30 Years!!

On December 9th, Mumia Abu-Jamal, arguably the world’s most famous death row prisoner, will have been incarcerated for 30 years. As I’ve written here before, I’ve read the entire transcript of Mumia’s trial, and am convinced that it was unfair and that Mumia should be freed. I feel well qualified to make this determination because while serving two one-year judicial clerkships for the Justices of the Massachusetts Appeals Court it was my job to read trial transcripts and judge the fairness of those trials.

Mumia, who I believe was wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer, remains on Pennsylvania’s death row. However, it now appears likely that the State of Pennsylvania will mount no further appeals of the Federal Court’s ruling overturning his death sentence. In other words, while he will no longer face execution, Mumia will remain in prison for life without the possibility of parole.

I met Mumia in the 1970’s when he gave me a platform on his radio program to discuss the effort to reopen my parents’ case. I’ve also had some brief correspondence with him, but I’ve never visited him in prison. The last time I visited death row was during the last week of my parents’ lives when I was six years old, and I’ve decided - even almost 60 years later - not to put myself through another death row visit. But I’ve spoken with many who have visited him and read a lot of his writing. He is a remarkable human being.

Confined to a small cell 23 hours a day with limited access to the outside world, he has written a half-dozen books, produced hundreds of commentaries and had a world-wide impact on the movements to abolish capital punishment and protect the human rights of the more than two million people locked away in the American Gulag. Despite his circumstances he has been a true champion of the rights of others.

There are those who claim that Mumia’s case has been an impediment to eliminating capital punishment in America. They argue that death penalty proponents will cite this outspoken and politically articulate, radical, African-American man, convicted of killing a white police officer, as an example of why we must retain capital punishment. Trying to hide cases like Mumia’s from the undecided will not cajole them into opposing the death penalty. Focusing only on the most pitiful or palatable inhabitants of death row will never eradicate executions. It would be a strategic disaster for the anti-capital punishment movement to silence one of our most powerful voices in pursuit of such a flawed approach.

Moreover, Mumia has never written about his own case, but rather addressed and organized as best he could on behalf of other inmates. Mumia should be commended, not blamed, for speaking up for others, and those who advocate for Mumia should be applauded for their tireless efforts to achieve justice for him. I agree that not enough attention is paid to other death row inmates. Instead of attempting to silence Mumia, the solution is for everyone in the anti-death penalty movement to speak up more forcefully for all death row inmates.

Mumia’s accomplishments provide inspiration for thousands on both sides of the prison walls, as well as within and beyond our nation’s borders. He is a rock of resistance, and I am sure I am just one among countless others who salute him on this sad anniversary of his unjust incarceration.

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