Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
The last political execution in the US took place in 1953, when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were put to death on (still unproved) charges of smuggling 'atomic secrets' to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The next political execution could take place within a matter of months. The former Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal is now one court appeal away from the death chamber, after 16 years of fighting for his life from a prison cell on Pennsylvania's death row. With no previous criminal record, Mumia was framed for a 1981 police murder and sentenced to death, for the simple reason that he was an outspoken and talented radical black journalist who had gained a wide audience for exposing police brutality and racism in the city of Philadelphia.
Mumia Abu Jamal never had a chance to defend himself during the entire duration of his 1982 murder trial. Judge Albert Sabo presided over his trial - a judge who has sentenced 31 men (only two of them white) to death, more than any other sitting judge in the US. Sabo refused to allow Mumia to defend himself. He said his dreadlocks made jurors 'nervous'.
Throughout most of the trial, Mumia was kept in a holding cell, left to learn about his own trial only through reading the newspapers. Mumia was defended by an incompetent lawyer who was later disbarred - and who later submitted an affidavit on behalf of Mumia's defence admitting his own incompetence. The prosecution claimed Mumia had loudly and publicly 'confessed' to the killing when he was arrested, despite the fact that an arresting officer filed a report that same night which stated that 'the Negro male made no statements.' The murdered cop was shown to have been shot by a bullet from a different gun than the one legally owned by Mumia. No matter, he was convicted anyway. All but one black juror were removed by the judge by the end of the trial. Sabo instructed the jury that, if they imposed the death penalty, 'you are not being asked to kill anybody' because the defendant is allowed 'appeal after appeal after appeal'.
Mumia came within ten days of execution in August 1995, when international protests forced the Pennsylvania governor to grant a stay of execution while Mumia appealed for a new trial. Judge Sabo was allowed to hear the appeal, and not surprisingly rejected it. Just a month ago, on 30 October, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court upheld Sabo's decision and refused Mumia's appeal for a new trial. Their unanimous decision found not a single flaw in any aspect of Mumia Abu Jamal's trial and rejected, point by point, every claim made by Mumia's lawyers - the final step in the state of Pennsylvania's political persecution of Mumia Abu Jamal for the last 16 years.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that every single defence witness was 'not credible'. This includes the numerous eyewitnesses who came forward to testify that they had seen two men running from the scene of the murder, but who changed their testimony in 1982 after being threatened by the police. One such witness, Veronica Jones, admitted in 1996 to lying in the 1982 trial after the police threatened to take her children away from her.
Moreover, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that, although during the appeal hearing Judge Sabo ordered one of Mumia's lawyers removed from the courtroom in handcuffs, 'Judge Sabo displayed no such adversarial position towards appellant [Mumia].' Similarly, the court supported Sabo's refusal to admit into evidence for appeal more than 600 pages of FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act which document years of FBI surveillance of Mumia. The court argued that Sabo's was 'a proper evidentiary ruling. Absent any authentication that these files were, indeed, FBI files, there is simply no basis for their admission.'
The court also rejected Mumia's claims that racism is a factor in imposing the death sentence in Philadelphia County, stating, 'Our review of the record reveals, however, that appellant [Mumia] never offered competent proof of such claims.' Yet a 1998 report by the Death Penalty Information Centre shows that blacks make up 84 percent of those on death row from Philadelphia and that black men are almost four times more likely to receive a death sentence than other defendants in Philadelphia's courts.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court cannot even pretend to be impartial to the case of Mumia Abu Jamal. Five of the seven justices are supported by the Fraternal Order of Police. One of them, Ronald Castille, is a former Philadelphia prosecutor - who submitted the earlier court papers opposing Mumia's appeal. Castille is also at the centre of a scandal involving the recent surfacing of a videotape issued by the Philadelphia district attorney's office in the 1980s, which instructs prosecutors in how to exclude blacks from juries. The video informs fellow prosecutors that 'young black women are very bad' for juries, and that 'the blacks from low income areas are less likely to convict. There's a resentment for law enforcement. There's a resentment for authority. And as a result you don't want those people on your jury.' No wonder Castille was awarded the 'Man of the Year' award by the Fraternal Order of Police's Lodge No 6. Nevertheless, he claims to be unbiased in this case.
Mumia is now left with one last route of appeal - the federal court. But in 1996 Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which severely restricts the right to federal appeal. The law requires the federal court to accept the findings of the state's courts as fact. Therefore, all the eyewitnesses who substantiate Mumia's claims that he didn't commit the murder will not be considered - because Sabo said so. Even worse, the law requires prisoners to petition for an appeal within 180 days of conviction. Even if a prisoner uncovers evidence which proves his innocence after 180 days, he can still be executed. This is certainly the case in Mumia's appeal.
But the battle to save Mumia Abu Jamal will not be won in the courtroom. Thousands of Mumia's supporters resp onded to the news of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's rejection by organising protests in cities across the US in November. And plans are already being made to escalate the protests over the next few months. An international movement forced the governor to stay the execution in 1995. We can - and must - save the life of this revolutionary fighter.