriver changed his story, stating that the shooter did not run away, but took a few steps and then sat down on the curb and waited for police to arrive. Other witnesses, whom the court-appointed attorney couldn't produce during the trial, also reported seeing a man flee the scene after the shooting. In all, four witnesses situated in four separate locations on the street reported seeing the shooter flee, and all had him going in precisely the same direction. Nonetheless, no police investigation was made to locate or identify the fleeing suspect. To add weight to its shaky thesis, the prosecutor produced a security guard who was assigned to the hospital where Mumia was taken for treatment. She testified that Mumia, an experienced journalist who had covered scores of court cases, openly confessed to everyone within earshot that he had shot the policeman, adding for emphasis, "I hope the motherfucker dies." However, the officer who took Mumia into custody and stayed with him specifically told investigators that Mumia remained silent the entire time. His testimony, however, like that of the missing eyewitnesses, was not produced at trial. The honest officer who reported these events was "on vacation" and not available when called by the defense. A defense request to continue the case a few days until his return was denied. Unable to produce the witnesses it needed to rebut the prosecution's case, the defense relied instead on the testimony of 16 character witnesses who testified that Mumia could not possibly have committed such a crime since he was known both professionally and socially as a gentle and decent man. The jury began deliberations at noon on the Friday of July 4th weekend. By then they had been sequestered in a downtown hotel and away from their families for almost three weeks. During the day's deliberation, they requested that they be re-instructed on the law of third degree murder and manslaughter. Evidently, at least some jurors were troubled by the fact that even if they accepted the prosecution's theory of the case, the element of premeditation was lacking since the officer was not fatally shot until after Mumia himself was shot, and then, presumably, as the result of an unpremeditated reaction. With the jury thus conflicted on the lesser charges of manslaughter and third degree murder, no one anticipated this same jury would vote the death penalty, as they did before the day was over-after they found Mumia guilty of first degree murder. The key to understanding why they did lies in what transpired during the penalty phase of the trial, during which both sides presented evidence bearing on the issue of whether or not a sentence of life without parole should be imposed or death. In violation of Mumia's constitutional rights, the prosecution presented evidence of Mumia's background as a member of the Black Panther Party some 12 years earlier and his political beliefs as reported in a newspaper interview when he was 16 years old. Beyond doubt, Mumia is on death row because of those political beliefs and associations. The ensuing portion of the transcript reads like a grotesque chapter out of the Inquisition. It began when Mumia rose at the counsel table to read a statement to the jury, exercising the right of allocution that all convicted persons have prior to being sentenced. He was not sworn as a witness and did not take the stand. In his statement he claimed his innocence and eloquently charged that the proceedings had been unfair. Stunned by Mumia's accusations against his handling of the case, the judge ruled that Mumia had made himself a witness and could be cross examined in front of the jury. The prosecutor eagerly rose to the occasion. First, Mumia was asked why he didn't stand for the judge when he entered the courtroom. That irrelevant and prejudicial inquiry was followed in rapid succession by a series of questions about why Mumia didn't accept the court's rulings without rancor, shouted at an appellate judge when his right to control his own case was taken away and engaged in a hostile exchange with the court during pretrial hearings. As if to answer these questions, the prosecutor read from a 12-year-old newspaper article about the Black Panther Party which contained an interview of Mumia's when he was 16 years old. With his voice now rising, the prosecutor demanded to know if Mumia had ever said that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Mumia calmly responded that the quote did not originate with him but was a well-known dictum of Mao Tse-tung of the People's Republic of China. Continuing without letup, the prosecutor asked if Mumia could recall in the same interview having said, "all power to the people." Again Mumia acknowledged the quote but insisted on the right to read extensively from the news article in order to place his comments in context. The article, which had previously been kept out of evidence by the court as being too prejudicial, included references to the Black Panther Party, the breakfast program and the party's on-going dispute with the Philadelphia Police Department. Having thus portrayed Mumia as a radical black militant to this nearly all-white jury, the prosecutor argued in summation that it was Mumia's political history and disrespect of the system that caused him to kill the policeman. In returning a verdict of death, the jury obviously was swayed by this bankrupt argument. Following a series of unsuccessful appeals culminating in a refusal by the US Supreme Court to hear the appeal, Mumia is seeking a new trial 12 years after his wrongful conviction. For the first time, his case is being investigated. While a death warrant has not yet been signed by the governor, there is imminent danger that in early 1995 an execution date will be set since the newly elected Republican governor ran on a platform which included expediting executions. Since Mumia is near the top of the list of those awaiting the signing of a death warrant, we are in a race against time to save this innocent and eloquent "voice of the voiceless." Send letters of protest to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, Main Capitol Building, Room 225, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Contact the Thistle for other resources and information.