Censorship by Execution?
The Case of Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal
by Al Weinrub
Despite new evidence of his innocence and an international
outcry over his 1982 trial, African-American journalist Mumia
Abu-Jamal remains incarcerated on Pennsylvania's death row. Last
October the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Abu-Jamal's request
for a new trial, placing him on the fast track for execution.
The Effective Death Penalty Act, passed as part of the 1996 anti-terrorism
bill, severely restricts Abu-Jamal's right to appeal at the federal
At the time of his arrest for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia
police officer Daniel Faulkner, Abu-Jamal was a well-respected
journalist. Philadelphia Magazine named him one of the city's
"people to watch," and he was the elected president
of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Juan Gonzales,
a columnist for the New York Daily News, calls Abu-Jamal "one
of the most brilliant and committed journalists I ever met."
In August 1995, the national Delegate Assembly of the National
Writers Union passed a resolution stating that, "Abu Jamal's
original trial was riddled with glaring irregularities and represents
a gross and racist injustice. We urge a new and fair trial..."
In his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal was denied the right to defend
himself. He was assigned a public defender who was unprepared
to mount an effective defense. Abu-Jamal was banished from the
courtroom for much of his trial, and African-Americans were systematically
excluded from the jury.
In his appeal of the 1982 conviction, Abu-Jamal's defense
team, led by human rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass, presented
* the shot that killed Faulkner was not fired from Abu-Jamal's
* Abu-Jamal's purported "confession" was fabricated
by the police
* defense witnesses were pressured by police to change their
* prosecution witnesses were coerced by police to provide
* vital evidence was withheld from the defense.
But the same judge who issued Abu Jamal's death sentence also
heard the appeal-Albert Sabo, notorious for having sentenced 33
people to death (all but two of them people of color), more than
twice as many as any other sitting judge in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Judge Sabo rejected Abu-Jamal's bid for a new
"Even those who advocate his execution," says Weinglass,
"publicly acknowledge that if given a new trial, Abu-Jamal
would most likely be found not guilty."
Why has it proven so hard for Abu-Jamal to get a new trial?
Could it be that he's playing against a stacked deck?
In concurring with Judge Sabo's denial of a new trial, the
Pennsylvania Supreme court showed its true colors. Five out of
seven of the elected "justices" of the Pennsylvania
Supreme Court are politically beholden to, if not actually members
of, the Fraternal Order of Police- the organization most vehemently
pressing for Abu-Jamal's execution. One of the justices (Ronald
Castille) was directly involved in Abu-Jamal's case, and all preside
over a judicial system that has placed 121 prisoners from Philadelphia
alone on death row, all but 13 of them non-white.
Abu-Jamal's journalistic work during the 1970s brought him
into direct confrontation with Philadelphia's establishment, headed
by Mayor Frank Rizzo, the former police chief.
Philadelphia under Rizzo was a national scandal. An unprecedented
1979 lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against
Rizzo and other city officials for condoning flagrant police brutality,
cited 290 persons as being shot by Philadelphia police between
January 1, 1975 and December 10, 1978. [In 1995 the Philadelphia
police department was again in the headlines: framing-up of innocent
people, corruption, police brutality. In all, 300 convictions
were thrown out and many innocent victims set free. This expose
was followed by the Philadelphia District Attorney revealing that
juries had routinely been rigged to exclude blacks.]
At age fifteen, as Minister of Information for the Philadelphia
chapter of the Black Panther Party, Abu-Jamal took up the struggle
against police brutality, attracting the attention of Philadelphia's
finest. Later, when working as a news journalist for National
Public Radio, the Mutual Black Network, the National Black Network,
WUHY, and a number of other local stations, Abu-Jamal was dubbed
the "voice of the voiceless" for his exposure of police
violence against the minority community.
But it was Abu-Jamal's coverage of the trial of the MOVE 9
that incurred the wrath of the Rizzo administration. In August
1978, over 600 police launched an all out assault on the headquarters
of the MOVE organization-a close-knit black nationalist organization-opening
fire, flooding out its 12 adult and 11 child inhabitants with
fire hoses, and beating the adults.
In the wake of this attack, Ed Rendell, Rizzo's District Attorney,
prosecuted nine MOVE members for the death of an officer during
the police assault. Each was sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison.
[In 1984, still at war with the MOVE organization, the Philadelphia
police dropped a firebomb on MOVE headquarters. Eleven people
were incinerated, several of them babies, and 62 homes in the
African-American neighborhood were burned down.]
