- Voice of the Voiceless
A black journalist on death row and a series of unsubstantiated evidence. The temporary reprieve of Mumia Abu Jamal may not last long. As the US authorities wait for the right moment to silence Jamal for ever, Eileen Kinsman examines the evidence for the gross miscarriage of justice
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 68-69.
In 1980 Mumia Abu-Jamal was voted President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. In 1981 Philadelphia Magazine profiled him as one of 81 people to watch in that year. But in December 1981 he was convicted of the murder of a police officer and in July 1982 was sentenced to death.
An Early Day Motion put in the House of Commons in June by Jeremy Corbyn “notes that there is widespread belief that Jamal was framed for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman and that he was sentenced to death for his political views and history as a member of the Black Panther Party”. For 13 years he remained incarcerated on death row in Pennsylvania, continuing to write and speak out on behalf of the oppressed from his prison cell.
In January of this year the election of Republican Tom Ridge as Governor of Pennsylvania, on a pro-death penalty platform, led to the State of Pennsylvania carrying out its first execution in 33 years. On June 1 Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death warrant was signed by Governor Ridge. He was due to be executed on August 17 but received an indefinite stay of execution. However, the death sentence remains and a new execution date could be set at any time.
So why does the State of Pennsylvania feel it so necessary to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal and silence him forever?
Mumia Abu-Jamal was bom Wesley Cook and grew up in a poor black area of Philadelphia in the 1950’s. Whilst still a young teenager he was beaten up by police whilst protesting at a rally. It was a time when the Black Panther Party’s message of self-empowerment was becoming increasingly popular with the dispossessed black population of the United States. The Panthers believed in arming themselves with a knowledge of the law in order to defend the Black community. They saw revolution as the only solution to poverty, racism and state oppression. Although the Panthers are perhaps best known in this country for carrying guns, what is lesser known is their involvement in voter registration schemes, sickle cell anaemia screening, adult literacy programmes and delivering free breakfasts to the community.
In 1968, at the age of 14, Mumia joined the Black Panthers. He started writing for them and by the age of 16 was Communications Director for the Philadelphia Black Panther Chapter. By the early ‘70s the Black Panther Party had been destroyed by state killings, drugs and internal factionalism. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that through COINTELPROs - the FBI’s domestic counter-intelligence programmes, whose stated purpose was “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise” politically dissident citizens of the United States - the FBI waged a covert war against the Panthers. Agents were planted and disinformation circulated, breeding infighting and mistrust.
COINTELPRO was allegedly terminated in 1970 although it has been reported that nothing has changed apart from the abandonment of the acronym, and that certain recent incidents, such as the bombing of US EarthFirst!ers, Judy Bari and Daryl Cherny in 1990, bear the hallmark of COINTELPRO operations.
With the collapse of the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu- Jamal turned to writing, broadcasting and hosting talk shows on several Philadelphia radio stations. He came to be known as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ because he verbalised the struggles of the poor, black and dispossessed and spoke in support of radical movements such as the environmental group MOVE who were shunned by the mainstream media.
MOVE were a communal-living, radical ecology movement founded in the late ‘60s by John Africa. They first came into conflict with the State in animal rights actions and opposition to racist police practices. Throughout the ‘70s they clashed with the authorities and the police response became increasingly violent. In 1978 Mumia Abu-Jamal covered the police attack on the Powelton Village MOVE commune. Nine MOVE members were imprisoned for the alleged killing of a policeman. Ultimately, on May 13 1985, the police bombed a MOVE house killing six adults and five children. As Alice Walker wrote in ‘Living by the Word’: “The question is: Did they deserve the harassment, abuse and finally, the vicious death other people’s intolerance of their lifestyle brought upon them? Every bomb ever made falls on all of us. And the answer is: No.”
Mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, blamed “the new breed of journalism”, of which Mumia was a leading voice, for the death of the police officer at the siege on the Powelton Village MOVE commune. “They believe what you write, what you say. And it’s got to stop. And one day, and I hope it’s in my career, that you’re going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do.”
Because he was unwilling to compromise his radical views Mumia found it difficult to make a living solely from his journalism and so he began to work nights as a cab driver. On December 9 1981, in the early hours of the morning, he was driving his taxi in a rundown area of Philadelphia when he spotted a police officer beating a blackman. Stopping his car he saw that it was his brother, William Cook. William, it transpired, had been stopped for driving the wrong way up a one way street. What happened next is not clear but when further police officers arrived on the scene they found Mumia shot in the stomach and, a few feet away, Police Officer Daniel Faulkner shot in the back and the face. Officer Faulkner died at Jeffersen University Hospital an hour later and Mumia Abu-Jamal was charged with first degree murder.
No evidence as produced and no forensic evidence was presented linking him to the crime. Several witnesses who identified a man of a different build and hairstyle running from the scene were not called to testify.
