...With Liberty and Justice for Who? The Trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal

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
	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
	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
	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

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.  

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.2 - contents]