The campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther framed for the 1981 killing of a policeman, is reaching a critical stage. Over the past 18 years, as Mumia has sat on death row in Pennsylvania, his case has won worldwide attention and the campaign to save his life has steadily gained momentum. Trade unionists around the world, from Brazil, to South Africa and New Zealand have taken up his case. In the U.S., the longshore union shut down all the ports on the Pacific Coast for a day last April as a gesture of solidarity with this class-war prisoner.
Mumia was a founding member of the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. He subsequently won a reputation as the "Voice of the Voiceless" for his work as a reporter and his fearless criticisms of police brutality and racist persecution. The Philly cops knew him and hated him--his FBI file alone is over 700 pages.
He was convicted in a farcical trial presided over by Judge Albert Sabo, a life-long supporter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and a well-known "hanging judge." Sabo also handled Mumia's 1995 appeal for "post-conviction relief" where he ruled in favor of his original decision.
In January of this year, federal judge William Yohn in Philadelphia agreed to hear challenges to Sabo's "findings of fact" in the case. Mumia's attorneys have documented 29 separate claims of constitutional violations in a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus to overturn his conviction. (A copy of the defense memorandum can be found on the internet at mojo.calyx.net/~refuse/mumia/101699petitiontoc.html).
Judge Yohn is scheduled to begin considering defense arguments in April. This hearing, at the federal district court level, is Mumia's only opportunity to introduce new evidence into the official record. Subsequent appeals in higher federal courts are bound to only review evidence heard in the district court. The defense is seeking to present new evidence, including statements from key prosecution witnesses at Mumia's original trial that their testimony had been coerced by the Philly police. Sabo refused to admit these admissions on the bizarre grounds that these witnesses, who had provided the "evidence" for Mumia's original conviction, were no longer "credible."
The outcome of these hearings is impossible to predict. In a memo issued in late January, C. Clark Kissinger, who is close to Mumia's legal team, outlined a series of possibilities. The judge could permit new evidence to be heard and then overturn the conviction. But he could also deny an evidentiary hearing and uphold Sabo's decision. He could also let the guilty verdict stand, but ask the Pennsylvania courts to reconsider whether the sentence should be execution or life imprisonment. He could also rule that Mumia's conviction was unconstitutional without hearing any new evidence. In that case the state would likely appeal, thus setting the stage for a subsequent decision on the basis of the "facts" established by Sabo's kangaroo court.
'Free Mumia' or 'Re-Try Mumia'?
Mumia's case is at bottom about politics--not legalities. The reason that he was not executed after his death warrant was signed in 1995 is because there was a groundswell of popular political protest that exposed the racist vendetta by the Philly cops and courts. In November 1999 the national conference of the FOP, the largest police organization in the U.S., called for "boycotting" anyone who spoke out for Mumia, and singled out popular entertainers like Sting and Rage Against the Machine. The capitalist media has ignored the sinister implications of this unprecedented campaign of police intimidation. But it is a powerful confirmation of the fundamentally political character of this case.
Within the movement to defend Mumia an important disagreement has arisen over the political direction of the campaign. Some who once called for "freeing" Mumia are now calling for him to be re-tried. While it is necessary to pursue every possible legal avenue, the demand for winning freedom for Mumia must remain the political focus of the defense campaign.
Every fair-minded person who investigates this case can see that it is a classic frame-up. Every activist in his defense campaign knows that Mumia is innocent--which is why the prosecutors had to coerce witnesses and suppress evidence at his original trial. Why then should we focus on a call for the same racist state to re-try him?
In January 1927 when the International Labor Defense (ILD) campaigned in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants framed for a murder they did not commit, James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the ILD at the time, wrote:
If Mumia's conviction is overturned, the prosecutors are likely to demand a new round of legal hearings. What will the "revolutionaries" who are now calling for a new trial say then?
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, subject of a recently released film, was targeted by the FBI and local police after he advocated black self-defense against racist cop terror. He was convicted of murder in 1967 on the testimony of two petty crooks who the prosecutors paid $10,500. In 1976, after the state's "witnesses" recanted their testimony, Carter was granted a new trial only to have it turn into a re-run of the original frame-up. In 1985, after 18 years in jail, a federal court judge granted his habeas corpus petition and released him. The prosecution initially threatened to try him yet again, but ultimately decided not to.
In 1997, when Geronimo Pratt, former Black Panther Party Deputy Minister of Defense, was finally released from jail after serving 27 years on a bogus murder charge, the prosecutors talked of forcing him to face a re-trial. In Pratt's case, the FBI's own wiretaps and surveillance logs proved that he had been 500 miles away when the murder was committed. His real "crime," like that of Mumia and Hurricane Carter, was that the cops and state authorities considered him their enemy.
Liberals, civil libertarians and others who have confidence in the integrity of capitalist legality may view Mumia's case as a product of collusion between a few corrupt cops, an over-zealous district attorney and a racist judge. Such people may indeed be more comfortable with a campaign which sets as its goal a new trial for Mumia, but they are also likely to accept the result, including a second guilty verdict.
The entire state apparatus exists to defend social inequality and perpetuate racial, sexual and class oppression. Mumia's campaign has already helped expose the workings of a system which routinely puts innocent people on death row. Why should we drop the call for his freedom in favor of calling for a new trial which might only provide an alibi for his execution? Mumia's case is a political one and ultimately it is through a political appeal to the workers' movement, the black community and other layers of the oppressed that we will win his freedom.
No Faith in Capitalist Courts!