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Off death row after 30 years of torture

Overflow crowd: ‘Free Mumia NOW!’

Published Dec 14, 2011 9:01 PM
WW photos: Joseph Piette

Dec. 13 — After nearly three decades on Pennsylvania’s death row, former Black Panther Party member and world-renowned journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was moved into transitional area at SCI Greene maximum security prison on Dec. 11, following an announcement by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams earlier in the week that he would no longer seek Abu-Jamal’s execution.

Pam Africa

On Oct. 11, 2011, the Supreme Court decided not to review a decision by the Third Circuit Court upholding a 2001 ruling by Federal Judge William Yohn that Abu-Jamal’s 1982 death sentence had been unconstitutional. The district attorney’s office had the option to pursue a new sentencing hearing, but sought to avoid the risk that a new jury might rule to release Abu-Jamal if new evidence was introduced.

The district attorney may have hoped that lifting the death sentence would also end the worldwide movement that has kept the pressure on the courts to free Abu-Jamal, but this gamble appears to have backfired.

Monica Moorehead

No life in prison — free Mumia now!

Two days after the district attorney’s announcement, an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people filled the balcony space at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center for an indoor rally initially planned to mark the 30th anniversary of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s incarceration.

A highlight of the event was a phone call from Abu-Jamal, who thanked his supporters for helping win his victory against the death penalty. Maintaining his innocence, Abu-Jamal promised to continue his fight for freedom, while urging ongoing organizing of the mass movement.

The Fraternal Order of Police had attempted to block this call by flooding Gov. Tom Corbett’s office with phone calls and faxes earlier in the day. A group of off-duty police, on motorcycles and revving their engines at full throttle during Abu-Jamal’s call-in, was also unsuccessful in their attempt to drown him out. While blatantly violating city noise ordinances, their protest was inaudible to the gathering inside.

The mood of the crowd — the largest to attend an event in support of Abu-Jamal in years — was celebratory, but determined that Abu-Jamal must not be left in prison for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. Under Pennsylvania law, capital juries have only two options — the death sentence or life in prison without parole.

Ramona Africa, one of the only survivors of the 1985 police bombing of a MOVE house in Philadelphia, stated that even though the state can’t legally execute Abu-Jamal, “it does not mean they won’t try to kill him. Officials killed George Jackson in prison, and tried to get several different people to kill Leonard Peltier in prison.”

Johanna Fernandez, with Educators for Mumia, who co-hosted the event along with Pam Africa of International Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, echoed this concern. Fernandez said that the comment to the New York Times by Maureen Faulkner (widow of slain police officer Daniel Faulkner, killed Dec. 9, 1981) that Abu-Jamal should be put into general population “so someone can take care of him” effectively amounted to “this pretty white lady putting a hit out on him.”

Fernandez stated that the police investigation that led to Abu-Jamal’s conviction was riddled with corruption and tampered evidence. “The recently discovered Polokoff photographs that were taken at the crime scene reveal that Officer James Forbes, who testified in court that he properly handled the guns allegedly retrieved at the crime scene, appears holding the guns with his bare hands.”

Fernandez challenged District Attorney Williams to honor a 1995 promise by former District Attorney Lynn Abraham that she would “discard any cases where evidence surfaces that even one of the officers involved in an investigation lied in court or in written reports.” Fifteen of the 35 officers involved in collecting evidence in Faulkner’s death were “charged with tampering with evidence in an FBI probe that ended within days of Mumia’s trial,” Fernandez said.

Both Fernandez and attorney Michael Coard noted that the prosecution purposely withheld evidence in Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial. Fernandez reported that prosecutor Joseph McGill knew that a driver’s license found in Faulkner’s pocket led police to Kenneth Freeman, a passenger in the car driven by Mumia’s brother, which Faulkner had stopped just before he was shot.

Freeman was picked out as the man fleeing the scene in a line-up by prosecution witness Cynthia White, who was subsequently coerced by police to identify Abu-Jamal as the shooter. Other witnesses, never called to the stand, identified “the man fleeing the scene” as the shooter. McGill withheld this information at Abu-Jamal’s trial.

Coard challenged a police claim that they “forgot” to perform the standard gunpowder test on Abu-Jamal’s hands. “I believe they certainly ran that test and it came up negative,” Coard said.

A call for int’l campaign to free Mumia

Prominent civil rights attorney Lennox Hinds stated, “The Third Circuit Court ruled that the death sentence was illegal, and that Abu-Jamal was wrongly held on death row for 30 years. That violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution against cruel and unlawful punishment.” Hinds also noted that the U.S. signed on to an international law banning the practice of prolonged solitary confinement. Held in a tiny cell, Abu-Jamal has been denied direct human contact for over 29 years.

Hinds, a permanent representative to the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, vowed to “launch an international movement,” including a petition to the United Nations, challenging Abu-Jamal’s continued imprisonment.

On a panel about the key role that the movement has played and must continue to play in the fight to free Abu-Jamal, Monica Moorehead, speaking on behalf of Workers World Party and the International Action Center, welcomed the participation of Occupy Philadelphia activists in the audience.

Moorehead said, “We are occupying the Constitution Center, liberating it for several hours, in recognition that if not for the millions of people around the world who filled courtrooms, blocked streets and risked arrest, Mumia Abu-Jamal would not be alive today.

“For thirty years, Mumia’s resistance to his individual condition stood as a symbol of resistance to all forms of capitalist repression. Occupy Philadelphia, even though it was just evicted, exposed the role of police repression, long an issue for Black and Latina/Latino communities and in Mumia’s incarceration.”

Addressing the gathering by video, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for Abu-Jamal’s release, stating: “It is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row in the first place. Justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life — yet another form of death sentence. I call on District Attorney Seth Williams to rise to the challenge of reconciliation, human rights and justice … and allow Mumia Abu-Jamal to be immediately released.”

Other participants in this historic rally included the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, poet laureate Amiri Baraka, Immortal Technique, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill, Estela Vasquez, Vijay Prashad, Suzanne Ross and the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble.

Rounding out the program, keynote speaker Cornel West challenged the audience to continue the fight until Abu-Jamal is released. “Mumia’s spirit has not been broken for 30 years. He is a free man on death row for telling the truth.”

“We are at the beginning of a new revolutionary wave against Wall Street, against militarism, against the prison-industrial complex, against plutocracy. You’ve got to take a risk.”

Taking up West’s challenge, dozens of people attending a follow-up gathering at the Germantown Event Center on Dec. 10 participated in two working groups on Abu-Jamal’s behalf. They included members of Occupy Kentucky, Occupy Wall Street and students from Ursinus College, who heard about the event at Occupy Philly.

A taskforce was set up to re-launch a campaign to focus unrelenting public pressure on the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice to conduct civil rights investigations into Abu-Jamal’s case. A second working group was formed to continually challenge the district attorney’s office on the merits of Abu-Jamal’s grounds for release, drawing on international human rights standards and international support.

One proposal of this group was to establish an “Occupy for Justice” movement to connect Abu-Jamal’s struggle with the fight against police brutality and the prison-industrial complex. n