Guest Column

Freedom ahead for famous death row inmate?

2017-04-25 09:26

In a week when the US state of Arkansas is intending to go ahead with what has been described as “conveyor belt executions”, the man described by the New York Times as “perhaps the world’s most famous death row prisoner”, Mumia Abu-Jamal, has launched yet another bid for his freedom.

Abu-Jamal, who celebrated his 63rd birthday on Monday has spent 35 years in prison, 30 of them in isolation on death row in the state of Philadelphia. A new post-conviction relief act petition, in essence an indirect appeal on his murder conviction, will go ahead this week.

In a trial condemned by various judicial authorities and organisations such as Amnesty International as falling far short of any reasonable standard of justice, Abu-Jamal was sentenced to die in 1981 for shooting to death a policeman. A former Black Panther and campaigning journalist, he specialised in exposing corruption and racism in the Philadelphia city administration and police. In this role he earned the sobriquet “voice of the voiceless” from poor and largely black communities. He also earned considerable animosity from the establishment and police.
 
Abu-Jamal was himself shot in the chest when he ran to help his brother who he maintains was being assaulted by the policeman. Then – in evidence never heard at the trial but which emerged subsequently – someone in the crowd of bystanders shot the policeman. The bystanders ran off when back up police arrived to find the policeman dead and Mumia Abu-Jamal wounded.
 
The prosecuter in the case, Joseph McGill, made much of Abu-Jamal’s Black Panther connections and apparent anti-establishment attitudes, including the fact that Jamal admitted that “power to the people” was a slogan he and the Panthers supported. Eight years later McGill was publicly disgraced when it emerged that he had been involved with police in several convictions based on fabricated evidence. One of his victims spent 12 years in prison before being released when it emerged that evidence against him was false.
 
The judge in the Abu-Jamal case was the notorious Albert Sabo who, at that time, had sentenced more men and women to death than any other judge in the United States. A court stenographer also subsequently admitted in an affidavit that Sabo, in his chambers, noted privately “I’m going to help them fry that nigger”.
 
From the time he entered prison and using every available channel, Abu-Jamal continued to campaign and to write not only about his own case but on various social and political issues. But his case attracted the attention of leading figures around the world including President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called for a new trial and his release. In 2001 a federal court ordered that his death sentence be commuted to life without parole. But the state authorities kept Jamal on death row until 2011.
 
By then, he had already produced several books and commentaries on a wide range of human rights issues, including the best known, Live from death row. From prison he has also addressed thousands of students at universities through video tapes and now, digital recordings. He has become a leading voice – and living example – of the campaign against the death penalty.
 
This week should see whether he will finally be granted his freedom. It will also be the week in which Jack Jones and Marcel Williams may be put to death by lethal injection in the state of Arkansas, following the judicial killing of Lendl Lee on April 20.

Another five Arkansas death-row prisoners await their fate over the coming weeks. 

- Terry Bell is a political and economic analyst and writes the Inside Labour column for Fin24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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