WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – Faced with the embarrassing prospect of his legal team unraveling the very basis of his murder conviction 29 years ago, Philadelphia prosecutors announced on Dec. 7 that they will no longer seek the death penalty for imprisoned journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams told reporters his office opted for a life sentence rather than face more lengthy appeals. This after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with a lower court which set aside Mr. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence finding jurors were improperly instructed in a way that encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence, ordered the court to re-examine the decision. Prosecutors had to determine whether Mr. Abu-Jamal would get a new sentencing hearing in court before a new jury.
“Every reviewing court has found the trial fair and the guilty verdict sound,” Mr. Williams said at a press conference. “. . . Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal to die in prison.”
With broad support from the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund, and countless other national and international supporters however, Mr. Abu-Jamal, who was president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists at the time of his arrest 30 years ago, has argued for decades that racism by the prosecutors and the original trial judge led to his conviction in the death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
In a 2001 report for example, Amnesty International noted that Mr. Abu-Jamal’s original trial did not meet the minimal standards of international law. His supporters have long insisted that his guilty verdict must be considered “more than flawed. It is unacceptable,” the International Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal said in a statement Dec. 7. “He has been denied the right to a new trial based on racial bias in jury selection, has faced years of prosecutorial and police misconduct and judicial bias.”
His supporters insist that justice for Mr. Abu-Jamal “will not be served by life imprisonment, but by his release from prison.”
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu agrees. “Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row, justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life–yet another form of death sentence,” Bishop Tutu said in a video statement.
“Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia should be released. I therefore join the call and ask others to follow, asking District Attorney Seth Williams to rise to the challenge of reconciliation, human rights and justice. Drop this case now and allow Mumia Abu-Jamal to be released immediately, with full time served,” Bishop Tutu continued. After the court rulings mandating a new sentencing hearing, Mr. Williams initially promised to consult with Archbishop Tutu, according to Dr. Suzanne Ross, an organizer with the International Friends and Family.
“We expected that they were going to drop the fight for execution because they were losing,” Dr. Ross told The Final Call. “They lost legally, and in order for them to try to appeal it, they would have had to have had a new trial on the question of the sentence only. But once you have a hearing on the sentence, other issues come up. This case is so rotten with criminality on the part of the state–all the bodies, the police, the prosecution, the judiciary, all of them–that if there was a hearing again in 2011 on the death sentence, they had a lot to lose.
“First of all the likelihood of Mumia being executed is very low, because the whole ambience against the death penalty is much stronger, especially after Troy Davis. They would have had to risk a lot,” Dr. Ross continued. “It’s not out of the kindness of their heart that they dropped the attempt to execute Mumia.”
While Mr. Abu-Jamal will not have an opportunity to argue for the consideration, the mounting evidence of his innocence and wrongful conviction in court, his legal team is working on a new strategy to win his freedom, according to Prof. Judy Ritter, of Widener University Law School. She successfully argued Mr. Abu-Jamal’s appeals before the Third Circuit Court.
“There are lots of unfairnesses in the case, in the guilt phase of the trial, and I know that his lawyers and his supporters have been raising these issues for a long time, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s going to be the end of those claims,” Prof. Ritter told The Final Call.
“I don’t think the wind will be taken out of the sails of that (free Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row) movement, I really don’t. I think that for those people who believe that the conviction was based on an unjust trial, an unfair trial, and evidence that was not fairly gathered or admitted, I think that they remain very concerned about his serving the rest of his life in prison.
“Better that he not be facing the death penalty, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to make people stop caring about the case,” Prof. Ritter continued.
Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case “is like thousands of other cases in Philadelphia in which the prosecutor, the judge, and the police conspired to obtain a conviction,” said the statement from the International Friends and Family.
“One of the most important and least known facts of this case is the existence of a fourth person at the crime scene, Kenneth Freeman. Within hours of the shooting, a driver’s license application found in Officer Faulkner’s shirt pocket led the police to Freeman, who was identified as the shooter in a line-up. Yet Freeman’s presence at the scene was concealed, first by Inspector Alfonso Giordano and later, at trial, by Prosecutor Joe McGill.
“Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice asserted that withholding evidence of innocence by the prosecutor warrants the overturning of a conviction,” the statement said.
“The police investigation that led to Mumia’s conviction was also riddled with corruption and tampering with evidence. The recently discovered Polokoff photographs that were taken at the crime scene reveal that officer James Forbes, who testified in court that he had properly handled the guns allegedly retrieved at the crime scene, appears holding the guns with his bare hands. The photos also discredit cabdriver Robert Chobert as a witness; his taxi, contrary to his testimony, is pictured facing away from the fallen officer’s car. This evidence hasn’t been reviewed by any court,” the statement revealed.
“Does Mumia now just become one of the many political prisoners who are spending their lives in prison, who are quasi forgotten?” Dr. Todd Stephen Burroughs, a researcher who is writing a book about the life of Mr. Abu Jamal told The Final Call. “Does he become a hero in general population and lead something?” such as the movement and prisoner political education process that was led by “Soledad Brother,” George Jackson in California prisons in the 1960s?
“We’re in a new situation. We have brand new questions to ask,” Dr. Burroughs continued. “Many people are reminded of George Jackson when they think of Mumia, and they hear Mumia, and they read Mumia. And the dangers of what happened to George Jackson are definitely in play, but also the potential that George Jackson represented are also in play. We’re now in a new situation, a new era.”
Mr. Abu-Jamal’s supporters agree. “The same judge, jury, and DA that were involved in the unlawful sentencing process committed equally egregious violations in the conviction,” their statement said. “This is not an ending, it is a new beginning for the movement supporting Abu-Jamal’s quest for release.”