New Threat Against Political Prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal; Court of Appeals Could Reinstate Death Sentence

by C. Clark Kissinger

On November 9 in Philadelphia, three judges of the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals will again hear oral arguments on the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. The Court of Appeals—on orders from the U.S. Supreme Court—will be reconsidering its own previous decision that had upheld the overturning of Mumia’s death sentence by a lower court.

If the appeals court finds against Mumia, as the Supreme Court has strongly hinted it should, Mumia could very soon be facing a new death warrant and execution date. Mumia’s lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, states, “Mumia is in the greatest danger since being arrested in 1981.”


Mumia and the Death Penalty

From its inception, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has concentrated the racist and reactionary nature of the death penalty in the U.S. It follows a long history of Black political activists being repeatedly targeted both with major frame-ups (for example, Geronimo Pratt in Los Angeles) and outright police murder (as with Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago). And it points to the disproportionate use of the death penalty against Black people and other people of color, which is part of this system's rule by terror and the threat of death against any who would get out of line.

The appeals court that will make the upcoming decision on Mumia's death penalty is, along with the courts overall, part of the capitalist-imperialist ruling class state apparatus in this country. That is why what is constitutional one day can be found unconstitutional the next, as the needs of the more dominant sections of the ruling class dictate.

For example, during the Jim Crow era, when Black people in the South were exploited under slave-like conditions, the Supreme Court found the legal standard of "separate but equal" was constitutional. That ruling was reversed in the 1950s—not because the U.S. Constitution itself changed, or because the Supreme Court justices developed new and deeper insights into the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. "Separate but equal" was, in the view of the Supreme Court, no longer in conformity with the interests of U.S. imperialism. Segregation was being challenged by powerful protest movements in the U.S. And global outrage at overt, legally sanctioned racial discrimination in the U.S. was proving to be a serious obstacle to U.S. moves to portray itself as a champion of democracy, for the purposes of supplanting European powers' neo-colonial domination of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and in contending with revolutionary movements—particularly in the Third World. And so, under these circumstances, the court overturned the "separate but equal" standard that had been constitutionally legal for decades.

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. ruling class has faced different freedom and necessity in regard to the death penalty. During the upsurges of the 1960s, the death penalty was widely (and accurately) perceived as a violent means of keeping Black people, Latinos, poor people, and political dissidents and revolutionaries oppressed and suppressed. In the context of unprecedented uprisings within the U.S. and international condemnation of the death penalty in the U.S., it was effectively suspended for the decade of the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Since then, while the reality of how the death penalty is used has not changed, the death penalty has been reimposed with a vengeance. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the federal death penalty to include some 60 crimes.

And there has been struggle—both movements against the death penalty, and some debate within the ruling class—over the use of the death penalty.

In a previous article (Revolution #190, January 31, 2010), we analyzed in some detail the legal issues at hand and the Supreme Court’s backtracking on its own previous decisions. As a result, the legal situation is no longer one of Mumia appealing for justice—his case for a new trial has essentially been thrown out. The courtroom action now is at the initiative of the state of Pennsylvania, which is demanding that Mumia’s death sentence be reinstated.

Mumia in the Crosshairs

Mumia has been a political activist all his life—as a Black Panther in his youth and then as a revolutionary journalist and author. FBI files show that Mumia was under government surveillance for years. In 1981, he was a crusading Black radio journalist in Philadelphia  who was moonlighting as a cab driver when he was involved in a street incident in which a cop was killed, and Mumia was shot and severely wounded. From the very beginning, every stop was pulled out to convict Mumia of the shooting and to effect an execution, all based on the grossest violation of legal procedures and fabrication of evidence.

Mumia was convicted and sentenced in a trial where almost all Blacks were excluded from the jury. It was a trial where police officers were allowed to "remember" (three months after the fact) that Mumia had loudly confessed to shooting the cop (even though a written police report—unseen by the jury—from that evening said Mumia made no statement). And a trial where Mumia was barred from the courtroom during half of his own trial because he continued to assert his right to refuse a court-appointed lawyer and to conduct his own legal defense.

