Corruption, Racism and the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Lee and Suzy, photo by Joe Piette.

Once again, we take the streets on December 9th for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia has been in prison since December 9, 1981. Like the MOVE 9, members of the MOVE Black liberation organization who are wrongfully imprisoned, he is innocent. Mumia was a Black revolutionary journalist in Philadelphia in the 1970s, covering police attacks on MOVE. He covered the city’s confrontation with MOVE in Powelton Village in 1978. If he hadn’t been in prison, he would have covered the police bombing of MOVE in 1985. Known as the “Voice of the Voiceless,” he was not well liked by Rizzo supporters or the Fraternal Order of Police, the right-wing cop “union.” On December 9, 1981, he found himself in the hands of the police.

Mumia was driving a cab to supplement his income as a journalist when he saw police arresting his brother in Center City, according to Baruch College professor Johanna Fernandez in The Feminist Wire. Officer Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed; Mumia was found semi-conscious with a bullet from Faulkner’s gun in his chest.

Corruption and racism drove the actions of the police, prosecution, and judge in Mumia’s case. Police claimed they had forgotten to conduct a standard gunpowder residue test on Mumia’s hands to find out whether he had fired a gun, according to attorney Michael Coard in Philadelphia Magazine. This missing evidence may have proved his innocence. Two months later, one cop claimed that Mumia had confessed while in the hospital, Coard writes. This was contradicted by another cop and a physician, who said Mumia’s bullet wound made it impossible for him to even speak.

In unrelated cases, Fernandez writes, “Over one-third of the 35 officers involved in Mumia’s case, including the top officer at the crime scene, Inspector Alfonzo Giordano, were subsequently convicted of rank corruption, extortion and tampering with evidence to obtain convictions.”

Corruption and racism run deep in Philly’s police department—and in our courts. Prosecutors were literally trained to keep Black Philadelphians, especially young Black women, off juries. In the 1980s, they even watched a training video instructing them on how to do so, according to the New York Times. Mumia’s trial had only two Black jurors.

At the trial, according to Fernandez, the prosecutor and the judge concealed the fact that four witnesses reported seeing an additional person fleeing the crime scene. A court stenographer overheard Judge Sabo, a notorious “hanging judge,” use a racial slur while saying he’d help the prosecution “fry” Mumia, according to Coard and Fernandez. Mumia was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He had been an opponent of the Philly power structure for 12 years—now he was in their hands.  

In 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that the jurors had received potentially misleading instructions, the New York Times reported. Mumia’s death sentence was lifted and he was returned to general population at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy.

Once there, he saw the institutionalized racism of mass incarceration on a scale he hadn’t been able to witness from death row. Fernandez writes in Al Jazeera that Mumia described what he saw at Mahanoy, saying, “There are over 200 men in wheelchairs, another 500 walking with canes and the remainder look like children.” Pennsylvania imprisons about nine African-American people for every white person, according to Philadelphia Magazine, citing a study that showed this disparity exists because of “implicit bias in decision making and policies that disproportionately affect African Americans, such as repeat offender laws.”

So is corruption just a random bad deed by a few individuals in power? Or is it baked into the police, court and prison systems to make sure communities of color don’t fight for their liberation and win?

Mumia and his lawyers continue to pursue legal avenues to overturn his conviction. In April, they filed an appeal demanding a new trial, because Ronald Castille, an assistant district attorney during Mumia’s trial, later served as a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when it denied several of his earlier appeals, according to Workers’ World newspaper. Supporters backed up the appeal with demonstrations in May and July, demanding the DA’s office turn over paperwork showing Castile’s involvement in the case. 

This may be playing out in court, but it’s up to the people to get some justice. Emmett Till did not get justice. Trayvon Martin did not get justice. Today there is wide understanding of white supremacy, and people are saying they aren’t going to take it anymore.

In an interview with Revolutionary Worker in 1994, Mumia stressed, “Conventional wisdom would have one believe that it is insane to resist this, the mightiest of all empires, the victor in the Cold War, the empire that devastated Iraq and all that. But what history really shows is that today’s empire is tomorrow’s ashes. That nothing lasts forever, and that to not resist is to give in to your own oppression. The greatest form of sanity that anyone can exercise is to resist that force that is trying to repress, oppress, and fight the human spirit.” 

On December 9, meet up at 11 am at the Rizzo statue across from City Hall at 15th and JFK Boulevard to march for Mumia’s freedom.

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Editor’s Note, 12/5/17: More than simply being an assistant DA at the time of Mumia’s trial, Castille had a hand in denying Mumia’s initial appeals when he was Philly DA from 1986 to 1990. When those same appeals reached the State Supreme Court level a few years later, Castille should have recused himself because of his role as DA. The federal Supreme Court ruled last year that a judge’s refusal to recuse himself violated the Constitution in circumstances similar to Mumia’s case.

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