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During the opening ceremony of the 3rd World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Paris recently–a session featuring top diplomats and dignitaries–only one actual death row inmate addressed the delegates from over 120 nations: Pennsylvania death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal delivered brief remarks recorded from his Pa death row cell that echoed criticisms of the death penalty contained in presentations during the opening session by top officials from France, Germany, Italy and the Council of Europe.
“Death row is a web that catches only the poor. Race and poverty are excellent predictors of who ends up on death row,” said Abu-Jamal, recognized internationally as a symbol of injustice in the US yet considered by some Americans as simply a ‘cop killer.’
Abu-Jamal is now in his 25th year on death row for the December 1981 murder of Philadelphia, Pa Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal is known widely as the “Voice of the Voiceless” for his work as a journalist before his arrest and during his decades on death row. He has consistently maintained his innocence yet rarely speaks or writes about his case despite having published and broadcast thousand of commentaries from prison on various subjects including the death penalty.
Abu-Jamal told Congress delegates that he was “honored” to be able to speak on behalf of the 3,344 on death rows across America. Pennsylvania contains America’s fourth largest death row with 228 inmates.
Death rows worldwide contain nearly 25,000 persons according to estimates by Amnesty International.
Human Rights activist and former French First Lady Danielle Mitterrand introduced Abu-Jamal’s remarks. Mitterrand’s late husband, Francois Mitterrand, abolished the death penalty in France in 1981 during the first year of his fourteen year presidency.
Abu-Jamal, during his remarks, criticized death penalty practices in the US like regularly assigning inept attorneys to defendants in capital cases. Abu-Jamal gave an example of a black defendant in Georgia assigned an elderly lawyer who slept throughout the trial and who was the former Imperial Wizard of that state’s Ku Klux Klan.
Errors by trial lawyers resulted in the releases of two of the four persons freed from Pa death row during this decade. Those two inmates were from Philadelphia. The other two Pa death row releases resulted from judicial error and misconduct by prosecutors respectively.
Errors by trial counsel, prosecutors and judges are all elements in Abu-Jamal’s series of appeals. Abu-Jamal’s trial prosecutor acknowledged during a newspaper interview last year that Abu-Jamal could have escaped the death penalty if his trial defense had been better.
Evidence of innocence and other serious trial errors have resulted in the release of 123 persons from American death rows since the US Supreme Court reinstated executions in the mid-1970s, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. Six persons have been released from Pa’s death row during this period, the seventh largest release total nationwide.
Abu-Jamal also praised the Philippines for its abolition of the death penalty last year while pointing out problems in nations like Kenya where the condemned languish in dank cells for decades awaiting execution.
Abu-Jamal’s appeal attorney, Robert R. Bryan of San Francisco, said, “One thing that’s impressive about him is that he speaks out against human rights abuses.” Bryan escorted Danielle Mitterrand onto the stage.
Most of the diplomats and dignitaries speaking during the Congress’ opening ceremony offered observations on death penalty inequities similar to those offered by Abu-Jamal.
Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, said the “death penalty always discriminates”
Discrimination in the death penalty extends beyond the race and/or class of the defendant. Arbitrariness in application of this ultimate charge is another form of discrimination, experts contend.
Abu-Jamal, for example, faced the death penalty for the fatal confrontation that prosecutors admit began as a chance encounter triggered by Abu-Jamal seeing his brother being beaten by Officer Faulkner. However, a drug dealer who killed an off-duty Philadelphia policeman in May 1981 in a premeditated murder scheme to steal a car the officer was selling did not face capital prosecution. That drug dealer received a life sentence.
Commissioner Hammarberg said ample evidence exists that the death penalty does not deter crime. “In the United States where no death penalty exists, the crime rate is lower,” Hammarberg. “There is a strange contradiction to punish murderers by murdering them!”
An unfair trial is an element in too many death sentences stated Sidiki Kaba, President of the International Federation for Human Rights.
“Rarely are persons from wealthy backgrounds sentenced to death,” Kaba said while delivering the results of fifteen death penalty investigations the Federation conducted during 2006 in countries including the US. “The death penalty is torture.”
French President Jacques Chirac said “the very concept of justice is incompatible with the death penalty” in a letter to the Congress read by France’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy.
The World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held at a university in Paris, occurred at a time when the government of Italy is advocating United Nations adoption of a universal abolition against the death penalty and French President Chirac is proposing that his nation place a death penalty ban in that nation’s constitution.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recently announced his support for a legislative proposal in that state to repeal the death penalty.
Last year, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to legislatively approve a moratorium on executions, citing issues of fairness and expense of the death penalty. The death penalty exists in 38 of America’s fifty states although only a handful of states regularly conduct executions.
Also last year, for the first time, a Gallup poll recorded more Americans supporting life without parole than executions for heinous crimes.
The countries with the most active death penalty are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, nations accounting for 96% of all recorded executions last year, stated Piers Bannister, death penalty team Coordinator for Amnesty International, during his opening session presentation.
Bannister authored Amnesty’s 2000 report on the Abu-Jamal case which documented gross improprieties by police, prosecutors, the trial judge and Pa appellate court jurists.
This AI report concluded that the Philadelphia born Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial because the 1982 “proceedings used to convict and sentence [Abu-Jamal] to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty.”
Mayor Catherine Peyge of Bobigny, France told those attending the opening session that “Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death during a trial whose standards face international challengeWe have to tell our American friends to abolish the death penalty.”
