Revolution #253, December 18, 2011

State Gives Up Attempt to Legally Execute Mumia Abu-Jamal

December 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the night that Philadelphia police shot, beat, and arrested the revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was accused of shooting a police officer and was swiftly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a flagrantly unjust trial. He has now been sitting in solitary confinement on death row for 29 years. But two days before this anniversary, Philadelphia DA Seth Williams announced that he was finally dropping the 30-year campaign to legally execute Mumia.

The DA's decision comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear any more appeals from the State of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has been trying for a decade to overturn a 2001 decision by a federal district court that Mumia's death sentence was unconstitutional because of misleading instructions to the jury by his trial judge.

While this means that Mumia will soon be transferred to general population in the state prison system to serve life without parole, the massive injustice of his conviction and incarceration remains. To millions around the globe, even one more day in prison for Mumia is an intolerable injustice. The political battle must continue to be waged to free Mumia from his unjust imprisonment. While the threat of a legal execution has now been lifted, it is important to be vigilant and keep up the fight to protect him and ensure that his voice continues to be heard. The authorities could try to make the situation worse for him behind bars, and even the threat of an extra-legal execution staged behind prison walls remains. The urgency of this was underscored by a thinly veiled threat from the wife of the slain police officer, reported in the New York Times and other major media, that, "I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind—the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons." This bloodthirsty threat was delivered in the language of the armed enforcers of this system, who view the 2.3 million people warehoused in America's jailhouses and prisons—many victims of "the New Jim Crow"—as sub-humans unworthy of common decency and respect.

The Framing of Mumia

On December 9, 1981, Mumia was driving a cab on a downtown Philadelphia street. He saw a cop viciously beating his brother with a metal flashlight. Mumia rushed to the scene. He was shot in the chest by the cop, and was found sitting on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood. The cop lay nearby, dying from a bullet wound. Arriving police attacked Mumia, who was well known to them as a revolutionary journalist and a former Black Panther, and arrested him for murder of the cop.

Mumia was carrying a gun for self-protection as a late night cab driver. But the bullet taken from the slain officer was never matched to Mumia's gun. His gun was never tested to see if it had been fired, nor were his hands tested to show if he had recently fired a gun. In fact, the medical examiner's report listed the fatal bullet as a different caliber than Mumia's gun, but the jury never saw this report. Police claimed that Mumia stood over the fallen officer, firing repeatedly at him but hitting him only once in the head. Yet photographs that surfaced years later showed no marks on the sidewalk from the bullets that allegedly missed the officer.

In his 1982 trial Mumia was denied the right to serve as his own attorney and was barred from the courtroom for half his trial. Racial bias in jury selection resulted in an overwhelmingly white jury. And a court reporter overheard the trial judge saying that he was going to help the cops "fry the n****r."

Witnesses who told of seeing a different person commit the shooting and flee the scene were ignored and never heard by the jury. The prosecution claimed that Mumia had confessed—a confession that cops only "remembered" months after the incident. Yet the jury only heard the phony confession story and never saw the official police report that stated Mumia had made no statement. Not surprisingly under these circumstances, Mumia was convicted and sentenced to death.

The Movement to Free Mumia

Documents obtained for Mumia's appeal process in 1995 showed that he had been under government surveillance since he was 14 years old. A protest leader in high school, he soon became the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. In following years he attended college and became a respected radio journalist in Philadelphia.

Undeterred by his incarceration and never bending to the pressure of the state to back off his revolutionary politics, Mumia actually developed his career as a journalist behind bars, writing a weekly syndicated column and authoring a half-dozen books. A surging mass movement in his support quickly developed and prevented his execution in 1995, when a death warrant had been signed. Even so, Mumia continued to sit alone 22 hours a day in a cell the size of a bathroom, allowed to see his family and lawyers only through a plexiglass window. His refusal to capitulate in the face of all this exemplifies the courage, the dedication, and the revolutionary potential of the millions held in this country's prisons, and this has been an inspiration for broad numbers of people.

The struggle to free Mumia, which has been waged worldwide, brought forward a whole generation of students who were radicalized. This movement played an important role in changing many people's minds not just around the death penalty, but in looking at the injustices of the system as a whole. Today's growing movement against police brutality and the mass incarceration of people of color owes much to the continuing example and writing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

All this, along with other recent developments, may have factored into the state's decision not to pursue Mumia's death sentence. When Troy Davis, who had been on death row in Georgia for 22 years, was executed in September this year, there were protests around the country and deep outrage among many people who saw the execution as totally illegitimate. This year has also seen the courageous struggle of prisoners in California and elsewhere against the torture in isolation prisons, and the general mood of opposition against the powers-that-be that is being expressed through the Occupy movement.

"The Struggle Continues"

Reached by phone by Philadelphia radio station WURD, Mumia's first response was, "I'm strong. I'm well. I feel surrounded by a sea of love. And the struggle continues." When asked what it was like to live on death row under constant threat of death, Mumia described his conditions, but then pointedly remarked that Oscar Grant and Sean Bell also lived on death row—only they didn't know it.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond