Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Death Row Celebrity

I've always been wary of death-row celebrities.

I'm talking Mumia Abu-Jamal, and if you don't know the tale, well, here is the very short version.

Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer was shot and killed in December 1981. Mumia, a part-time cab driver, radio journalist, Black Panther Party member, and general pain in the ass was convicted of the killing and sentenced to die.

Because the trial was so ostentatiously unfair, and because Mumia himself is so damned articulate, and because he insists on his innocence and there's a fair amount of evidence to support that claim, he's become an international cause célèbre, the most famous person on death row.

His supporters, and there are many, insist he was railroaded. Many have resolved the case for themselves: He's innocent, they proclaim.

But his detractors, including the government, the cops, and the Faulkner family, insist that he is guilty and should have been killed years ago.

Mumia's been litigating this mess for close to 30 years now, through loss after loss. And then, in March 2008, the Third Circuit affirmed his conviction but said his sentencing was unconstitutional and needed to be redone. Everyone was unhappy. Mumia's supporters insisted he should have had his conviction reversed. After all, he was innocent. And his trial was unfair. His detractors were livid that he might not be killed. So both sides asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In April last year, the Court refused to hear Mumia's appeal. No new trial. But still, there was that life rather than death sentence. Where there's life there's hope. Who knew what might happen down the road.

Of course, the state had appealed the reversal of the death sentence. But the Court didn't act. The state's appeal languished. And languished. And languished. For nearly a year.

There was another case, out of Ohio, raising a similar similar sentencing issue, Smith v. Spisak. As with the jurors at Mumia's trial, the jurors at Frank Spisak's trial were not told that they did not have to agree unanimously about the existence of mitigating factors before they could be weighed in favor of life. Like the Third Circuit in Mumia's case, the Sixth Circuit reversed Spisak's death sentence. Just as Pennsylvania appealed the circuit court's decision in Mumia's case, so Ohio appealed the circuit court's decision in Spisak's.

Last week, Spisak lost. Today, the Supremes vacated the Third Circuit's decision in Mumia's case and sent it back for reconsideration in light of Spisak.

Another day, another loss.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which keeps careful records, there are today 3279 men and women (mostly men) on death row in this country. Mumia Abu-Jamal is just one of them, one of 225 in Pennsylvania. Most of them have cases in process in one or another court. And the decisions in those cases, especially the sort of look-at-it-again we're-not-even-bothering-with-an-opinion decision the Court issued today in Mumia's case, get almost no attention outside the local jurisdiction.

The decision in Mumia's case will be noted around the world.

Like I say, I've always been wary of death-row celebrity.

Their supporters ("fan club" is the term Kent Scheidegger used for Mumia's yesterday; one sometimes hears "groupies") claim innocence because they believe all exculpatory evidence and disbelieve all inculpatory. They insist somehow on heroic status. They trumpet too much. And if the case goes south (see Roger Coleman, for instance) it just provides ammunition for the retentionists.

Besides, celebrities are a distraction. Let's be honest about this for a minute.

The vast majority of the people on death row (and nobody knows the percentage) did something at least close to what they are there for. They killed someone. It wasn't justifiable by any reasonable calculus we might use. And there's nothing heroic about them.

They're sad cases: inarticulate, often nearly illiterate, frequently mentally ill, too often still with mental retardation. They were victims as children of physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse. They are, in the words of Ohio's Chief Justice Moyer (alas in dissent) describing one of my former clients, "destined for disaster."

They are the disposable children of disposable families. The dross, the waste

They are - even the smart, talented ones, the ones who love and are loved - they are all damaged goods by the time they get to the row, certainly after they've been there for a while.

These are our clients, those of us who do this work.

Mumia, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Karla Faye Tucker, Shaka Sankofa: these are the oddities. They suck the energy from the movement. Their exceptionalism belies the reality of the rest. And as Tookie, Karla Faye, and Shaka learned all too well, exceptionalism doesn't save them either. And it doesn't end the killing.

So I've been wary of death-row celebrity.

And yet, Mumia's loss (and it seems clear that death is now for him the almost inevitable outcome) resonates. Not more than the others. Not with the personal force of the loss of one of my own clients or the client of a friend. But in other ways.

