Life sentence for Abu-Jamal Aggravates Injustice

Linn Washington Jr.
By Linn Washington Jr.

Linn Washington Jr. is a journalist and journalism professor who works in Philadelphia, Pa USA. Washington specializes in analytical/investigative coverage of issues involving law, social justice, race-based inequities and the news media. Washington teaches courses in investigative and multi-media urban reporting. He is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.

Posted on Friday, 9 December 2011 10:25

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Pennsylvania death row journalist reviled by many yet revered by millions worldwide, has a new lease on life due to a recent decision by Philadelphia’s top prosecutor.

Philadelphia’s District Attorney announced he will kill legal efforts to execute the man convicted of fatally shooting a Philadelphia policeman during a controversial 1982 trial that Amnesty International condemns as “manifestly unfair.”

Instead of execution Abu-Jamal, 57, now faces what Noble Peace Prize winning South African activist Bishop Desmond Tutu rightly describes as “yet another form of death sentence” – spending the rest of his life in prison.

That decision by DA Seth Williams against seeking a new court proceeding to secure a renewed death sentence against Abu-Jamal means the journalist, widely known as the “Voice of the Voiceless”, will die in prison unless his legal team can convince a court to grant a new trial that could lead to his release.

Williams made his announcement two days before December 9, 2011 the date that Abu-Jamal reaches the unenviable anniversary of having spent thirty years in prison since his arrest – more than 15.7-million minutes of punishment for a crime strong evidence indicates he did not commit.

While existing inside a cramped death row isolation cell, the size of a small apartment bathroom, Abu-Jamal has authored six critically acclaimed books and thousands of social justice commentaries – doing his writing without a computer nor access to the internet.

Although Williams hopes the removal of the death sentence will relegate Abu-Jamal to obscurity, especially ending Abu-Jamal’s cause célèbre stature among anti-death-penalty advocates worldwide, Abu-Jamal supporters vow to intensify their efforts to win freedom for the man they consider a political prisoner.

Annette Schiffmann, an Abu-Jamal activist in Germany, said a life sentence is a “monstrosity” activists’ will not accept. “By no means is this the end of our struggle,” said Schiffmann, crediting the world-wide movement supporting justice for Abu-Jamal for mounting the “pressure” producing the elimination of the death sentence.

Paris resident, Jacques Lederer has participated in nearly 800 of the ‘Free Abu-Jamal’ protests that have occurred weekly near the U.S. Embassy in the French capital since 1995.

Lederer said, “come rain or come shine, we stand every week on the sidewalk, peacefully but very determined.”

Avoiding a minitrial

That decision of DA Williams arises from federal court rulings eliminating Abu-Jamal’s death sentence after those courts found flaws in the instructions the jury received from the judge for their death penalty deliberations during Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial. 

Federal courts ordered a life sentence for Abu-Jamal unless Philadelphia prosecutors conducted a new mini-trial to convince a new jury to reinstate a death sentence. Williams decided to not seek that mini-trial.

”While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life and that is where he belongs,” Williams bellowed during a Philadelphia press conference surrounded by police officials, prosecutors and the widow of slain officer Daniel Faulkner.

it makes me sad to see political prisoners in the U.S. the same as in Russia

“Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal die in prison!”

Embedded in Williams’ reference to best-option is his acceptance of the realpolitik that conducting a mini-trial holds dangers for prosecutors.

At the very least, a mini-trial would provide Abu-Jamal with two things Williams wants desperately to avoid. 

A mini-trial would provide Abu-Jamal a public forum to present evidence of innocence that prosecutors have successfully excluded from jury scrutiny. And that proceeding could provide Abu-Jamal an opportunity to possibly obtain new grounds for additional legal appeals.

Glaring irregularities beginning with the police investigation into the murder of Officer Faulkner convince millions worldwide that Abu-Jamal is the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Police, for example, failed to follow their standard procedure in firearm crime by testing Abu-Jamal’s hands to confirm he fired a gun. 

Police claim they just forgot to perform that standard test…curiously the same test police didn’t forget performing on others initially suspected for possible involvement in Faulkner’s fatal shooting. 

That failure to perform such a basic-&-crucial test evidences either sloppy police work or police hiding results of a test proving Abu-Jamal’s innocence. 

One of the many problems with the Abu-Jamal conviction is that courts reject his appeals by consistently ignoring evidence of innocence and evidence of wrong-doings by authorities including judges.

“This is ridiculous and disgraceful that the government ignores evidence of innocence in this case,” said Demitry Lapidus, a student at the prestigious London School of Economics. “I am from Russia and it makes me sad to see political prisoners in the U.S. the same as in Russia.”

Bishop Tutu, in the wake of Williams’ announcement, issued a statement saying “now that it is clear the 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.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options