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 level.

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..."

Appeals Denied

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 evidence that:

* the shot that killed Faulkner was not fired from Abu-Jamal's gun

* Abu-Jamal's purported "confession" was fabricated by the police

* defense witnesses were pressured by police to change their stories

* prosecution witnesses were coerced by police to provide false testimony

* 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 trial.

"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 Enemies

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 murder.

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 with journalists.

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.

High Stakes

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

Propaganda and Media Control