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

OPINION - Mumia Abu-Jamal and Troy Davis faced different outcomes, but both cases speak to the issues of doubt and possible innocence...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

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.

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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.And yet, a black man who at the very least was apparently innocent — and perhaps even definitely innocent — was executed by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011 despite serious questions about his guilt. There was ample evidence that Davis was not the man who killed Mark MacPhail, a white off-duty police officer in Savannah in 1989. This included 7 of 9 eyewitnesses who recanted or contradicted their testimony, swearing in affidavits that they were coerced by the police to testify against Davis.

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Troy Davis faced different outcomes, but both cases speak to the issues of doubt and possible innocence. As a member of the death penalty abolition movement, I have a particular perspective to provide. I am the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization of exonerated former death row prisoners and their family members.

Since 1973, 139 men and women have been freed from death row after they were found to be innocent. They were exonerated with the help of students and professors, journalists and concerned citizens, and actors in the criminal justice system — in spite of a broken death machine that is hopelessly irreparable.

Meanwhile, these victims of the system — ordinary people, typically working class, poor and disproportionately of color, but with many white folks as well — have spent five, ten, fifteen or more years on death row for a crime they did not commit.

None of us can begin to imagine the horror they experienced, or the trauma they continue to experience even in freedom, as the state conspired to murder them and they had to take it. Even now, they struggle with financial, employment health and other personal challenges. I cannot think of a more compelling argument in favor of ending the death penalty than the exonerated death row survivors.

To be sure, murder victims’ families who oppose the death penalty are showing the way. They know that taking a life, including the lives of the wrongfully convicted, will not return their loved ones or make them whole, but rather will only perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence.

There is a sense that things are changing. At 61 percent, support for capital punishment in the U.S. is at its lowest level since 1972. Cases such as that of Mumia, and particularly the recent example of Troy Davis, have helped shift public opinion. In death, Davis became a catalyst for a movement of a new generation of abolitionists, including young African-Americans. Through his martyrdom, a multitude of people woke up and realized the fix is in. They realized they’re coming to get us.

In recent years, states such as Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey chose the path to abolition. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber recently announced a death penalty moratorium in his state. And this week the Pennsylvania Senate’s Judiciary Committee voted in favor of SR6, a resolution to study and assess the death penalty in the state.

And yet, as the nation seemingly has turned a corner on the death penalty, there are many new corners to turn and battles to win. The fact remains that while executions have declined, they are still taking place in America, mostly against the poor and poorly represented. Texas is the leader in executions, accounting for 35 percent of the nation’s total. In Harris County (Houston) 12 of the last 13 death sentences in that county were of black men.

With over three-quarters of the nation’s executions, the South leads the nation in state-sponsored murder, a legacy of the Black Codes, Jim Crow and lynchings. And the most important factor that determines whether someone will get the death penalty is the race of the victim.

Over the past three decades, an overwhelming majority of people executed in the United States — over 80 percent — were convicted of killing a white victim, according to Amnesty International. In addition, since 1976 more than 20 percent of black defendants were convicted by an all-white jury. Blacks, however, are about half of all murder victims. And 42 percent of America’s death row is black.

According to a study published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies in 2004, a black person convicted of murdering a white victim is two and a half times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white person convicted of murdering a white victim.

Meanwhile, 98 percent of the prosecutors across the country are white, while only 1 percent are black.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the death penalty was unconstitutional, in part, due to racial disparities. In 1976, the death penalty was reinstated in America. There will come a time when America once again decides to end the barbaric and racist practice — rife with error, incompetence and corruption -although we’re not there yet. But when it happens, in light of the altered post-Troy Davis landscape, the black community will have played a big role in it.