A hearing on the Abu-Jamal case is expected within the next few months before the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in Philadelphia. This hearing could produce a new trial for the death row journalist or reaffirm his death sentence.
Allegations of racial discrimination in the selection of Abu-Jamal’s predominately white trial jury and pro-prosecution bias by Abu-Jamal’s trial judge during a 1995 appeals hearing are among four items under review by the Third Circuit.
The Abu-Jamal case garners a lot of attention throughout France.
Abu-Jamal, for example, is an honorary citizen of Paris and Bobigny.
Since 1995, protestors have held a vigil every Wednesday evening outside the US Consulate in Paris demanding a new trial for the man who was an award-winning journalist before his arrest and who has published five books while on death row. Protestors maintained their vigil at the Consulate on the evening before the Congress’s opening session.
“The Abu-Jamal case represents an observation that French historian Tocqueville made when he traveled to Philadelphia in the 1830s: the law is unable to enforce the rights of minorities,” said Diarapha H. Diallo-Gibert, the founder of the first French support group for Abu-Jamal: Just Justice created in October 1993 in the city of Tours.
The naming of a block-long street in the Paris suburb of St. Denis last year honoring Abu-Jamal produced vociferous demands to remove Abu-Jamal’s name by the US House of Representatives, the Pennsylvania State Senate and Philadelphia’s City Council.
“Mumia can count on a lot of support in this country and we feel proud that we are a target,” said Jacky Hortaut, co-director of the Collective, a coalition of eighty pro-Abu-Jamal organizations in France.
“Mumia is not an assassin. The US system must stop putting roadblocks in the path of due process in this case,” continued Hortaut, speaking a few hours after the opening session during remarks at a Congress panel entitled “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Symbol of the Fight Against the Death Penalty.”
Another panel presenter, British activist Niki Adams released the draft of a Letter In Support of Abu-Jamal planned for circulation among journalists worldwide. This letter protests the targeting of Mumia Abu-Jamal for his independent, campaigning journalism.
“We hope journalists who also refuse to be embedded with any government will act in the best traditions of their profession and speak out for Mr. Abu-Jamal’s right to a fair trial,” said Adams of the London based Legal Action for Women, one of the groups initiating the Support letter.
French activist Julia Wright, daughter of legendary African-American author Richard Wright, circulated a Open Letter at the Congress calling on the US House of Representatives to conduct an inquiry into the unusual procedures utilized in the December 2006 approval of the Resolution condemning St. Denis for the street naming.
During the brief December congressional debate on that Resolution, Rep. John Conyers, currently head of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, complained that the measure was fast-tracked to a vote “without the benefit of a single hearing, markup or any other considerations or discussion by our committee.”
That Amnesty report documented unusual procedures and double standards rampant throughout the Abu-Jamal case.
The Pa Supreme Court, the AI report stated, has consistently applied a “contradictory series of precedents [leaving] the disturbing impression that the Court invented a new series of procedure to apply it to one case only: that of Mumia Abu-Jamal.” The Philadelphia and US mainstream news media ignores this AI report.
Opponents of Abu-Jamal stress the fact that his conviction has been repeatedly upheld by trial and appellate courts in Pennsylvania. Opponents also point to the fact that Abu-Jamal was arrested at the crime scene, wounded by a bullet from Faulkner’s gun, as proof of guilt.
Opponents like Pa. Governor Ed Rendell consistently say Abu-Jamal’s conviction is an ‘open and shut case’ of guilt, calling his far-flung supporters misinformed’duped by Mumia’s propaganda machine.’
Rendell was Philadelphia’s District Attorney during Abu-Jamal’s trial and the city’s Mayor during Abu-Jamal’s widely criticized 1995 appeals hearing.
Overt bias by Judge Albert Sabo during that appeal hearing prompted even anti-Mumia press pundits in Philadelphia to harshly criticize both Sabo’s antics and the state Supreme Court for refusing to remove Sabo from presiding despite Sabo’s 1982 trial bias being an appeal issue. Sabo rejected the appeal and the state high court upheld Sabo’s action.
That ‘open-&-shut case’ response has proven incorrect in scores of Philadelphia homicide cases including two murders that occurred seven months before Abu-Jamal’s 1981 arrest.
Police arrested a teenager for the sniper murder of a Philadelphia policeman, reporting at the time that this teen confessed to participating in the officer’s killing. However, that teen was acquitted during a trial the following year and that policeman’s murder remains unsolved.
Police also arrested a man for murdering a Philadelphia organized crime figure. This man, Neil Ferber, was later released from death row after evidence proved that police framed him.
Ferber eventually received a $1.9-million settlement from the City of Philadelphia for his false imprisonment. While Rendell responded to public pressure to release Ferber from death row–on his last day as DA–when Rendell served as Philadelphia’s Mayor, his Administration vigorously opposed Ferber’s lawsuit seeking compensation for that false incarceration where Ferber had a nervous breakdown and developed ulcers.
“The US so often gives themselves the right to lecture other countries yet it joins China in leading the world in executions,” said French Senator Nicole Borvo Cohen-Seat during her presentation at the Abu-Jamal panel.
“Mumia is a symbol for the three million people in US jailsmost of them black and poor.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia journalist who’s covered the Abu-Jamal case since December 1981. He participated in the Abu-Jamal panel at the Congress, making a presentation examining news media coverage of this case. Washington is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.