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Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Death Sentence Declared Unconstitutional

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Posted on Apr 27, 2011

By Amy Goodman

The death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal took a surprising turn this week, as a federal appeals court declared, for the second time, that Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was unconstitutional. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia, found that the sentencing instructions the jury received, and the verdict form they had to use in the sentencing, were unclear. While the disputes surrounding Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence were not addressed, the case highlights inherent problems with the death penalty and the criminal justice system, especially the role played by race.

Early on Dec. 9, 1981, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over a car driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother. What happened next is in dispute. Shots were fired, and both Officer Faulkner and Abu-Jamal were shot. Faulkner died, and Abu-Jamal was found guilty of his murder in a court case presided over by Judge Albert Sabo, who was widely considered to be a racist. In just one of too many painful examples, a court stenographer said in an affidavit that she heard Sabo say, in the courtroom antechamber, “I’m going to help them fry the ni—r.”

This latest decision by the Court of Appeals relates directly to Sabo’s conduct of the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal’s court case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering separate arguments surrounding whether or not Abu-Jamal received a fair trial at all. What the Court of Appeals unanimously found this week is that he did not receive a fair sentencing. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has decided to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying, “The right thing for us to do is to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this and to make a ruling on it.”

As a result of this ruling, Abu-Jamal could get a new, full sentencing hearing, in court, before a jury. In such a hearing, the jury would be given clear instructions on how to decide between applying a sentence of life in prison versus the death penalty, something the court found he did not receive back in 1982. At best, Abu-Jamal would be removed from the cruel confines of solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row at SCI Greene.

John Payton, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing Abu-Jamal in court, said:  “This decision marks an important step forward in the struggle to correct the mistakes of an unfortunate chapter in Pennsylvania history ... and helps to relegate the kind of unfairness on which this death sentence rested to the distant past.”

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His other attorney, Judith Ritter, a professor at Widener University School of Law, told me: “This is extremely significant. It’s a life or death decision.” I asked her if she had spoken to Abu-Jamal yet, and she told me that the prison failed to approve her request for an emergency legal phone call. I was not surprised, given my many years of covering his case.

Abu-Jamal has faced multiple obstacles as he has tried to have his voice heard. On Aug. 12, 1999, as I was hosting “Democracy Now!,” Abu-Jamal called into our news hour mid-broadcast to be interviewed. As he began to speak, a prison guard yanked the phone out of the wall. Abu-Jamal called back a month later and recounted that “another guard appeared at the cell hollering at the top of his lungs, ‘This call is terminated!’ I immediately called to the sergeant standing by and looking on and said, ‘Sergeant, where did this order come from?’ He shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘I don’t know. We just got a call to cut you off.’ ” Abu-Jamal sued over the violation of his rights and won.

Despite his solitary confinement, Abu-Jamal has continued his work as a journalist. His weekly radio commentaries are broadcast from coast to coast. He is the author of six books. He was recently invited to present to a conference on racial imprisonment at Princeton University. He said (through a cellphone held up to a microphone): “Vast numbers of men, women and juveniles ... populate the prison industrial complex here in America. As many of you know, the U.S., with barely 5 percent of the world’s population, imprisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners ... the numbers of imprisoned blacks here rivals and exceeds South Africa’s hated apartheid system during its height.”

The United States clings to the death penalty, alone in the industrialized world. It stands with China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as the world’s most frequent executioners. This week’s decision in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case stands as one more clear reason why the death penalty should be abolished.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

© 2011 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate


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mackTN's avatar

By mackTN, April 27, 2011 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment

Imprisoning and killing the poor, particularly black people and hispanics, is
generally an easy feat.  Good lawyers cost money that increasing numbers of
people just don’t have, forcing most to depend on public defenders whose case
loads are so heavy that their strategy consists of striking a bargain with
prosecutors to afford costly defenses.  Being poor without connections and an
education sufficient for legal communication determines your likely fate if
accused of a crime.  It’s easier for all to go through the basic motions and put
prisoners in jail, and non-whites are often assumed guilty.  After all, who
cares?  We can muster a fight for Bradley Manning, but Abu-Jamal?  Just look at
the number of comments on this story.  If it had been about Lindsay Lohan ,
the comments would have filled columns for days.  If Lohan was black….

Visit any courtroom in any urban city.  I recall the first time I had to go to court
for a traffic violation in Chicago during the 70s when I was in my early 20s.  I
asked my father to accompany me because I was scared.  We found the court in
downtown Chicago and sat down to wait my turn.  Looking around, I noticed
that everyone in court was black and I thought to myself—this must be where
the black people are assigned.  Instantly I realized the absurdity of my
reflection, that blacks and whites had separate legal treatment…in Chicago…in
1973.  Then how to explain the absence of any white people—except for the
judges, lawyers, and other staff—in the courtroom?  Were white people not
ticketed?  How did they avoid answering their traffic violations? 

A couple of years ago, I was arrested by the campus police on school grounds
just as I got off work.  I was 58 years old. I’d been employed at this university
for two years; I’d never been arrested in my life. The policeman arrested me for
driving on a suspended license—I had forgotten to pay a $35 traffic ticket and
didn’t even know my license was suspended as a result. (My husband had
recently died and I was still steeped in depression and apathy.)  This policeman
handcuffed me, impounded my car, and took me to jail where I was chained to
a table!  My son had to bail me out.  I tried to get a lawyer, but none that I
contacted empathized with my outrage.  Even though most police don’t arrest
on minor traffic violations, apparently they are supported if they do because of
“discretion.” I wrote / called all kinds of justice and rights organizations—not
one would even deal with it. I called lawyers—same indifference, although I
suspect they just didn’t want to get into a pissing match with a prominent
university that would be embarassed by my outcry. I complained officially to
the school and to the campus police who wouldn’t even respond to my written
letter.  I did end up getting a lawyer, a black lawyer who advised against suing,
saying the courts and community support police and, besides, it would cost me
thousands of dollars to argue discrimination. To be honest, I think a school
official got to my lawyer who instantly saw the benefits of establishing a career
friendly relationship than risking an aggravating position defending me.  So he
tells me that I’ll be allowed no plea—just court costs and, of course, his $500
fee.  I guesss you can tell that I’m still bitter over this incident and pissed that
lawyers take the opportunity to further their own careers at your expense when
they get the chance.

It was all too easy to do this to me.  The police wouldn’t have even entertained
arresting my white colleagues or superiors.  Unable to get over this experience,
I ultimately left the university over a year later, still fuming and bitter.  I had a
strong feeling that my arrest had nothing to do with traffic but with a dispute I
had with someone at a time when the university was entertaining layoffs and s

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John M's avatar

By John M, April 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment

No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty,
or property, without due process of law

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or
otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or
indictment of a grand jury

the death penalty is written in to the constitution

So long as there is due process


All you Need to Know about US Government Bureaucracy:

• Pythagorean theorem:.......................24
words.

• Lord’s prayer:.............................66
words.

• Archimedes’ Principle:.....................67
words.

• 10 Commandments:...........................179
words.

• Gettysburg address:.........................186
words.

• Declaration of Independence:..............1,300
words.

• US Constitution with 27 Amendments:.......7,818
words.

• US Government regulations on sale of
cabbage:...26,911 words

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