In the sentencing part of Mumia's trial, prosecutors overtly made Mumia's politics a factor in arguing that he should be executed—invoking the fact that in the context of exposing the nature of the rulers of this system, a teenage Mumia had quoted Mao Tsetung's statement that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

In the years since the original trial, new evidence of Mumia's railroading has continued to come forward. Evidence of police coercion of trial witnesses has been amassed. Newly surfaced photographs show that the police claim of Mumia repeatedly firing down at the fallen police officer could not be true.

In these same intervening years, Mumia has continued to stand with the people and write weekly columns exposing the system. He also finished his college education and earned a master's degree, and has authored six books. He has done all this from a death-row cell where he is confined 23 hours a day and restricted from seeing family and lawyers except from behind a Plexiglas window.

Most importantly, Mumia has never recanted his belief in the criminality of the system and the need for revolutionary change. As a result, Mumia is in the crosshairs of that system.

Dueling Films on the Mumia Case

The announcement of the new court hearing in Mumia’s case coincided with the opening in Philadelphia of two dueling documentary films on the case. The first film, Justice on Trial, deals critically with the railroading of Mumia. The film was produced by Baruch College professor Johanna Fernandez and Kouross Esmaeli of Big Noise Films. Justice on Trial premiered at the National Constitutional Center, which is part of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, along with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell exhibit. In the panel discussion that followed the screening, Mumia’s voice came on as he called in live from death row in western Pennsylvania.

The filmmakers write that “Justice on Trial navigates the tempest of the Abu-Jamal trial by reviewing the known facts of the case. It demonstrates that the major violations in the Abu-Jamal case—judicial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination in jury selection, police corruption and tampering with evidence to obtain a conviction—are not special to this case. Instead, they are commonly practiced within the criminal justice system and account for the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos in the United States.” More information on the film, including a trailer, is available online at

The second film, Barrel of a Gun, reflects the views of prosecutors and the Fraternal Order of Police. It was produced by a Black Philadelphia filmmaker named Tigre Hill. The Barrel of a Gun is laced with commentary by right-wing pundits such as David Horowitz and Michael Smerconish, and drops in lots of pictures of militant Black Panthers and a portrait of Mao Tsetung. It includes a statement by Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell declaring Mumia to be guilty. This is the same governor who would now sign a new death warrant if the appeals court reinstates the death penalty on Mumia.

These opposing films are a reflection of the high stakes in this case and point to the need for a concerted effort to bring the facts of this case to many more people. In the 1990s, the struggle for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal both inspired and educated a generation of students on the nature of this system itself. A new generation of students could spark a broad and determined struggle that is required to stop the powers from carrying out this new threatened outrage.

Mumia Must Be Defended

The situation is now very dangerous for Mumia. Forces ranging from Amnesty International to the European Parliament have expressed concern over the fraudulent nature of Mumia's conviction and sentencing. Yet the Supreme Court not only denied Mumia's appeal for a new trial, but has now blatantly reversed existing principles and openly implied that the Third Circuit should come up with a new finding that would sanction Mumia's execution.

Mumia was railroaded to jail because of his revolutionary beliefs. It would be a terrible thing if the U.S. government is able to execute him. Anyone with a basic sense of justice, and anyone who aspires to a much better world, must oppose and resist the oppressor carrying out the ongoing persecution and the attempted legalized murder of Mumia. All this occurs within a broader climate of rising fascistic movements and an Obama administration that continues to sanction torture, rendition, and concentration camps like Bagram prison in Afghanistan; to order the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad without legal process; and to defend in court the reactionary contempt for the rule of law so massively expanded by the Bush administration.

A mass movement, reaching far and wide in society and around the world, was a crucial factor in stopping the rulers of this country from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal in the 1980s and '90s. At this moment, people must come together behind the demand to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Revolution #213, September 30, 2010