What Mumia's Case Said About Us

It divided many within black media circles and focused attention on capital punishment. Now what?

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Mumia Abu-Jamal

To many inmates at a prison in western Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu-Jamal is "Pops" because he has been around for so long. To various human rights activists and celebrities -- including the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, professor Cornel West, members of Amnesty International and the actress Susan Sarandon -- he has been a cause and a symbol for decades: They view him as a political prisoner being punished solely for his association with the Black Panther Party, as well as for his anti-cop writings and radio commentaries going back to his teenage years.

To the police and prosecutors in Philadelphia -- and, of course, to the family of the 25-year-old police officer he was convicted of shooting to death 30 years ago -- he is an unrepentant murderer who will be released from death row.

I am against the death penalty, which, beyond the biblical rule against killing, is disproportionately meted out to black men, especially when the victims are white. That position is different from demanding freedom for every convicted person who is fortunate enough to have a following.

I've weighed in on this case since at least 1995, when Abu-Jamal's case became a seminal "Which side are you on?" moment for a number of public figures and prominent organizations, including the National Association of Black Journalists. That was just before he was slated to be executed for the murder of officer Daniel Faulkner. The clock was ticking. The protests were mounting.

Emotions were so high, for example, that what was supposed to be a rather humdrum 90-minute business meeting at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia turned into a chaotic Abu-Jamal forum that lasted nearly five hours, complete with picketers outside the convention center and some who invaded the meeting to yell their piece. A gathering of communicators could not decide what to say about one who was undeniably a good communicator -- and a former leader of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. "More than that," Wayne Dawkins wrote in Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream, "the messy but democratic debate was a struggle for the soul of NABJ, a struggle between the nationalistic-activists and professional-establishment wings of the association."

The facts were too murky for me to jump onto the "Free Mumia!" bandwagon, but I did urge in a syndicated column I wrote that he be granted a new trial:

I don't know whether to believe Abu-Jamal or not, but I do not have to believe in his innocence to believe in his right to a fair trial. Faulkner was killed during the waning days of black revolutionists' frequent talk of "offing pigs." They saw themselves in a war for black liberation; cops were enemy troops. That view, popularized by the Panthers and their offshoots in the 1960s and 1970s, was never widely held among blacks, but the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover and some big city police chiefs apparently didn't know that. So they went to great lengths to destroy the radicals. Sometimes they faked evidence. Sometimes they set up innocent people.

As matters stand, even if the 57-year-old Abu-Jamal is innocent, he's not an obvious client for the Innocence Project, which has been involved in the exoneration of 280 wrongly convicted people since 1989 -- 173 of whom were black and 17 of whom had been on death row. According to Christine Swarns, leader of the team of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorneys representing Abu-Jamal, he might still die behind bars, just not by lethal injection on a gurney on a date certain.

Appellate courts since 2001 have said that the death-penalty sentence given Abu-Jamal was unconstitutional because of confusing jury instructions in the 1982 trial, but the district attorney's office had continued to fight until losing its final appeal in October. With 180 days to decide between seeking a new trial and accepting that there could be no death penalty -- that life in prison without parole would have to do -- the prosecutor, with the consent of Faulkner's widow, decided to wave the white flag of surrender after 30 years of legal maneuvering on both sides. Abu-Jamal will officially be resentenced and most likely assigned to a general prison population.

And he will no doubt continue his commentaries from behind bars, shedding light in essays and nonprint media, but just not "Live From Death Row" (the title of his 1995 book). "He himself is remarkable and an amazing spokesperson," says Swarns. "He's used that gift to talk not just about his own condition but also the conditions of those beside him on death rows around the country. That's not something to which the Philadelphia Inquirer or many in law enforcement look forward."