His voice has been an affront to the system. His supporters particularly committed to a political struggle on behalf of the dispossessed and downtrodden. He's been the figurehead of a social movement that's larger than death row. That's his weakness as an icon, but his strength, too.

When I was in college, earnest young socialists would come to town, spend the night in my living room writing manifestos and then go to the mills and try to organize the unionized workers. They expected great support. They routinely got the shit beaten out of them by those they saw as their natural allies. Socialist theory goes only so far before it butts up against the stark reality of workers who don't see the world as class struggle.

And so it is for Mumia and his supporters.

They have truths to tell. Big ones about racist society and power and corruption. Smaller ones about unfair trials and cursory rather than substantive judicial review. And questionable ones about, say, factual innocence.

Those are important truths, all of them. But they end up getting muddled around the question of innocence.

Death row is a symptom of social failure. But it's a lousy proxy for it.

Mumia's is a powerful voice crying out against injustice. But he's also just another of the men on the row who ought not be murdered by the government.

There are 3,278 others just like him. Except without the fan club.

Save Mumia. By all means, save him.

But the next man with an execution date (February 4) is Mark Brown, here in Ohio. Nobody much has heard of him. Two of the witnesses against him have
recanted their testimony. Yet you see no international outcry. There are no headlines in London or Paris or Rome. Archbishop Tutu hasn't spoken. Bianc Jagger hasn't appeared. The Pope hasn't weighed in.

Save Mumia. But save Mark Brown first.


  1. Thank you, Jeff. --abe

  2. Jeff,

    thank you so much for these important and true words. You express exactly what I feel.


  3. I don't understand the anti-Mumia resentment. Seems more grounded in hostility to his supporters than anything else. I have worked on behalf of many people on death row, not really on Mumia's, but I respect and admire his supporters and their efforts. They should keep up the good work.

  4. I am a bit surprised. This drift of critism doesn't hit the nail. It is very old and simply wrong.

    True is, that the mobilisation around Mumia Abu-Jamal is far wider than "just" the abolition of the death penalty.

    But: the abolition of the death penalty is a big part of it.

    Some examples?

    - Mumia's latest book "Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA" (City Lights Books, 2009)

    - The Film "in Prison My Whole Life" (2007) by Mumia supporters, which is a strong statement against the death penalty.

    - Just yesterday in a spontanious protest in New York. Demonstrators demanded: Free Mumia! Abolish The Death Penalty!"

    - Mumia's defense started an online petition to Obama. It asks him to act on a global moratorium on executions while at the same time aboilishing the death penalty in the US. This petition is only going for 5 days now and has been signed by almost 10.000 people so far. It is backed by quite a few "celebrities" who actually do far more against state sanctioned murder than just signing petitons.

    - German Mumia supporters took up massively the campaign around Kenneth Foster in 2007 and Troy davis in 2008. They cooperate with various other anti-death penalty activists. They also initiated many council and parlament resolutions all over the country (eg. Munich, Bremen, Nüremburg, Hannover, Fürth) to take a stance against the death penalty and to confront the US government. A similar resolution is to be voted on in the German "Bundestag" soon. Just a few days ago this was taken up in the European Parlament.

    There a lots of other examples for Anti-Death Penalty work done from within the Free Mumia movement, I simply stop here.

    Mumia Abu-Jamal never publically speaks on his behalf. Quite the contrary. He always emphasis the need for all death row prisoners to be heard and saved.

    Mumia Abu-Jamal started analysing the death penalty a long time ago. He pointed out that it is a long standing threat against ethnic minorities and all people with not enough income to gain any justice in the legal system.

    He also set the death penalty in connection with other things like modern day slavery as it is exercised in the private prison industry.

    Mumia Abu-Jamal is no "celebrity". He uses his abilities to fight from within death row for everyone sitting there. And he does that far more successfully than many others.

  5. Mumia and another inmate as jailhouse lawyers got Harold Wilson off from death row at SCI Greene.

    He was eventually freed in 2005. He spent 10 years with Mumia in SCI Greene. Mumia wrote several appeals for him and motivated him to carry on after Wilson already gave up on himself. Wilson spent all in all 18 years on death row. Thanks to jailhouse lawywers like Mumia and others he was cleared of all charges and lives!

    I say: Free Mumia... and the rest will follow