On 26 April, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ordered a new sentencing hearing for renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, echoing their 2008 finding that the death penalty instructions given to the jury at the original trial were misleading and unconstitutional.
Comrade Abu-Jamal, a well-known member of the Black Panther Party and an award-winning anti-racist journalist, famous for his work exposing police brutality and other social and racial problems afflicting the poorest people in the USA, was shot, beaten, arrested and then wrongly convicted of the murder of policeman Daniel Faulkner in 1982. He has been on death row ever since, despite the fact that the real perpetrator finally owned up to the murder in 1999.
The court’s latest ruling instructs the prosecution to begin a new sentencing hearing within six months or agree to a life sentence. Though this ruling will be inevitably disputed – District Attorney R Seth Williams has announced he will immediately approach the US Supreme Court – it requires prosecutors to call for a new hearing if they seek to reinstate the death penalty.
Whilst the state of Pennsylvania desperately wants to execute Comrade Mumia, this now looks unlikely to happen, as it would require empanelling a different jury, who might be called upon to consider new mitigating evidence. Of course, the question of guilt would not be on trial per se, but the legitimacy of the conviction could certainly be discredited within the courtroom by the evidence now available that he was in fact innocent.
After decades of denied appeals to the Philadelphia Supreme Court, Comrade Abu-Jamal was finally granted an appeal in the federal courts in 2001. Unable to dismiss the glaring errors of the original trial, District Court Judge William H Yohn Jr overturned the death sentence but, perversely, appeased US imperialism by upholding the guilty verdict. It is this absurd ruling that has caused the subsequent legal impasse.
The original conviction, clear for all but the most committed reactionaries to see, was flawed and motivated by political and racial persecution. It was characterised by a prejudice-filled judge, a partial jury, an incompetent defence lawyer (imposed on the defendant against his will), and perjured material evidence. Even the loyal servants of imperialism at Amnesty International belatedly announced in 2000 that in their opinion “numerous aspects of the case had failed to meet minimum international standards”.
In fact, Comrade Mumia had been a target of the state since he was a high-school activist and co-founder of Philadelphia’s chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1968, an intelligence agent, as exposed in a released document, informed the director of the FBI that “the young Negro wants something to feel proud of, but must learn if he becomes a revolutionary, he will be a dead revolutionary”.
This chilling declaration underlines the United States’ historical, and ongoing, campaign of state terror against internal and external progressive movements. The Black Panther Party, both ideologically and practically, attempted to prepare America’s oppressed minorities for class war. Whilst they initiated a number of social programmes – such as free breakfasts for school children and medical centres for impoverished communities – they also armed themselves physically and meticulously studied revolutionary theory from Lenin, W E B Du Bois, Mao Zedong and others, as well as the experiences of successful and ongoing revolutions throughout the world, especially those in China, Africa, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.
Identifying American capital as the primary source of oppression, the Black Panther Party proved intolerable for the seething bourgeoisie, who embarked on a barbaric crusade against the liberation movement. The entire state apparatus was utilised to suppress the African-American revolutionaries: through surgical assassinations of leading members, bombings of premises, flooding of narcotics into black communities, arbitrary arrests and show trials, and a deliberate campaign of misinformation by which comrades were pitted against one another. Forged letters, filled with deliberately falsified accounts and personal criticisms, caused irreparable fractures in the leadership – as simultaneously they and their members were being murdered or imprisoned.
Though the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) had devastating consequences for the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu-Jamal continued, and still continues from behind prison bars, to provide an articulate and damning analysis of social oppression within the United States, as well as of its vicious foreign policy abroad against oppressed nations.
As he outspokenly condemned imperialist intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, he has also provided the world with a critical insight into the brutal and racist American judicial system. There is not another nation in the world that imprisons so many of its citizens along clear racial and class lines at the rate that the United States does. Despite only accounting for 5 percent of the global population, the US houses a massive 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – approximately 2.4 million.
If the number of citizens on parole or probation is considered, then this already staggering figure rises to 8 million. Further, the American bourgeoisie manipulates drug laws – enforcing disproportionate sentences for the possession and selling of narcotics, predominately found (often after being implanted and then looked for) in minority communities. In this context, the ‘land of the free’ is in fact a prison of nations.
Yet, as others may have succumbed to the pressures of languishing on death row for almost three decades, Comrade Mumia’s enduring commitment to anti-imperialism and fighting for justice has driven him into the consciousness of the masses. Although we wholeheartedly welcome any quashing of his unjustifiable death sentence, it is Free Mumia! that is the unified demand of working people across the world.