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Thursday, 8 December 2011

From Troy Davis to Mumia: Have we turned a corner on the death penalty?

From Troy Davis to Mumia: Have we turned a corner on the death penalty?
Supporters of inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal rally outside City Hall December 9, 2006 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)
On Wednesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced that he would not seek the death penalty against Mumia Abu-Jamal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Abu-Jamal's death sentence was unconstitutional and washed its hands of the matter. This left Williams with the option of pursuing a death sentence through a new hearing, or settling for life in prison without parole for the famous former Black Panther. He chose the latter.
Abu-Jamal was convicted for the December 9, 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. For good or for bad, the case has been a focal point in the national debate on the death penalty and everything that is problematic about racial injustice in America's criminal justice system.
Thirty years since Abu-Jamal's arrest, much has changed with regard to the death penalty, and yet so much has remained the same.
Abu-Jamal has become an international symbol, with supporters around the world maintaining he was railroaded. Celebrities have taken up his cause. It is worth noting that Mumia is somewhat of a folk hero or national hero in some countries. A street outside Paris was named after the prisoner, and the French postal service created a postage stamp with his likeness.
And Archbishop Desmond Tutu is demanding Mumia's immediate release: "Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row in the first place, 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 must now be released," Tutu said.
"I therefore join the call, and ask others to follow, asking District Attorney Seth Williams to rise to the challenge of reconciliation, human rights, and justice: drop this case now, and allow Mumia Abu-Jamal to be immediately released, with full time served," he added.
Meanwhile, Mumia supporters in Philadelphia and Oakland, California planned events for December 9, the 30th anniversary of his incarceration, featuring Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis and others.
The allegations surrounding the Abu-Jamal case represent the problems with the application of capital punishment. And a life sentence without parole will unlikely cover up these issues. There were claims of evidence tampering by the police, manipulation of the crime scene, and the intimidation of witnesses. The prosecution was accused of striking black jurors and withholding evidence, and in a sworn statement, a court stenographer said she overheard the trial judge, Albert Sabo, saying he would help the prosecution "fry the ni**er."
And in 1981, the year Mumia was arrested, five men were framed by the Philadelphia Police Department for murder, only to be exonerated years later. Two of the innocent men spent as much as 20 years in prison before their release, and one man spent 1,375 days on death row before he became a free man. A long history of police corruption, brutality and intimidation of political activists, poor folks and communities of color haunts the city of Philadelphia to this day.
Fast forward 30 years to Troy Davis. Another African-American death row inmate who became a cause célèbre and the symbol of the anti-death penalty movement, his case presented far too many questions, far too much doubt for many of our comfort levels. Over 1 million people worldwide signed a petition to stop his execution.

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