The NAACP, after years of ducking taking a public stand on the case of Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, voted on an “emergency resolution” near the end of its annual convention in Philadelphia Thursday to call for a new trial for the black journalist/activist, and to urge local NAACP chapters to work toward that goal.
The resolution didn’t come easily. Mumia supporters found that delegates who had hoped to introduce the measure had been decertified and barred from the convention, which met in the Philadelphia Convention Center. They also found that a planned panel on the death penalty, at which they had intended to raise Abu-Jamal’s case, had been unexplainably cancelled. Only when MOVE activist Pam Africa and some other MOVE supporters threatened to picket the convention and even attempt to crash the delegates assembly, holding a white flag, did the organization-the nation’s oldest civil rights group–relent. Even then, a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic effort was made to water down a draft resolution of support by removing the specific call for a new trial and making it a call for a review of all death penalty cases. Finally, with the help of several delegates, including David Graham Du Bois (a descendent of W.E.B. Du Bois) and Mayor John Street’s son Sharif, NAACP Chair Julian Bond was persuaded to endorse and sign a resolution draft that made the specific call for a new trial.
The NAACP’s endorsement of the call for a new trial is an important victory for Abu-Jamal, whose 23-year-old case is moving forward into the last stages of his appeal–this time in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. For while the venerable civil rights organization has supported Abu-Jamal in the courtroom-it filed an amicus brief in 2000 in support of his federal appeal-it had not until now put the organization on record as demanding for a new trial.
Abu-Jamal, though his attorney, noted the support which the NAACP has offered in his case over the years, and said, “I am humbled by and very
grateful for the NAACP1s support. The NAACP has taken stands through the
years on behalf of so many people who have been victimized in society because of their race. I hope this resolution will help many others in situations similar to mine.”
His lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, added, “I think to have the support of the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S. is of enormous importance to this case. Along with my client, I am very grateful to the NAACP for taking this stand.”
In fact, while support for the resolution on the floor-it passed with one dissenting vote–was overwhelming, the NAACP leadership had to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking such a public position on this case. This despite the fact that this case was so cruelly and obviously contaminated by racism (the presiding judge was overheard, on day one of the trial, saying he would “help them fry that nigger” as he left the courtroom, and 11 qualified black jurors were barred from serving by the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges, ultimately leaving Abu-Jamal facing a jury with only two black members in a city that was 40 percent black).
Perhaps more important, this episode is also evidence of how weakened Abu-Jamal’s support organization has become. Only Pam Africa’s tactical skill at holding NAACP leaders’ feet to the fire by threatening them with an embarrassing incident on the day Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was speaking to the gathering managed to win the day and get the resolution to the floor.
Back in the mid to late 1990s, whenever there was a Mumia demonstration in Philadelphia, organizers could count on bringing out thousands, even tens of thousands of supporters, both local and bussed in from around the country. Today, Free Mumia demonstrations in Philadelphia-like the rally and march on Abu-Jamal’s birthday back in April–are lucky to attract a few hundred people, half of them pulled in from New York and elsewhere.
What has happened?
The case, certainly, is as outrageous and compelling as ever. Abu-Jamal, who always has and continues to maintain his innocence, was convicted on the basis of the testimony of two key witnesses, a white taxi driver and a black prostitute, neither of whom was seen at the scene of the crime by any other witnesses (no one even recalled seeing the taxi, which was supposedly parked directly at the scene of the 1981 shootings of police officer Daniel Faulkner and Abu-Jamalexcept for the prostitute, who said she saw it after the shooting, but not before). Both of those witnesses had grave credibility problems, too. Robert Chobert, the taxi driver, had been driving his cab on a suspended license, and unknown to the defense, had asked the prosecutor if he could help him get his license back–a request for a favor that makes his entire testimony seriously suspect. Cynthia White, the prostitute and star prosecution witness, had been repeatedly arrested and questioned–or coached–by detectives, in the weeks following the shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner, and her story of what happened had evolved over those weeks to conform with the story ultimately presented by the prosecution. Suspiciously, of all the witnesses picked up at the scene on Dec. 9, 1981, only White, supposedly the prosecution’s key eyewitness, was not brought to the paddy wagon to identify Abu-Jamal as the shooter, suggesting that police knew she probably couldn’t.
