Abu-Jamal injustice stains our image

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Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 12:00 am

If one instant is too long to endure an injustice imagine the anguish of suffering nearly one billion seconds locked inside a solitary confinement prison cell for a crime evidence indicates you did not commit.

That is the plight of the most recognized death-row inmate in the world, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia-born journalist whose imprisonment reaches the thirty-year mark this Friday, Dec. 9, 2011.

For many in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal’s guilt is solid fact so Abu-Jamal spending 946-million-plus-seconds inside a cell since his arrest for killing a Philadelphia policeman constitutes just punishment.

However, for millions around the world, the 15.7-million-plus minutes of Abu-Jamal’s incarceration constitutes a horrific miscarriage of justice staining America’s cultivated image of commitment to legal fairness.

“Every time I demonstrate for Mumia down in London’s financial district I see this guy who says he’s from Philadelphia, and he always shouts that Mumia is guilty as hell,” said Osagyefo Tongogara, the head of Britain’s Free Mumia Coalition.

“But when I ask this guy to debate, putting his facts out and I presenting my facts, this guy just runs away,” said Tongogara said during an interview last week.

Those convinced of Abu-Jamal’s guilt cite facts like Pennsylvania courts constantly confirming Abu-Jamal’s guilt by dismissing all of his appeals.

Yet, those convinced of Abu-Jamal’s mistreatment question the propriety of Pennsylvania courts voiding more than 200 death penalty convictions citing various factual and procedural errors while claiming that not a single legal error exists anywhere in the most controversial murder case in Pennsylvania’s 300-year-plus history.

Pennsylvania courts, for example, have eliminated over two dozen death sentences on the sole procedural issue of defense lawyers failing to present mitigating evidence against capital punishment during the trial’s death penalty phase.

Although Abu-Jamal’s overwhelmed/undermined defense lawyer presented no mitigating evidence during the 1982 trial, state courts claim no error exists like in similar cases receiving relief by contending Abu-Jamal “controlled” his defense.

That rationale of Abu-Jamal controlling his defense contradicts the reality that the 1982 trial judge snatched away Abu-Jamal’s self-defense right days before that trial began and then barred Abu-Jamal from attending most of his trial because of Abu-Jamal’s protests against having his self-defense right robbed.

That asserted “control” is legal fiction marauding as fact.

But that assertion is consistent with court patterns twisting established law to speciously justify rejecting Abu-Jamal’s valid appeal claims.

While Abu-Jamal detractors say disruptions rightly resulted Abu-Jamal losing self-defense rights, news accounts from 1982 contradict that contention.

Those news accounts depict Abu-Jamal’s courtroom behavior as “business like” and non-disruptive until the trial judge revoked self-representation, granting the prosecutor’s unproven assertion that some potential jurors found Abu-Jamal’s dreadlocks scary.

“Mumia has been a popular hero for many French people [because] he is the victim of a corrupt justice system,” said Claude Gillaumaud, a professor in France who began campaigning for Abu-Jamal in 1995 by organizing her college students.

Abu-Jamal is an honorary citizen in more than 20 French cities, Gillaumaud said, and a street in the Paris suburb of St. Denis carries his name. Similar support for Abu-Jamal exists across Europe and beyond from South America to the African nation of Ghana.

“He’s an example to all of us because he remains an activist even after spending 30-years in hell,” said Gillaumaud, who published a 2007 Abu-Jamal biography “A Free Man on Death Row.”

Typical of tensions in this scrutinized case Abu-Jamal opponents and proponents see different things in the same set of facts.

Opponents cite the eyewitness who testified he saw Abu-Jamal shoot Officer Daniel Faulkner from his cab that was parked behind Faulkner’s patrol car.

Proponents question this eyewitness account by citing the failure of any official police crime scene photographs to show the parked cab.

Some opponents say police immediately took the cab and its driver to homicide headquarters for questioning.

But police crime scene investigation regulations operative in 1981 forbade removal of that cab and if removed required chalk-marks listing its location.

If police, in fact, moved the cab they improperly tampered with the crime scene, enhancing error by failing to make regulation required chalk-marks.

Police even failed to follow standard procedure by testing Abu-Jamal’s hands to confirm he fired a gun that night.

Police claim they just forgot to perform that standard test — curiously the same test police didn’t forget to perform on others initially suspected of possible involvement in Faulkner’s fatal shooting.

That failure to perform such a basic and crucial test evidences either sloppy police work or police hiding results of a test proving Abu-Jamal’s innocence.

“This is ridiculous and disgraceful that the government ignores evidence of innocence in this case,” said Demitry Lapidus, a student at the prestigious London School of Economics. “I am from Russia, and it makes me sad to see political prisoners in the U.S. the same as in Russia.”

Despite questions about what did or didn’t happen at the 1981 crime scene or during years of appellate court review, it is unquestionable that they jury convicting Abu-Jamal in 1982 did not hear all available evidence.

Will Francome, the Englishman at the center of the award-winning 2007 film “In Prison My Whole Life” examining the Abu-Jamal case, criticized this inauspicious 30th anniversary.

“It’s clear to me that there are and always have been major questions surrounding the case, and a grave injustice has been done.”


Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.

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