Aug 1 1995

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Silenced on Death Row

Mumia Abu-JamalA Washington Post feature article on death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal begins with a chilling anecdote:

There is an image from Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial that stays with Maureen Faulkner, even now, 13 years later. Abu-Jamal was charged with killing Faulkner’s husband, Daniel, a 25-year-old Philadelphia policeman, by shooting him first in the back and then pumping four bullets into his prone body. When the ballistics expert held up her husband’s bloody shirt to display the bullet holes, Abu-Jamal, seated at the defense table, turned around and looked at Maureen Faulkner.

“He smiled at me,” she says.

Later in the article, when the idea that Abu-Jamal might be innocent is raised, Faulkner retorts: “Does an innocent person turn and smile at the widow when the bloody shirt is held up?”

It’s a gripping image–presented as unquestioned fact by the Post reporter. But Abu-Jamal’s lawyer says the incident never happened.

“The fact of the matter is that Mr. Jamal was not in the courtroom at the time the criminalist displayed Officer Faulkner’s shirt, having been previously removed from the court by Judge Sabo and electing to remain outside the courtroom until he had a chance to consult with legal aides,” Abu-Jamal’s attorney Leonard Weinglass said in a statement. He cited pages from the court record to corroborate this contention.

Abu-Jamal himself is currently unable to give his side of the story. The state of Pennsylvania, which plans to execute him on August 17, is denying all news media requests to interview him.

Abu-Jamal has been placed in “disciplinary custody,” which basically cuts off all access to the outside world. His offense was “operating a business or profession” behind bars–namely, he was being a writer, publishing a book through Addison Wesley called Live From Death Row.

The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which succeeded in getting National Public Radio to drop Abu-Jamal’s series of commentaries (Extra!, 7-8/94), failed in its efforts to get the book canceled. The disciplinary isolation seems to be the prison system’s revenge on Abu-Jamal for daring to speak.

Why are Pennsylvania and the police so adamant that Mumia Abu-Jamal not be allowed to speak? After all, Diane Sawyer interviewed Charles Manson on PrimeTime Live with less controversy (11/16/94). What makes Abu-Jamal’s words so dangerous?

Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in a trial marred by irregularities, is an eloquent spokesperson for the nearly 3,000 Americans who are sentenced to death, and for the more than one million people currently in U.S. jails and prisons. Very seldom are prisoners heard from, particularly those facing capital punishment. Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist (he headed the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists at the time of his arrest), is uniquely able to give a human voice to people that the country seems to want to forget.

The strategy of Pennsylvania is designed to keep Abu-Jamal silent until he can be silenced permanently. It is a violation of his First Amendment rights, which do not vanish simply because someone is convicted of a crime and incarcerated. Not only does this prevent a man who did not receive a fair trial from making his case to the public, it also deprives the public of an essential opportunity to learn what it really means for the state to kill a human being.

When Extra! Update went to press, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge had signed a death warrant for Abu-Jamal, setting an execution date of August 17. His lawyers have filed appeals. Please write to Gov. Ridge and insist that Pennsylvania respect Abu-Jamal’s civil rights and the First Amendment rights of reporters who want to get both sides of the story: Main Capital Building, Room 22, Harrisburg, PA 17120 (Phone: 717-783-1198; 717-783-1396).