Published on Thursday, December 27, 2001 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Shine the Light Elsewhere
Abu-Jamal's Fame Threatens Death-Penalty Cause
by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It was a courageous ruling.
On Dec. 18, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Yohn Jr. vacated the death sentence for Mumia Abu-Jamal and ordered the state either to conduct a new sentencing hearing or sentence Abu-Jamal to life imprisonment.
Reaction was swift and predictable. Yohn's ruling was savagely denounced by the widow of slain Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner; the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, and Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who angrily declared within hours of the ruling that she would appeal.
But many of Abu-Jamal's supporters also denounced Yohn's decision. They called it a meaningless sop or, worse, a flat-out victory for the police and prosecution. Why? Because Yohn refused to overturn Abu-Jamal's first-degree murder conviction and order a new trial.
So who won and who lost?
Since the day in 1982 that Abu-Jamal was convicted of Faulkner's murder and dumped on death row, his credentials as a former Black Panther leader, writer and radio commentator virtually assured that many blacks and radicals would transform him into a radical icon with a following that sometimes seemed cult-like, accord him what at times has resembled a cultlike following. Leonard Weinglass of Chicago Seven trial fame became Abu-Jamal's lead counsel in the 1990s. Tom Ridge, then governor of Pennsylvania, signed Abu-Jamal's death warrant in 1995. And Abu-Jamal published a bestseller, Live from Death Row. He became the darling of liberals, Hollywood celebrities, and international diplomats.
The case had all the requisite villains. There was the inflammatory, vengeful judge, the majority-white jury that convicted him, public hysteria over the murder of a police officer, and a pulsating campaign by local politicians, much of the press and the Fraternal Order of Police to get rid of a man they regard as an unreconstructed black radical and unrepentant cop killer.
The Abu-Jamal case, however, was never a neat example of good versus evil. Although he and his supporters vehemently insist that the trial was riddled with perjured testimony, suppressed and tainted evidence, and blatant jury bias, there was a small mountain of evidence and eyewitness testimony that pointed to Abu-Jamal as the likely triggerman.
So a lot of ambivalence surrounds Abu-Jamal as well - enough to cause some who inveigh at the death penalty to hold their cries of "Free Mumia!" demanding instead only a "new" or "fair" trial for him.
But others saw in the Abu-Jamal case a glimmer of hope in loosening public rapture over the death penalty. In his two decades languishing on Pennsylvania's death row, death penalty opponents watched in anger and frustration as a public scared stiff of crime and violence egged on pandering public officials and a sensationalist press that played up a string of grotesque, high-profile murders. Frightened Americans clamored for more and faster executions.
They got their wish. The number of death row inmates in America stands at nearly 4,000. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans make up nearly half of those awaiting execution. In Pennsylvania, more than 60 percent of those sitting on death row are African Americans, yet they make up less than 10 percent of the state's population. The trial judge in the Abu-Jamal case, Albert Sabo, had a much-deserved reputation of being a stern judge who ladled out a colossal number of death sentences. Most of those he sentenced to death were African American.
While Abu-Jamal has become a durable symbol of the rampant racial disparities in the administration of capital punishment, a danger exists that an obsessive focus on one man ignores dozens of other death-row inmates victimized by incompetent attorneys, prosecutors who play fast and loose with the rules to win convictions, and judges who try mightily to tip the jury against the accused. And then there are the growing numbers of death-row inmates proven innocent and released.
To his credit, Abu-Jamal has recognized the danger. He has repeatedly urged his supporters to fight just as hard to free others unfairly convicted. Now that he has won at least a tepid victory, the question is: Will his supporters heed his words?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson (EHutchi344@aol.com) is author of "The Crisis in Black and Black."
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc