What Mumia’s Case Said About Us

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

Mumia Abu-Jamal

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.”

There will no doubt be growing swells of “Free Mumia!” but I am still not ready to jump on board. In the meantime, there are well over 3,000 people on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center — a disproportionate number of whom are black men. Let’s get agitated about that.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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