The Judge presiding over Mumia’s trial in 1982 was Albert Szabo, the notorious “prosecutor in robes”. He is a former under-sheriff, member of the Fraternal Order of Police and has been personally responsible for issuing 31 death sentences - more than any other judge in the US. In a city which is over 40 per cent black there were only 2 black people on the jury. Originally Mumia represented himself but Judge Szabo ruled that he was taking too long over questioning the jury and had him removed from court and locked up. The court-appointed attorney then had to represent him despite declaring that he did not have the experience and had not received instructions from Mumia.
At the trial the prosecution claimed that Mumia confessed to the killing in the hospital emergency room, yet the doctor who attended him did not hear this and police officer Gary Wakshul, who was with him the whole time, reported: “During this time the Negro male made no statements.” Wakshul was unavailable to appear at the trial as he was on holiday. No weapon was produced and no forensic evidence was presented linking him to the crime. Several witnesses who identified a man of a different build and hairstyle running from the scene were not called to testify.
Finally, in the sentencing phase of the trial, where the jury had to choose between a life or death sentence, the prosecutor referred to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s past membership of the Black Panther Party in a line of argument inferring that this predisposed Mumia to be a ‘cop killer’. In 1992 the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a member of the racist Aryan Brotherhood, because his political associations had been used to convict him of first degree murder rather than manslaughter. Despite this ruling and other concerns about aspects of Mumia’s trial he has been incarcerated on death row for 13 years and now faces imminent execution.
Mumia continued to write from death row. The National Public Radio wanted him to do a series of programmes but they withdrew their offer after protests from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). There is a powerful lobby within the States committed to seeing Mumia die.
After publication of his book “Live from Death Row” the FOP had an aeroplane fly over the publisher’s offices with a banner reading “This publishing house pays cop killers”. Mumia was charged with a disciplinary infraction for writing “Live from Death Row” and held in isolation. However, the prison rules clearly state that “an inmate cannot pursue a profession and make money from his criminal activities or pursue writing as a livelihood unless that’s what they were doing before they came to prison”. The authorities refused to recognise Mumia Abu-Jamal as a journalist.
With the money from the publication of his book and from international support Mumia was at last able to afford a legal defence. When Governor Tom Ridge signed Mumia’s death warrant on the June 1, 1995, he did so in the knowledge that Mumia’s legal team, headed by prominent civil liberties attorney Leonard Weinglass, were about to file for a new trial. Judge Szabo, who sentenced Mumia to death in 1982, had the option to hear the Post Conviction Relief Appeal and came out of retirement to do so. On July 26, 1995, Mumia Abu-Jamal and his defence team were back in Judge Szabo’s courtroom in the Pennsylvanian Court of Common Pleas.
On August 7, 1995, Leonard Weinglass managed to attain an indefinite stay of execution in order to present the case for a retrial. The key to Mumia’s defence is that at the original trial “the prosecuting attorney had suppressed eye-witness testimony in favour of his client while at the same time encouraging witnesses to testify against [Mumia] by means of inducements, and suppressing other evidence”. At the appeal hearing, Judge Szabo continuously quashed subpoenas for the defence witnesses and refused the defence to admit evidence. The defence were not allowed to present 700 pages of FBI files on Mumia Abu-Jamal, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and show that Mumia was under constant surveillance. Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a fellow former Black Panther who was recently interviewed in The Guardian, served 19 years for the attempted murder of a policeman before the FBI files were opened to reveal how the District Attorney’s office had manipulated the evidence to get a conviction.
The Appeal Hearing has been recessed until September 11 when both sides will give a summation and Judge Szabo will give his ruling. It is unlikely that he will grant Mumia a retrial but the decision can be appealed to the State Supreme Court and then the Federal Supreme Court. Mumia Abu-Jamal has tremendous support internationally, some of it from unexpected quarters. The German Foreign Minister, the Belgian Foreign Minister and the French President are amongst the members of international governments calling for the death penalty against Jamal to be lifted. In Rome more than 100,000 people signed a petition demanding his release.
Internationally, trade unions, religious organisations, human rights and environmental groups have been mobilising their members to demonstrate their support. The British NUJ recently took the unprecedented step of making Mumia Abu-Jamal an honorary member and, in common with journalist unions around the world, are campaigning to have Mumia’s death sentence commuted. Celebrities who have added their names to the campaign to save Mumia include Noam Chomsky, Naomi Campbell, Norman Mailer, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Sting and Oliver Stone.
As Jesse Jackson commented at Mumia’s appeal hearing: “This is not the first time that people who are activists or who faced extreme punishment have had worldwide support, whether it was Mandela or whether it was Angela Davis. There have been a number of celebrity cases over the years where you had people who were political activists and there was the feeling that there may have been some political motive driving the state to quick conviction, for what could have been unjust. I’m glad that Mandela’s life was spared when he was accused of treason. I’m glad that Angela Davis’ life was spared. I hope that Mumia’s life will be spared as well.”
* Mumia was refused a retrial in an appeal hearing and is back on death row. He has only two further chances to appeal against the death sentence.