Abu-Jamal and other journalists sharply contested Rizzo's
version of the MOVE siege. "Rizzo was at war with the press
during that era," says Linn Washington, an award winning
investigative reporter who worked in Philadelphia at the time.
"He considered the press Public Enemy Number One because
of its coverage of police brutality, the corruption and incompetence
in his administration, and the racist practices of his administration.
He regularly lashed out at reporters, particularly black reporters."
Abu-Jamal's political activism and journalism not only made
him persona non grata to the Philadelphia police, but also inspired
a 600 page FBI file. Because of his outspoken criticism of Rizzo,
Abu-Jamal was fired from his broadcast job, leading him to take
the cab-driver job that placed him at the scene of Faulkner's
Ed Rendell, the district attorney who prosecuted the MOVE
9, also orchestrated the prosecution of Abu-Jamal in 1982. According
to W. Clark Kissinger, a journalist familiar with Abu-Jamal's
case, "Ed Rendell knew well of Abu-Jamal's radio journalism,
his exposures of police brutality, his coverage of the MOVE 9
trial, and his background in the Black Panther Party."
In fact, Abu-Jamal's political views were explicitly used
by the prosecution during the penalty phase of his trial to argue
that he should be put to death (a prosecutorial argument subsequently
declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court).
Efforts to Silence Abu-Jamal Continue
In the 17 years that Abu-Jamal has been on death row, he has
written almost 400 columns and two books, Live From Death Row
and Death Blossoms. Abu-Jamal's writings have put names and faces
on the people victimized by racial and economic injustice.
Take, for example, the case of Mrs. Helen Anthony, a fifty-nine-year
old domestic worker, who, on the way home from work, was stopped
by the police and denied entry to her home of 23 years-it was
to be torn down as a drug den. After two hours trying to get help,
Mrs. Anthony returned to find her home completely demolished.
Abu-Jamal also gives voice to a prison population which now
numbers 1.8 million, 4,000 on death row. Abu-Jamal's eloquent
exposure of criminal injustice and his unflagging stand in defense
of poor and working people have made him the target of an increasingly
strident effort to hasten his execution.
In May 1994, caving in to pressure from the Fraternal Order
of Police, National Public Radio (NPR) canceled a series of 12
Abu-Jamal commentaries produced for their news show All Things
Considered. Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole, on
the floor of the Senate, congratulated NPR on its decision to
censor the work, but in a blunt warning said, "It is disturbing
the NPR had apparently forgotten until the last minute the need
to provide balance and objectivity required in its programming,
and did not wake up until Abu-Jamal had recorded at least 10 commentaries..."
After publication of Live From Death Row, Abu-Jamal was put
in punitive detention by prison authorities, again, at the urging
of the Fraternal Order of Police (a punishment subsequently ruled
unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals). Mail from his
attorneys was illegally opened and copies sent to the governor's
office. And prison authorities have barred Abu-Jamal from contact
Recognizing the importance of free political expression, writers'
organizations such as PEN and the Society of Professional Journalists
have opposed censorship of Abu-Jamal's commentaries.
Last May, KGO-TV, the ABC/Disney affiliate in the San Francisco
Bay Area, and last December, ABC's prime-time show 20/20 presented
segments on Abu-Jamal's case, rife with distortions and falsifications.
In ABC's own words, 20/20 worked "in conjunction with Maureen
Faulkner (Faulkner's widow) and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order
of Police," in an attempt to discredit Abu-Jamal and his
efforts to win a new trial.
ABC's segments are consistent with corporate media's efforts
to portray Abu-Jamal as a "cop killer," and to deny
both him and his supporters a public forum.
The effort to silence Abu-Jamal, ultimately by execution,
is part of a broad attack on minorities, workers, and political
dissidents in our country. This attack includes the dismembering
of affirmative action, the criminalization of black and minority
youth, the gutting of defendants' rights, the scapegoating of
immigrants and minorities, the undermining of workers' wages and
working conditions, and the upward redistribution of wealth in
the face of growing impoverishment of the poor.
Abu-Jamal's case has become a momentous legal, moral, and
political struggle that concentrates some of the most burning
issues of the day.
The next few months will be critical in determining Abu-Jamal's
fate. Unfortunately, the truth alone will not set Abu-Jamal free.
His execution will only be stopped by a massive outcry demanding
justice in his case. Please add your voice to those calling for
a new trial.
For more information on Abu-Jamal, the mobilization, and what
you can do to help win a new trial, check the web site -- http://www.mumia.org
and Media Control