On March 27, a federal appeals court rejected a call for a retrial and overthrow of the conviction of award-winning writer, activist and revolutionary, Mumia Abu-Jamal, DemocracyNow.com reported. The court did, however, order a new trial to determine whether racism was involved in his sentence, and Abu-Jamal would get either the death penalty or a life sentence without parole if granted an appeal.
The only thing that has changed in this real – although inadequate – victory were the words ‘death row’ being removed from his original sentence to remain shackled indefinitely in a prison. Abu-Jamal’s case has attracted much attention because of the overt and covert racism and corruption surrounding it, as well as his controversial politics.
Abu-Jamal has spent the past 26 years on death row resulting from a 1982 conviction of killing a police officer. The trial has been repeatedly acknowledged as racist and corrupt by some politicians, many intellectuals and a wealth of celebrities. Recent court rulings have stated that the removal of jurors for the color of their skin is unconstitutional. However, his lawyer, Robert Bryan, told DemocracyNow.org that one of the three ruling judges in a previous decision wrote a 41-page dissent on how institutional racism was involved in his case – including, but not limited to, removing minorities from the jury seats.
A judicially recognized pattern of this practice went on during the time of Abu-Jamal’s trial. Bryan said that the Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of upholding the decision made in another case that deemed the removal of even one person from a jury because of the color of his or her skin unconstitutional. He said that nearly 70 percent of the potential jurors removed in Abu-Jamal’s case were African-Americans – a population that made up 40 percent to 45 percent of the population in his district at the time – and were therefore not eligible for jury duty. This difference between representation and population makes it obvious that Abu-Jamal was judged by anything but a jury of his peers, and the fact that he was an active community organizer for human rights and dignity was not looked upon kindly by the racist culture surrounding him.
Abu-Jamal is very critical of abuses of power, racism and classism in his writings and commentaries, as reflected in his actions before his incarceration. He was a member of the Black Panther Party, got involved in numerous student and community organizations, worked as a journalist and earned the nickname “voice of the voiceless” for his commitment to reporting on the human side of stories.
He releases radio commentaries as part of Prison Radio’s reporting on world events, sharing insights into history and planting seeds of wisdom and courage in the minds of countless readers and listeners. He has authored five books, the most well-known being We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party and Live From Death Row.
His criticism of topics ranging from the war in Iraq to trade agreements to gender discrimination is one reason his case has attracted so much attention. I submit that it is Abu-Jamal’s politics that are the reason his case has been treated so mercilessly.
The federal appeals court decision last Thursday may be used as a reference case to help make progress in the trials of people currently in situations similar to Abu-Jamal’s.
However, Abu-Jamal and all other prisoners – political or apathetic – deserve a fair trial. All evidence should be presented in plain view, no one should be barred or intimidated into not testifying and the jury should be composed of a group that is truly representative of the population. These are the ideals that should be present in a court system designed to serve a society whose goal is to keep freedom and justice not separate and independent, but complementary and interchangeable.
It is not only unconstitutional that Abu-Jamal is denied a fair trial – it is an insult to American ideals.
Jose Ferrer is a sophomore majoring in sociology.