ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 7, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams held a news conference to announce that the city will no longer seek the death penalty against long-time political prisoner and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jama — convicted in a frameup trial for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Mumia was sentenced to death by trial judge Albert Sabo and has been in prison, on death row, ever since. Entire careers have been crafted by Philadelphia politicians based on the call for Mumia’#8221;s execution. Thus the announcement by Williams was a major news event.
The background to this news conference was a 2008 legal decision by Federal District Court Judge William Yohn, who considered several issues arising from Mumia’#8221;s original trial. Most of these questions, had Yohn found in Mumia’#8221;s favor, would have compelled him to order either that Mumia be released from prison or that a new trial be held. Yohn made a favorable decision, however, on only one issue, related to trial judge Sabo’#8221;s instructions to the jury during the death-penalty phase.
Legally, then, this ruling did not affect the question of Mumia’#8221;s guilt or innocence, only the death sentence that he received. Yohn directed the prosecution to seek a new death-penalty hearing, before a new jury, or else Mumia’#8221;s sentence would automatically become life in prison.
The city of Philadelphia appealed Yohn’#8221;s ruling to higher Federal Courts, but prosecutors did not succeed in getting the death sentence reinstated. Thus the news conference held by Williams. Authorities now accept that life in prison is the only reasonable legal option available to them.
While the announcement by Williams formally represents a victory for Mumia won through the courts, the reality is that life in prison is no more defensible in this case than execution would have been. Unless there are continued protests and efforts to reopen the case, an innocent man will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
There are more sinister possibilities, too. The MOVE organization, which has coordinated Mumia’#8221;s defense effort over the years, issued a statement the day after the district attorney’#8221;s announcement which warned: “Officials killed George Jackson in prison; they tried to get several different people to kill Leonard Peltier in prison, and MOVE sees the same plan being laid for Mumia. This is personal for these cops and officials, they want Mumia dead just as much today as they have for the past thirty years, nothing has changed.”
Thus the attention drawn to this case by a national and international movement to “Free Mumia” must continue, though it is clear that this may now be more difficult. One factor that has stimulated global support for Mumia was, precisely, the threat of execution. Each time a death warrant was issued in this case there has been a tremendous outpouring of opposition and this has been instrumental in staying the hand of authorities.
Indeed, part of the strategic thinking by those who have now decided not to pursue a new death penalty hearing may be precisely that if the threat of execution is removed, public attention to the case will diminish. Other political prisoners who have suffered similar frameup trials but were not sentenced to death (Leonard Peltier is an obvious example) have never generated the kind of massive public attention that Mumia has achieved. So it remains crucial to keep the spotlight on this case and continue to demand Mumia’#8221;s release.
Along these lines South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu said, in a video statement released after the Williams news conference: “Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row, 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 should be released.
January/February 2012, ATC 156