Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Until a few months ago, few people outside the city of Philadelphia had ever heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist and political activist known to many as 'the voice of the voiceless'. At the age of 15 Jamal helped found the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. As a radio news reporter he uncovered many cases of brutality by the notoriously racist Philadelphia police. And in the late 1970s he was a strong supporter of the radical black MOVE commune--an organisation that was subject to repeated attacks by the Philadelphia police.
In 1981 Mumia Abu-Jamal had a promising future. He was elected president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Philadelphia Magazine named him one of '81 people to watch in 1981'. But within a year that future was shattered--when Jamal was framed for the murder of a Philadelphia cop. Jamal insists he is innocent' arguing with good reason that he is being framed because of his political beliefs. But he was never given a chance to be heard. The presiding judge, Albert Sabo, is a former member of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. He has handed down twice as many death sentences as any other judge in the US. Jamal could not afford a lawyer and wanted to represent himself, but Judge Sabo said no. Instead, he assigned a court appointed public defender, who then said that he did not want to take Jamal's case. Then Sabo barred Jamal from the courtroom during much of the trial.
Later, the public defender admitted that he did not provide Jamal with an adequate defence. He failed to call important eyewitnesses and was given too little money by the court to conduct even a minimal investigation. He never even tested Jamal's gun to show whether it could have shot the bullet which killed the cop. Nevertheless, Jamal was found guilty and sentenced to death in July 1982 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--which has the highest percentage of blacks on death row of any state in the US.
Finally, with the execution date looming, the courts granted Jamal a hearing to decide whether to give him a new trial. Once again, Judge Sabo was to make this life and death decision about Jamal. Sabo hasn't changed much in the last 13 years. He has been openly contemptuous of Jamal throughout the new hearing. He has sustained virtually every prosecution objection while overruling nearly every defence objection. 'Objection is overruled, whatever it was,' Sabo grumbled at one point in the hearing.
But as Mumia Abu-Jamal's execution date drew nearer, the blatant miscarriage of justice surrounding his case began to draw attention worldwide. Demonstrations in cities all over the United States started small but grew in size by early August. Mainstream newspapers like the New York Times suggested that Jamal did not receive a fair trial. Demonstrations in Berlin, Rome, Paris, London and elsewhere protested against the death penalty and demanded that Mumia be given a new trial.
Even Judge Sabo was not immune to the mounting pressure. He granted Jamal an indefinite stay of execution on 7 August, just one week before he was scheduled to be killed by lethal injection. The stay will last until Jamal has completed the appeal process, which may take years. Leonard Weinglass, a member of Jamal's legal team, declared that Sabo was 'compelled to yield' to the pressure of 'tens of thousands of people around the world who supported Mumia'. All those who built support for Jamal have scored a great victory.
Mumia Abu-Jamal's case has only served to highlight the injustice faced by the 3,000 other death row inmates across the United States. Clinton recently announced that he plans to sign into law a bill that will limit death row prisoners to a single habeas corpus appeal, which must take place within six months of conviction. After six months, even if new evidence proves an inmate to be innocent, the execution will still take place. In this political atmosphere, it is not surprising that in the US today between 75 and 80 percent of the public supports the death penalty--a far higher margin than two decades ago. Even among blacks the mood has changed--in 1970 blacks opposed the death penalty by three to one. Now polls show blacks favouring capital punishment by two to one.
But a recent nationwide poll also found that 58 percent of people in the US are disturbed that the death penalty might result in the execution of someone who is innocent. Most people, then, would oppose the death penalty if they knew that many of those who languish on death row, like Abu-Jamal are innocent.
Take for example Brian Roberson, whose case was reported in the April issue of Socialist Review. He has spent nine years on death row and is scheduled to die in November in Texas for a murder he did not commit--or even witness. Or take the case of Robert Murray, a Missouri man who was convicted of murdering two taxi drivers in 1985. His brother came forward and admitted that he had committed the murders, but Murray had already exhausted his court appeals. He was executed by lethal injection on 26 July. Or take Walter McMillian, a black Alabama man accused of killing a young white woman. Though a dozen witnesses said he was elsewhere at the time of the crime' he was placed on death row before the trial even began. His trial lasted a day and a half, after which he was convicted and sentenced to death. He has since been proven innocent.
The use of the death penalty has virtually nothing to do with the nature or severity of the crime--but everything to do with race and class. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the population in the US, but more than 40 percent of those on death row. And Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Centre for Human Rights, summed up how the system of capital punishment relates to social class in the United States. He said, 'The death penalty is for poor people.' Statistics bear this out. In the entire history of the US, not a single wealthy person has ever ended up on death row.
Moreover, the death penalty does nothing to lower the incidence of violent crimes or homicides. As a matter of fact, the evidence shows the opposite relationship. In the US the homicide rate is the highest in those states where executions are most frequent.
The United States is the only advanced industrial society in the world which continues to routinely execute its people, now that South Africa has abolished its death penalty. The campaign to save Mumia Abu-Jamal, has shown how it can be stopped.