In February this year new evidence came to light in the case of US death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. Photographs published by a freelance photographer contradicted evidence used in Abu Jamal’s original trial for killing a police officer. His supporters are now calling for a retrial.
Mumia Abu Jamal has been in prison since 1981. The journalist, former member of the Black Panther Party and civil rights activist was arrested after intervening in a confrontation between his brother and some Philadelphia police officers. Abu Jamal was shot but so was police officer Daniel Faulkner. Accused of the murder of Faulkner, Abu Jamal’s trial was a travesty of justice. He had no choice over his lawyer, many of the jury expressed racist views and, most damning of all, the judge called for his conviction on the basis of his former membership of the Black Panthers and their belief in violent armed struggle. Abu Jamal was a prominent local critic of the Philadelphia police.
In 2008 the Appeals Court challenged the death penalty and asked that the case be looked at in light of new evidence. This appeal failed in the Supreme Court which also refused any further appeal.
Unfortunately elements within the death penalty abolition movement want to stop supporting and promoting Abu Jamal’s case. Representatives of the American Coalition Against the Death Penalty circulated a secret memo saying that support for Abu Jamal was, “dangerously counter-productive to the abolition movement in the US”and would alienate organisations like the Fraternal Order of Police. This is a group claiming 325,000 police officers who have a policy of refusing to work with any organisations advocating the innocence of Abu Jamal. They also call for the death penalty to be carried out in almost all cases where a police officer is killed.
Instigators of this shift in policy walked out of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva, Switzerland on 4 March when Abu Jamal spoke to the conference from prison by a telephone link to his lawyer Robert Bryan.
Many other organisations reacted furiously to the undemocratic and reactionary aims of the “oppose Abu Jamal” memo and have countered with their own petition (http://mumialegal.org/ node/93) and pledges of their continued support. They see this blatant conservatism as an attempt to depoliticise the idea of death penalty abolition.
Unions, community organisations and radical legal groups have all continued to campaign for Abu Jamal’s release and to end to the undeniably racist (as well as inhumane) death penalty imposed on many black and Latino prisoners in the US. 42% of death row inmates are black and 80% of the victims in death penalty cases are white. Yet in the US black people make up almost half of all murder victims.
Amnesty International has calculated that since 1976 20% of black inmates executed have been tried by all-white juries. And 90% of defendants charged with crimes that carry the death penalty cannot afford legal representation and thus get overworked and inexperienced lawyers.
Mumia Abu Jamal is the most high profile death row prisoner in the US, a victory for him would be a significant step forward for death penalty abolition, we must continue to call for his freedom and an end to this barbaric system.