With the prospect of execution hanging over him, for three decades Mumia Abu-Jamal awoke every morning in a small Pennsylvania jail cell. A former Black Panther activist, he was sentenced to death in 1982 after being convicted of killing a police officer in hotly disputed circumstances. Earlier this month, in an extraordinary turn, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of capital punishment following a long legal battle that deemed the original trial flawed.
For Abu-Jamal’s supporters, it was a major victory. The 1982 verdict was judged to have breached the US constitution, because the jurors in the trial were given misleading instructions that wrongly encouraged them to issue the death sentence. “The district attorney did the right thing,” said John Payton, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer. “After three long decades, it was time to bring the quest for a death sentence for Mr. Abu-Jamal to an end.”
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Abu-Jamal’s home city, hundreds gathered to celebrate the result. Last week he was moved to a new wing of his prison, where for the first time in 30 years he will be able to come into physical contact with his family and friends when they visit him. While Abu-Jamal remains incarcerated on a life sentence without parole, with capital punishment off the table some believe he now has a greater chance of being freed entirely.
“This is not the end of the road. We are fighting for his freedom and we want him to be freed immediately,” says Jeff Mackler, a friend of Abu-Jamal who directs a “Free Mumia” campaign in Oakland, California. “But there’s nothing in this world better than to go to sleep at night and to know that you’re not going to be executed the next morning or within weeks. We are overjoyed that Mumia is alive, that for the first time he can touch his family and hug his friends and be in contact with the real world.”
The controversial saga began on 9 December 1981, when a 27-year-old Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook) was found at the scene of a shooting in the heart of Philadelphia. In the early hours of the morning his younger brother, William, was pulled over by a police officer as part of a routine traffic stop. It is alleged that a struggle ensued, during which Abu-Jamal, who was working in the area as a taxi-driver, arrived amid the scuffle and twice shot the officer – once in the back and once in the head – taking a single bullet himself in the chest. Police backup arrived moments later, and found Abu-Jamal injured on the pavement. A revolver belonging to him was found at the scene. It contained five spent cartridges.
How events unfolded is to this day a subject of contention. Prosecutors of the case are firm in their conviction that Abu-Jamal was the killer, using his links with Black radical politics to argue he was a man on the edge – a dangerous sort of figure with a disdain for the law. But Abu-Jamal’s defence maintain he did not shoot the officer, Daniel Faulkner, with his supporters claiming he was a victim of a “frame-up” at a time when racial tensions between the police and African Americans in Philadelphia were simmering.
What brought Abu-Jamal’s case to the attention of the world, however, was not the circumstances surrounding the killing of officer Faulkner. Whether he did or did not shoot the policeman, it was the manner in which his trial was conducted that brought it notoriety.
The presiding judge, Albert Sabo, was a former member of the Fraternal Order of Police and widely considered to be bias in favour of the prosecution in all cases – calling in to question his ability to be impartial. Over a period of 14 years, he presided over trials in which 31 defendants were sentenced to death, 29 from ethnic minorities. During Abu-Jamal’s trial, press reports noted he displayed “undue haste and hostility toward the defence’s case.” And some years later, the court stenographer filed an explosive affidavit in which she claimed to have heard Sabo say, in the courtroom antechamber, "I'm going to help them fry the nigger."
By the mid nineties, Abu-Jamal, who was a part-time journalist and broadcaster before his incarceration, had written a number of essays and one best-selling book while on death row, making him perhaps the most famous inmate in America.
A number of well-known actors and writers including Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin and Salmon Rushdie championed calls for a retrial. And in 2000, human rights organisation Amnesty International published a thorough report on his case, concluding that “the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty.” The proceedings had been highly politicised, Amnesty noted, which “may not only have prejudiced his right to a fair trial, but may now be undermining his right to fair and impartial treatment in the appeal courts.”
On 7 December Amnesty welcomed the news Abu-Jamal would no longer face execution, but said: “justice would best be served by granting Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial.” Meanwhile, South African archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out upon hearing the revelation, going one step further than Amnesty by calling on Pennsylvanian authorities to immediately free him.
“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,“ said the archbishop, a Nobel prize winning peace activist. “Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia should be released.”
For the widow of officer Faulkner, Maureen, the latest twist in the long legal struggle provoked a disparate reaction. Describing Abu-Jamal as a “seething animal,” she attacked the judges that questioned the validity of his death sentence, calling them “dishonest cowards.”
“This decision certainly does not mark the end of my journey, nor will I stop fighting to see justice done for my husband,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Faulkner’s words worry Abu-Jamal’s supporters, who realise that as he enters a new chapter of less-isolated prison life among the so-called “general population,” his fate is almost impossible to predict. 68-year-old Osagyefo Tongogara, who runs a UK “Free Mumia” group based in London, remains seriously concerned for Abu-Jamal’s welfare and has vowed to fight on.
“It’s very positive in the sense that he longer faces the death penalty, but there are a lot of killings that take place within American prisons,” he says. “With Mumia being a high-profile person he’s particularly at risk – he’s still in danger of being executed, not judicially but extrajudicially. So we have no intent in letting up in the campaign. We want to see him freed.”
Speaking over the phone from his Pennsylvania prison, 57-year-old Mumia Abu-Jamal described his surprise last week after it was announced he would no longer face the death sentence.
"For the first time in almost 30 years, I’m not on death row physically,” he told supporters in Philadelphia. “I’m in a new block called an AC block. The cells are somewhat identical to death row, but no one on this block is on death row, including myself. It takes some getting used to, you see. I’m still acclimating myself."
Jeff Mackler, California-based director of campaign group the Mobilisation to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, visits the jailed former Black Panther regularly. He says campaigners were “extremely happy with some reservations about this decision,” adding that “the struggle for his freedom continues. We still say and insist that he was a victim of a racist frame up, that he’s an innocent man. But at least we can take a deep breath and know that his life has been won, only because of the struggle worldwide.”
As a result of Pennsylvania prosecutors’ historic announcement on 7 December that they would no longer pursue the death penalty against Mumia Abu-Jamal, he will be formally resentenced to life without parole in the Philadelphia court of common pleas. The final sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
There remains a separate ongoing legal effort in relation to Abu-Jamal’s case, which concerns a report by the US National Academy of Sciences calling into question ballistics evidence submitted by the prosecution in the 1982 trial. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers claim the report constitutes compelling new evidence that justifies reopening the case. A legal petition to that effect, filed in 2009, was rejected by the Philadelphia court of common pleas, and has since being pending appeal in the Pennsylvania supreme court. If the appeal is successful, it could represent a highly significant breakthrough for Abu-Jamal.
This article first appeared in issue no.907 of The Big Issue in the North.