The other evidence that played a key role in convincing the jury to convict was testimony by a hospital security guard and a police officer that they had allegedly heard Abu-Jamal confess to killing Faulkner in the Jefferson Hospital emergency room–but both had waited two months to report this stunning alleged confession to detectives. Neither said a thing about what would have been dramatic evidence of guilt to police investigators at the time of the shooting investigation. In fact, the police officer who was guarding Abu-Jamal at the time the alleged confession occurred told investigators the day of the shooting that Abu-Jamal had made “no comment” during his entire time in the ER.
Some “open and shut” case!
As I wrote in my book, Killing Time, the prosecutor, Joseph McGill, also managed to purge 75 percent of the qualified black jurors from consideration during jury selection–exactly the percentage of black jurors he routinely managed to keep off juries during six other murder trials he handled as an assistant DA. That’s a record of unconstitutional racial bias in jury selection that the NAACP should have been damned upset about, especially since it was ignored by the federal judge who considered Abu-Jamal’s appeal in 2001. It’s also the main basis for his appeal of his conviction before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, currently pending.
Why has there been so little public pressure for a new trial? Why weren’t masses of people outside the NAACP demanding that the organization support Abu-Jamal? Because there’s almost no one left to do it.
The throngs of people who used to come out to demand a new trial for Abu-Jamal have faded away as his case, over the past several years, was taken over by ideological lawyers and others who managed to convince Abu-Jamal to make his case a political attack on the entire legal system, instead of dealing with the key issues in his trial that offered the best chance to get him a new hearing.
They dredged up a whacked-out “witness,” Arnold Beverly, who claimed he, and not Abu-Jamal, had shot Faulkner. Though Beverly’s story was incredible, sounded coached, though no other witnesses had seen him at the scene, and though his story conflicted with the evidence presented in court by Abu-Jamal’s own witnesses in key ways, Jamal’s then attorneys, Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish, ploughed ahead, sowing dissension in their wake, viciously maligning anyone in or out of the movement who questioned the strategy or their tactics, libeling Abu-Jamal’s prior attorney Leonard Weinglass (about whom they sketched wild and unfounded conspiracy theories), making factual errors in their filings, and needlessly annoying judges before whom they needed to plead his case. In the end, Abu-Jamal’s defense fund dried up as key supporters like Ossie Davis and Michael Farrell backed away from this train wreck.
In the past year, Abu-Jamal has finally seen the light. Dropping his flakey and woefully inexperienced legal duo (neither attorney had any federal death penalty appellate experience at all), he has hired the San Francisco-based Bryan, an acknowledged death penalty litigator and appellate pro, for his lead attorney.
He has also dropped the Arnold Beverly appeal, though many of his more ardent backers seem still to have missed-or ignored–this important development.
For his part, attorney Bryan has been reaching out to people and groups that had backed away from the movement in recent years. “I’m convinced that Mumia is innocent. Not everyone agrees with that, but this movement is open to anyone who feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice and that Mumia deserves a new, fair trial,” he says.
Unfortunately, Abu-Jamal has not yet spoken out publicly against the sectarianism and personal ego-tripping that have poisoned his splintered movement, so it remains in ruins, as the latest campaign to persuade the NAACP to support him, and the small turnout at the April demonstration, amply demonstrate.
Meanwhile there is still a massive, unified government and law-enforcement campaign to see Abu-Jamal executed. The Fraternal Order of Police, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, and even Governor Ed Rendell, who was D.A.-and McGill’s boss-when Abu-Jamal was prosecuted in 1982, are all committed to seeing him die.
Until Abu-Jamal himself insists on seeking to rebuild a broader coalition, and openly condemns the sniping and character assassination that has been going on in his name outside the prison, he will pretty much be fighting his legal battles alone, with his attorneys and a few highly energetic supporters, but without any mass base.
Which is pretty unfortunate for him, and also for the many thousands of others on death row and in prison, for whom his case could be a clarion call for reform of a criminally corrupted justice system.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org