After spending decades in prison, Mumia Abu-Jamal remains one of the most divisive figures behind bars in the U.S.
On Wednesday, Mumia Abu-Jamal marked 31 years since his original death sentence was handed down by a Philadelphia court. Now 59 years old, Abu-Jamal, supported by thousands of in the U.S. and abroad, maintains his innocence and has pushed for immediate release.
After spending decades in prison, he remains one of the most divisive figures behind bars in the U.S., becoming a cause celebre for those who see him as an outspoken critic of police brutality, racism and U.S. wars abroad. Others stand by his original conviction, seeing him as a cold-blooded cop killer.
“This man should have never been in prison for one day. Mumia will one day be considered a hero in U.S. history. There is no question, but today he is known as a cop killer,” said Dr. Suzanne Ross, a long-time activist and spokesperson for the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, to Mint Press News.
The push for freedom
After his sentence was commuted in 2011 to life in prison without the possibility of parole, supporters hope that Abu-Jamal will one day walk free. But what are the legal options? Representatives from the Free Mumia campaign hope that strong national and international support will create the momentum necessary for governor of Pennsylvania to grant clemency.
“The governor can pardon him at any point. If he can be pressured, who knows what will happen? Right now there is a campaign to get the Justice Department to apply pressure for his release,” Ross said.
Abu-Jamal’s legal team at the NAACP defense fund is also compiling evidence they hope will demonstrate his innocence and allow his lawyers to get a new trial.
“He is a very popular and admired figure, especially by young people. He is loved and revered because he has stood by his principles. He has never weakened his position against U.S. wars and poverty. He spoke out against police brutality and racism. He told the truth about Philadelphia. If he was ever given another trial, the police would be exposed for racism and abuse,” Ross said.
Over the years, Ross has carried this message to Haiti, Great Britain, France, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany and Algeria, where she has been greeted by “huge crowds and widespread support.” The salient question: Why so much attention and support for Abu-Jamal?
The support comes mostly from highly contested flaws in the judicial process, pointing to what many claim say is a grave miscarriage of justice in the Philadelphia courts.
Flaws in the trial
The case began in 1981 with the murder of a Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an activist and journalist in the Philadelphia area. During a routine traffic stop, Faulkner pulled over a car driven by Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook.
During an ensuing conflict, Faulkner was shot and killed by an assailant alleged by the prosecution to be Abu-Jamal. He was arrested, taken into custody, and charged with first-degree murder.
Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, identified flaws in the original 1982 trial, claiming that Abu-Jamal did not receive a legal process that met the bare minimum of international standards for a fair trial.
“The judge in the case, Albert Sabo, was very close to the fraternal order of police. What he did say, which was quoted by a court stenographer right next to the courtroom during a break, was, ‘I’m going to help them fry the nigger,’” Ross said.
The details of the case point to inconsistencies in the evidence presented in the case.
“The prosecution’s version of what happened has been shown again and again to be impossible. The police withheld evidence from the defense. When they were observed and looked at by a researcher in Germany he noted that these photos totally contradicted the prosecution’s version of what happened. A Volkswagen they claimed was on the scene was not there,” Ross said.
Additionally, there were no marks in the sidewalk that would indicate missed shots. The prosecution claimed that Abu-Jamal fired several rounds that missed Faulkner and hit the surrounding sidewalk.
In 2011, the 30th year on death row for Mumia, December marked an important breakthrough in the case. After years of petitioning, Abu-Jamal’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomed the decision, declaring that Abu-Jamal should be released with time served.
“Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row in the first place, justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life — yet another form of death sentence. Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia must now be released,” Tutu said.
“Nobody has more prestige than Archbishop Tutu. He is considered the dean of commentators on human rights. When Tutu calls for his release, it’s a big deal,” Ross said.
Faulkner’s widow and supporters within the Philadelphia police department maintain that Abu-Jamal committed the murder and that the alleged flaws in the judicial process are fabricated.
“My family and I have endured a three-decade ordeal at the hands of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys and his supporters; who in many cases never even took the time to educate themselves about the case before lending their names, giving their support and advocating for his freedom,” said Maureen Faulkner, Daniel Faulkner’s widow, in a statement.
Several documentaries, including reports by ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, mostly uphold the account of Faulkner’s widow and the Philadelphia police.
The ongoing national debate over Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence will continue, but previous cases involving the assassination of other Black Panther Party members cast further doubt on the case.
On the morning of Dec. 4, 1969, police killed the 21-year-old Fred Hampton in a hail of bullets while he was in his bed. Initial police reports showed that the authorities exchanged fire with the Black Panther leader while trying to serve a routine warrant and search for weapons.
Evidence later surfaced showing that the FBI, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago police conspired to assassinate Hampton, a charismatic young leader of the militant movement known for the free breakfast program in impoverished communities. Famed MIT academic and social commentator Noam Chomsky called his killing “the gravest domestic crime of the Nixon administration.”