- Mumia Abu-Jamal
former death row prisoner. For decades, Abu-Jamal has argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to his conviction for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Last year, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside his death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose the death penalty rather than a life sentence.
In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Mumia Abu-Jamal phones in from the SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, where he is being held in general population after nearly 30 years on death row. Although he now lives in a bigger cell than what he calls the “small dog cage” of the last three decades, Mumia says his life sentence is akin to “a slow death row. It’s bigger in terms of the time differential, but it’s slow death row, to be sure.” After having his death sentence overturned in late 2011, Abu-Jamal says he is determined to win his release from prison over allegations of racial bias and judicial misconduct in his conviction. “We want freedom,” he says of the movement calling for his release. Supporters have long argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to Abu-Jamal’s conviction. He notes that during his trial a court reporter overheard the judge in his case, Judge Albert F. Sabo, say in his chambers, “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” “This was heard by a court reporter—a member of the court staff, a court employee, and a person that is perhaps the best listener you could ever have for any conversation, because that’s her job,” Abu-Jamal says. “We didn’t know about it until years later, but when we put this into our papers, our filings, it has been essentially ignored by every court it’s come in front of. How is that possible? And so, I mean, that’s certainly one indication, as you can see, one example of an unfair system.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to interrupt the broadcast, because right now we have just gotten a call from Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison in Pennsylvania. Mumia Abu-Jamal is speaking to us for the first time no longer on death row.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you tell us where you are? Welcome to Democracy Now!
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Good morning, Amy. And good morning to Democracy Now! I am in the open room, the block out area of SCI Mahanoy, a prison in Schuylkill County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you say how the conditions there are different from the prison from which you were moved?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, in many ways, they’re similar. But in only in kind of dimension are they different. That is to say, everything is bigger. For nearly three decades, I was in what could be called a dog run or a small dog cage with one other fellow from death row. The difference between that and going to a cage, a yard that is about a mile wide with about 400 or 500 other men, is pretty profound.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you talk about what your reaction is to be taken off of death row, to no longer have death hanging over you, but to be in jail for a life sentence without parole?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, you’ve kind of answered the question with your question. That is to say—
OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: You’ve probably heard me refer to life as “slow death row.” It sounds a little dramatic, but it is really more truth to it than hyperbole. And that’s because, you know, in Pennsylvania, it has the highest population, or one of the highest populations, in the state, of lifers—in fact, juveniles with life sentences. And in Pennsylvania, there’s no gradation: you know, all lifers are lifers, and that’s for their whole life. So, and I guess, in that sense, too, it’s bigger. I mean, it’s bigger in terms of the time differential, but it’s slow death row, to be sure.
And when you see, as I’ve seen, going to chow or going to a meal and seeing what I call the “million man wheelchair march,” it makes an impact on you. You know, you look up in the morning, and there are 30 or 40 guys going through the handicap line, and they’re in wheelchairs. And although some are young, most are quite old. And so, you know, life means life in Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, there was a protest at the Justice Department yesterday, Occupy the DOJ, A24, for your birthday, April 24th, as people there called for—called for the Department of Justice, the attorney general, to open a probe into your case. What do you want to happen in your case?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, as I said to our people there in Washington the other day, yesterday, frankly, we want freedom. I mean, I was thinking this morning, as I was being told that, you know, we could possibly talk to you, about a case that’s in the federal law books called U.S. v. Brown. The person is perhaps known better as Rap Brown or Gerold Brown. Imam Jamil is his name today. This is an old case, I think from the '70s, perhaps. But in this case, a federal case, the judge referred to Brother Jamil, at a golf course with other people around, as: “I'm going to help get rid of this nigger.”
Think about that in the context of Judge Albert F. Sabo of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, not saying it on a golf course among friends, but saying this in his chambers in the courthouse during a trial. “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” This was heard by a court reporter—a member of the court staff, a court employee, and a person that is perhaps the best listener you could ever have for any conversation, because that’s her job. She takes notes during trials for a living. Now, we didn’t know about it until years later, but when we put this into our papers, our filings, it has been essentially ignored by every court it’s come in front of. How is that possible? And so, I mean, that’s certainly one indication, as you can see, one example of an unfair system.