Mumia Lives to Fight Another Day

News & Politics

Radical activists in the United States got one of their most surprising, and gratifying, victories in a very long time Tuesday when U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn, Jr. stunned all sides in the case by overturning the death sentence given nearly 20 years ago to celebrity death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In the last year or so, Mumia's state-sponsored death has appeared all but inevitable. Even though it doesn't end the case by a long shot, this was a victory, and an enormous one. But not according to Mumia's advocates, and therein lies a lot of both the urgency and the repugnance of this bizarre, long-running case.

Many of Mumia's most vocal supporters, including all of those immediately around him, are convinced of his innocence in the December 1981 shooting death of young Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. I'm not. For many years, I've been following the case, and the steadily mounting activist movement for it, and that movement's battles against the bitter Philadelphia police determination to fry the man. And each side has its convincing arguments as to what really happened that fateful night. I honestly don't know, nor would I claim to.

I am, however, convinced that Mumia Abu-Jamal never received anything remotely close to a fair trial. This was true, in both the guilt and the sentencing phases, on any number of glaring grounds. The most obvious was the presiding judge: the relentlessly biased and racist Judge Albert Sabo, who has forestalled retirement so that he can continue to hear appeals on the case despite numerous calls for his recusal. Sabo, a long- time FOP member, was notorious both for his "prosecutor in robes" approach to capital cases -- at one point he'd presided over the death sentences of twice as many people as the country's next- most-prolific judge, and his racism -- all but one of the defendants sentenced to death were black.

Out of his endless displays of prejudicial behavior in the trial and sentencing, Yohn only acted on one, but that one was enough - - Judge Sabo did not explain to jurors that they need not agree unanimously for any of them to consider mitigating circumstances that would weigh against the death penalty. That's not a technicality; it's the essence of the additional checks and balances at the core of capital cases. Yohn ordered that if Philadelphia did not hold a new sentencing trial within six months, Abu-Jamal would automatically receive a life sentence. Long-time Philly DA Lynne Abraham has already said the city will appeal, and, failing that, will try again for the death penalty. But getting a new death sentence, after 20 years, won't be easy.

The legal hanging that hung over Abu-Jamal's head for two decades is now no longer a certainty, guaranteed by narrowly defined, heavily stacked appeals processes. It will now take another jury, at least, to kill him. And that is such an unexpected and welcome piece of news that you'd think Mumia's supporters would be dancing in the streets. You'd be wrong.

Much of the appeal of the Abu-Jamal case has been because it encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the death penalty, particularly its racial bias and its vulnerability to witness error, police perjury, and political influence. Abu-Jamal would not have stayed alive for 20 years on death were it not for the persistence and dedication of MOVE -- the peculiar, radical black cult group Mumia first covered (in his prior career as a reporter), and then has grown close to in his years in jail -- and the sectarian left groups that first adopted his cause. Celebrities, too, rallied to the issue, as have anti-death penalty advocates in Europe and around the world.

But because people want Mumia to live, and because of the racial dynamics of the case, few people on the left are willing to acknowledge one of the aspects of the case that drives the pro- cop types mad -- a lot of the folks most visibly associated with Mumia Abu-Jamal are nutty as that fruitcake you're dreading next week. Pam Africa and other MOVE spokespeople spent all day after the ruling reminding their supporters and the media that this was no victory at all, because Mumia has not been found INNOCENT. (The capital letters are theirs. Always.) Also highly visible in the Mumia circus have been C. Clark Kissinger -- identifed as "Refuse and Resist," but actually a core member of the tiny, lunatic Maoist outfit called the Revolutionary Communist Party -- and a sweet but anachronistic religious sect called the Bruderhof, whose pre-industrial pacifism led them early on to adopt Mumia's death penalty case.

I still have vivid memories of Kissinger explaining calmly to me once why, when the RCP took over, it would be necessary to shoot everyone who didn't agree with them; this is the guy who, while still actively working for such goals, reached new heights of respectability through his persistent and admittedly useful analyses of various appeals court outrages. And the process repeats itself across the U.S. -- some Mumia support groups are clear-eyed and functional, but others are magnets for the most marginalized sorts of sectarian ideologues. For people who style themselves advocates of the slain Faulkner, and who have a signed and sealed conviction and sentence to wave about, being stymied for 20 years by this collection of misfits is maddening beyond belief. (They're resolutely unwilling to consider the possibility that the misfits are right, and that Faulkner's real murderer has gone unpunished for the deed.)

If it is any consolation to the Faulkner side, Mumia's stalling for justice wouldn't be possible today. Over the past 20 years an enormous body of exculpatory evidence has accumulated (not even including the convenient, but dubious, confession of a now-dead felon) that at minimum could suggest reasonable doubt in his case. But a jury will never hear it. And were an Abu-Jamal arrested tomorrow, in just about any state in the country, the steady erosion of habeas corpus and other protections against false convictions dramatically foreclose appeals options for the convicted.

The advent of DNA technology has been a double-edged sword; it has allowed police to reopen old cases and arrest suspects (most spectacularly with the alleged Green River Killer), but it has also led to the freeing of countless falsely convicted inmates, including some on death row, with many more such reversals to come. Even where DNA is unavailable, its experience shows definitively that many people are falsely convicted -- based on false identifications, or police perjury, or circumstantial evidence, or the whims of judges nad juries. Our judicial system is good, but not perfect, at determining what happened, and capital punishment demands perfection -- you can't reverse the sentence when the real killer steps forward later.

The activists who over the years put in the protections that made Mumia Abu-Jamal's appeals possible, and the various lawyers who filed them, are part of the reason Mumia is alive today to have his death sentence reversed. So is Mumia himself -- his eloquence, and the stature he has gained as a "Voice for the Voiceless" by continuing to advocate, for others as well as himself, despite living in the most desolate circumstances imaginable. And so is his support movement -- his original conviction and sentence were politically motivated, and his successful fight for time has also been the product of politics. But his supporters are wrong. The decision by Yohn was a tremendous victory. If Mumia Abu-Jamal is, in fact, innocent, it means he will be alive to try to prove it. You can't have a more basic victory than that.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times, WorkingforChange and Eat the State!

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