Friday, April 22, 2011

Race & the Death Penalty: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Race & the death penalty

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

By Dolores Cox
Published Apr 21, 2011 8:56 PM

It has been almost 30 years since the case of the internationally renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal officially opened in December 1981. In April 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Abu-Jamal’s appeal and returned it to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mumia Abu-Jamal now has a new legal team led by Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund; and Judith Ritter, professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Widener University Law School in Wilmington, Del. They will be directing their defense strategy to not only fight reinstatement of Mumia’s death penalty but also overturn his conviction.

On April 3 in New York City supporters and human rights activists gathered at the historic Riverside Church to meet and honor the new lawyers. The event was moderated by Suzanne Ross of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition (NYC), with the room filled to capacity. The gathering was also video-streamed live worldwide.

Attorney Ritter conveyed that the status of the case is not good news, in that efforts to win Abu-Jamal a new trial have been rejected by all courts. But Mumia is comforted and relieved to have this new legal team. Ritter also related that the Third Circuit Court’s decision as to whether Mumia’s death sentence/execution should be reimposed or if he is to remain sentenced to life in prison without parole could be made any day now or could be months away.

Attorney Swarns thanked all the activists for keeping Mumia’s struggle alive and stated that it is a pleasure and honor to represent him. Upon receiving tumultuous applause, she stated that she’s not used to being received so warmly. While representing Black men on death row in the South for the past 15 years, she’s used to a mostly hostile courtroom environment.

Swarns gave an enlightening overview of the history of the NAACP LDF and its 70-year struggle to obtain racial justice and equality. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was part of the first legal team as a lawyer in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. The LDF has also organized for and is committed to abolishing the death penalty.

Swarns noted that statistical evidence going back to 1986 has shown that race, not the nature of the crime itself, dictates who lives or dies in the U.S. Even before Abu-Jamal’s trial began, newspaper articles about him were all about race. And prosecutors excluded Black jurors systematically during his original trial.

History of lynchings

The origin of the death penalty in the U.S., Swarns revealed, has a direct relationship to slavery. It is a way of using violence to control Black people, an extension of white terrorism that’s existed for hundreds of years.

During the legal segregation “Jim Crow” era, brute force was used to control Black people and hold back any progress that might jeopardize the racist, white Southern economic structure.

Swarns added that thousands of Black people were lynched and murdered with impunity. The lives of Black people were not valued then or now. When the lynching epidemic ended, it was replaced by the weapon of increased jailing and the death penalty. At one point the majority of Black men were imprisoned for allegedly raping white women. Now, disproportionately, more than one third of prisoners on death row are Black.

In Philadelphia, Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be on death row. The LDF considers Mumia’s death penalty case to be of utmost importance, one which they had to get involved in, Swarns stated. They’re committed to this struggle, and her team looks forward to working with Mumia’s supporters and celebrating their victory with everyone.

Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family & Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal stated that we’re all on death row whether we know it or not. She mentioned that Mumia’s birthday is on April 24, and as a birthday gift to him we should all go back and organize wherever we are to spread the word about Mumia’s case.

“We’ll show the world like we did in 1995 with Millions for Mumia worldwide; it’s not over,” Africa added. “We’re not called the ‘Uncompromising’ Free Mumia Coalition for nothing. We’re not giving up on Mumia. Like Egypt, we’ll continue the fight. “ She described Mumia as the “voice of the voiceless” and pointed out that as a jailhouse lawyer he’s helped get Black men off death row. She reminded everyone that Amnesty International states Mumia should be given a new trial, not a new death sentence.

The special moment of the event was a phone call from Mumia and his spouse from his Pennsylvania prison. The room immediately became silent. “Hello everybody. Thanks brothers, sisters and friends for coming today, and welcome attorneys,” they said. “Your legal briefs have mastered the issues,” Mumia added.

Abu-Jamal’s new legal team is donating their time and services pro-bono. However, they do need money to cover investigative and other expenses, so financial contributions are badly needed. Send check/money order to National Lawyers Guild Foundation, 132 Nassau St., #922, New York, NY 10038. Write “Mumia” on the notation line. For additional information, call the NYC Mumia Coalition hotline at 212-330-8029 or go to

To remember his April 24 birthday, send cards to Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Greene, 175 Progress Dr., Waynesburg, PA 15370.
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