Live From Death Row

The following are two essays from Life From Death Row ($20, Addison-Wesley, 1995) by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently on Pennsylvania Death Row.

Preface from Life From Death Row 

Don't tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live
there. In south-central Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon County a
one-hundred-year-old prison stands, its Gothic towers projecting an
air of foreboding, evoking a gloomy mood of the Dark Ages. I and some
seventy-eight other men spend about twenty-two hours a day in six- by
ten-foot cells. The additional two hours may be spent outdoors, in a
chain-link fenced box, ringed by concertina razor wire, under the gaze
of gun turrets.
	Welcome to Pennsylvania's death row.
	I'm a bit stunned. Several years ago the Pennsylvania Supreme
Court affirmed my conviction and sentence of death, by a vote of four
justices (three did not participate). As a black journalist who was a
Black Panther way back in my yon teens, I’ve often studied
America’s long history of legal lynchings of Africans. I remember a
front page of the Black Panther newspaper, bearing the quote "A black
man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect," attributed to
U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Roger Taney, of the infamous Dred
Scott case, * where America’s highest court held that neither
Africans or their “free” descendants are entitled to the rights
of the Constitution. Deep, huh? It’s true.
	Perhaps I'm naive, maybe I’m just stupid-but I thought the
law would be followed in my case and the conviction reversed. Really.
	Even in the face of the brutal Philadelphia MOVE massacre of
May 13, 1985, that led to Ramona Africa's frame-up, Eleanor Bumpurs,
Michael Stewart, Clement Lloyd, Allan Blanchard, and countless other
police slaughters of blacks from New York to Miami, with impunity, my
faith remained. Even in the face of this relentless wave of anti-black
state terror, I thought my appeals would be successful. I still
harbored a belief in U.S. law, and the realization that my appeal had
been denied was a shocker. I could understand intellectually that
American courts are reservoirs of racist sentiment and have
historically been hostile to black defendants, but a lifetime of
propaganda about American "justice" is hard to shrug off.
	I need but look across the nation, where, as of December 1994,
blacks constituted some 40 percent of men on death row or across
Pennsylvania, where, as of December 1994, 111 of 184 men on death
row-over 60%—are black, to see the truth, hidden under black robes
and promises of equal rights. Blacks constitute just over 9 percent of
Pennsylvania's population and just under 11 percent of America’s.
	As I said, it's hard to shrug off, but maybe we can do it
together. How? Try out this quote I saw in a 1982 law book, by a
prominent Philadelphia lawyer named David Kairys: "Law is simply
politics by other means." Such a line goes far to explain how courts
really function, whether today, or 138 years ago in the Scott case. It
ain’t about “law”, it’s about “politics” by
“other means.” Now, ain’t that the truth?
	I continue to fight against this unjust sentence and
conviction. Perhaps we can shrug off and shred some of the dangerous
myths laid on our minds like a second skin-such as the "right" to a
fair and impartial jury of our peers; the “right” to represent
oneself; the “right” to a fair trial, even. They're not
rights—they’re privileges of the powerful and rich. For the
powerless and the poor, they are chimera that vanish once one reaches
out to claim them as something real or substantial. Don’t expect
the media networks to tell you, for they can’t, because of the
incestuousness between the media and the government, and big business
which they both serve.
	I can.
	Even if I must do so from the valley of the shadow of death, I
will.  From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jama.

Actin' Like Life’s A Ball Game When I hear politicians bellow about
"getting tough on crime" and barking out “three strikes, you're
out” rhetoric, several images come to mind. I think of how quickly
the tune changes when the politician is on the receiving end of some
of that so-called toughness, after having fallen from grace.
	I am reminded of a powerful state appellate judge who, once
caught in an intricate, bizarre web of criminal conduct, changed his
longstanding opinion regarding the efficacy of the insanity defense,
an option he once ridiculed. It revealed in a flash how illusory and
transitory power and status can be, and how we are all, after all,
	I also think of a young man I met in prison who was one of the
first wave of people imprisoned back in the 1970s under new, tougher
youth certification statutes that allowed teenagers to be sentenced as
adults. The man, whom I'll call Rabbani, was a tall, husky
fifteen-year-old when he was arrested in southeastern Pennsylvania for
armed robbery. The prosecutor moved that he be judicially certified as
an adult, and the Court agreed. Tried as an adult, Rabbani was
convicted of all charges and sentenced to fifteen to thirty years in
prison, for an alleged robbery with a CO2 air pistol.
	His first six or seven years in this man-made hell found him
constantly locked in battles with guards, and he logged more years in
the "hole" than he did in general population status. He grew into
manhood in shackles, and every time I saw him he seemed bigger in size
but more bitter in spirit.
	When we took the time to converse, I was always struck by the
innate brilliance of the young man-a brilliance immersed in the
bitterness, a bitterness so acidic that it seemed capable of
dissolving steel. For almost fifteen years this brilliance had been
caged in steel; for almost two of these years he tried, largely in
vain, to get a judge to reconsider his case, but the one-line,
two-word denials—"appeal denied”—only served to deepen his
profound cynicism.
	For those critical years in the life of a male, from age
fifteen to thirty, which mark the transition from boy to man, Rabbani
was entombed in a juridical, psychic, temporal box branded with the
false promise "corrections." Like tens of thousands of his generation,
his time in hell equipped him with no skills of value to either
himself or his community. He has been “corrected” in precisely
the same way that hundreds of thousands of others have been, that is
to say, warehoused in a vat that sears the very soul.
	He has never held a woman as a mate or lover; he has never
held a newborn in his palm, its heart athump with new life; he hasn't
seen the sun rise, nor the moon glow, in almost fifteen years-for a
robbery, "armed" with a pellet gun, at fifteen years old.
	When I hear easy, catchy, mindless slogans like "three
strikes, you're out," I think of men like Rabbani who had one strike
(if not one foul) and are, for all intents and purposes, already
outside any game worth playing.  

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