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2011-12-08

Mumia Abu-Jamal Spared Death Penalty After Prosecutors Drop 30-Year Bid for Execution

Guests

Renee Feltz, Democracy Now! producer. She has closely followed Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case for years, in addition to reporting on other death row cases.

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Philadelphia prosecutors have announced they will no longer seek the death penalty for the imprisoned journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. For decades, Abu-Jamal has argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to his 1982 conviction of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Two years ago, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower judge who set aside Abu-Jamal’s death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court then ordered the court to re-examine the decision. In April, that ruling was upheld, and prosecutors had to determine whether Abu-Jamal would get a new sentencing hearing in court before a new jury. On Wednesday, Philadelphia prosecutor Seth Williams said he opted for a life sentence rather than face more lengthy appeals. Pennsylvania law now requires Abu-Jamal to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting live from Durban, South Africa, in our week-long exclusive at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But we turn first to a major development in the case of former Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1982, the former Black Panther and journalist was convicted and sentenced to death for fatally shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. During his trial, witnesses testified Abu-Jamal saw his brother scuffle with Faulkner during an early morning traffic stop in 1981 and ran toward the scene. Police said they found Abu-Jamal wounded by a bullet from Faulkner’s gun. Faulkner was shot several times, and a gun registered to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene with five spent shell casings.

For three decades, Abu-Jamal argued that racism on the part of the trial judge and prosecutors led to his conviction. Two years ago, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower judge who set aside Abu-Jamal’s death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court then ordered the court to re-examine the decision. In April, that ruling was upheld, and prosecutors had to determine whether Abu-Jamal would get a new sentencing hearing in court before a new jury.

Well, on Wednesday Philadelphia prosecutors announced they will no longer pursue the death penalty against Mumia Abu-Jamal. This is District Attorney Seth Williams, joined by the slain police officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY SETH WILLIAMS: There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner. And I believe that the appropriate sentence was handed down by the jury of his peers in 1982. While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life. And that is where he belongs.

MAUREEN FAULKNER: And I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind: the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons. I will hold any official who attempts to help Abu-Jamal improve his situation publicly and legally accountable for as long as I live.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Maureen Faulkner, widow of slain police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Pennsylvania law now requires Abu-Jamal to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Many of his supporters, including the former South African Archbishop Demond Tutu, are calling for Abu-Jamal’s release from prison. We’ll hear from Tutu in just a moment, but first we’re joined by Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz for more details on this major development.

Welcome, Renée. You’ve been following death row politics for years, as well as Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case. Talk about the significance of this decision.

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, it’s a very significant case. You know, I’ve been here covering COP 17. I stepped away to look at exactly what’s happened here in a major development. The district attorney in Pennsylvania, which has been fighting for over three decades now to uphold Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, has decided they will not pursue it any longer.

They had a choice: would they decide to go forward with a new sentencing hearing, which could present new evidence, questionably pointing out whether or not Mumia was convicted constitutionally, before a new jury, or would they decide to change his sentence to life? They decided to change it to life. One of the arguments that they put out was that in the court of public opinion, this new trial would have cost a lot of money. Was there support for that? That was negotiable. Now many of his supporters say that the state claims that the facts in the case would have upheld a capital charge, but others doubt that. So that’s a little bit about why maybe why they didn’t go forward with a new sentencing hearing.

Now, what’s going to happen next is that Mumia Abu-Jamal, according to lawyers familiar with the case, will be resentenced to life without parole in a Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. And that hearing has not yet been scheduled.

AMY GOODMAN: So where does Mumia Abu-Jamal actually physically now go?

RENÉE FELTZ: Now, it’s a little unclear exactly where he’ll go, but what people understand, who are familiar with the case and I’ve talked to, is that he won’t actually leave the prison where he’s held, SCI Greene. It’s a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. He may even just be moved down the hall. He’ll be held in extremely restrictive conditions. This is the fourth largest death row in the country. It’s in a maximum security prison. So, again, he’s not going to leave the prison. He is going to be held in a cell that’s probably the same size as the one now; it’s about the size of a small bathroom.

He could even have fewer rights and privileges than he has on death row. The family members of people on Pennsylvania death row fought for them to have certain phone privileges. Many people may know Mumia Abu-Jamal because he uses a phone to call out almost weekly to record a column. He’s a journalist. He still reports from death row, as well as fighting for his—on his case. Now, it’s questionable whether or not he’ll still be able to use the phone to do these calls and to record his columns.

So people are saying it’s a victory in some ways. He’s no longer on death row; he doesn’t have a death sentence hanging over his head. But in other ways, exactly what has he gotten into? Many of his supporters, including Amnesty International, are saying he should not have been given a new—a life sentence; he should in fact be taken out of prison and released.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to one of those phone calls that Mumia Abu-Jamal made. He made it before he learned of the death penalty being set aside and being given life without parole. He had this conversation on a Philadelphia talk radio station, WURD, in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

WURD: As someone who has been sitting in that prison for 30 years, could you tell us why the death penalty is a form of cruel and unusual punishment?

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, there are many reasons. It is racist. But also, it is legally built on a fallacy. That is to say, if a prosecutor announces it is going—he or she is going for a death penalty, something happens in that case that happens in no other case in American law, or really global law. They’re able to select what is called a "prosecution-prone" jury. That is a jury who, having heard not one word of legal fact, has decided, before they are sworn in as jurors, that they could return a death penalty. If someone has a question and says, "Well, maybe yes, maybe no," they’re removed. If someone says certainly, "I don’t believe in it," they are removed. And there have been several highly regarded legal studies and scholarly studies on this by sociologists and psychologists and whatnot, and they found that these jurors are far more prosecution-prone, far more willing to convict and far less willing to give the legal entitlements to which an accused or a defendant is supposed to have. What that means is the prosecutor is able to get far more first degree murder convictions, and therefore able to, after that, turn around and go for a death penalty than they could have if they had a juror who is really a cross-representation of the community.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Again, prosecutors have decided not to pursue the death penalty in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case. He instead will be given life without parole. Before we turn to Bishop Tutu, Renée Feltz, the significance of not reopening the case in a sentencing hearing?

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, Amy, there were a lot of questionable things about how he was convicted and the evidence that was presented. Many people say the evidence used to convict him was collected by police officers who were later convicted of corruption on other charges in other cases. None of that is going to go before a new jury now.

Now, there’s a court of—there’s the court, a legal court, a criminal court, and then there’s the court of public opinion. And we have to look at some of the politics around this case. Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, until very recently, 2011, is now a major player in the Democratic Party. And people say that he doesn’t want to have some of the dirty laundry in this case be dug up again as he tries to rise higher in the political party. Some people say he even has aspirations to become vice president with President Obama.

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