death penalty


A New Trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor

Mumia Abu-Jamal is an African-American journalist who was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Mumia (as he is called) claims he is innocent, and that the trial was faulty. He was found shot at the scene where the officer was killed, but his gun, which he carried as a nighttime cab driver, was not tested, and there is no evidence that the bullet came from his gun.

In hearings to review the case in 1995, evidence was presented warranting his innocence, showing that blacks were excluded from the jury and that the police had intimidated witnesses. The jury never heard the testimony of one key witness. The judge denied the petition, but the death sentence was stayed.

Mumia's book Live from Death Row tells the story of his life in the valley of the shadow of death. During the 1970s Mumia publicized police abuses against minorities, and he has continued writing and recording ratio commentaries, despite attempts by the authorities to silence him. Mumia has reportedly studied and understands the basics of social and economic justice.

Time is running out for Mumia. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied his final appeal, and he is appealing in the federal courts. The prospects there are not good; the "Effective Death Penalty Act" of 1996 makes it unlikely that a federal court will review the decision of the state court. The best hope for him is to have a new and fair trial before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania murders (executes) him.

A world-wide movement is calling for a new trial and asking governor Thomas Ridge to spare his life. Demonstrations will be held on July 3 in many cities. July 3 is not only the day before Independence Day but also the anniversary of Mumia's 1982 death sentence. In Philadelphia, there will be a demonstration at the Liberty Bell. Gatherings have been planned in San Francisco, New York City, and many other places. There will be more events during "National Week for Justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal" September 19-25, including "100 Cities for Mumia" on September 25.

For more on Mumia, see Mumia, iacenter, and free Mumia.

There are many levels of injustice here. First, there is the inherent injustice of the death penalty (see my editorial of September 1998). The case of Mumia highlights two of the key problems with capital punishment. First, an innocent person may be killed, which is irreversible. Second, the judicial process is often flawed and biased, in this case against African Americans, and especially against critics of the police.

The second level of injustice is the judicial process. Despite a jury system and legal council, an apparently innocent man was convicted. We need major reforms of our system of trials and juries (see my editorial on juries of January 1998).

The third level is the whole system of governance. Why does our democratic system result in unfair trials, police brutality, and corruption in general? The people do not have sufficient control over their government. We need to decentralize government, to chop it up into small pieces to provide for genuine democratic rule by the people (see my editorial on democracy from October 1997).

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal could serve to focus attention on these basic problems and needed reforms. The movement to have a new trial for Mumia has the subtext of a protest against the injustice present in American and other democracies. It is an opportunity for dialogue on the direction of reform.

Meanwhile, the execution of Mumia would be a tragedy as well as a travesty. A mass protest movement will let the governing chiefs know there will be political consequences to pay if they ignore this righteous cause. Americans criticize other governments for violating human rights. If Mumia Abu-Jamal is executed, this criticism of others will ring hollow indeed.

-- Fred Foldvary      

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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.