Life for Mumia?

During the mid-1970’s I traveled to Philadelphia while I was engaged full-time in the effort to reopen my parents’ case. A very young, African-American radio journalist interviewed and provided me a platform to discuss my parents’ frame-up. We agreed about so many things that the show became more of a discussion than an interview. At the end of the show he posed a question I had been asked many times before: if I thought a judicially sanctioned, politically motivated killing - like my parents’ execution - could happen again in this country. We discussed this briefly and agreed that given the racism, class bias and the political orientation of the U.S. courts, it could.

Afterwards I didn’t give the program or its conclusion a second thought. The years passed and I never met the journalist again. It was not until 1992, after I started the RFC, that I realized that the interviewer was Mumia Abu-Jamal. By then Mumia had been on Pennsylvania’s death row for almost a decade after having been convicted of killing a police officer in 1982. After reading the trial transcript I concluded that Mumia had not received a fair trial and was a political prisoner. I felt qualified to make this determination because I had extensive experience reviewing trial transcripts while serving judicial clerkships for the Massachusetts Appeals Court after graduating law school.

I have been involved in the effort to save Mumia’s life ever since. So it was not surprising that while I was in Paris earlier this month, I was asked to speak at the weekly Mumia rally that his supporters have staged there without fail, every Wednesday since 1995.

Coincidentally, we’d learned just a few hours before my talk of a major positive development in this case. Mumia has remained on Pennsylvania’s death row for almost 30 years even though a Federal District Court ruled several years ago that the phase of his trial which resulted in his death sentence was constitutionally flawed. He was kept on death row because Pennsylvania appealed this decision to the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and then, when the Third Circuit ruled against the State, to the Supreme Court.

On that Wednesday (October 12th, 2011), the Supreme Court denied “certiorari” – that is, refused to have the entire court review the Third Circuit’s decision. A number of web postings by Mumia supporters jubilantly claimed that the Supreme Court had ruled Mumia’s death sentence unconstitutional. While this was not the case (as the Supreme Court issued no ruling), the impact of the Court’s denial of certiorari was to vacate Mumia’s death sentence.

Pennsylvania now has a limited period in which to decide whether to hold a new sentencing trial or accept the Third Circuit’s decision which will change Mumia’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Given the passage of time, the recantation of many witnesses, and the quality of Mumia’s lawyers, I believe it is unlikely that Pennsylvania will risk likely defeat by pushing for a new sentencing trial. We can’t presume this, however, and must remain vigilant in case the State mounts one last effort to reinstate Mumia’s death sentence.

And while we should celebrate Mumia’s apparent new lease on life, his continued imprisonment is a travesty. I was not there on the night when Mumia supposedly shot the police officer, so I can’t claim to know what happened. But I have studied the trial transcript and know what investigators have uncovered since 1982. I am sure that Mumia was not proven guilty in a fair trial, that this case involved monumental police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct; and that the prosecution’s version of what took place that night is unbelievable.

It may not be easy to figure out the next steps to take, but we must apply ourselves to this task, because Mumia deserves to be free.

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