Mumia Abu-Jamal death sentence dropped: Marc Lamont Hill discusses case
Mumia Abu-Jamal has had his death sentence dropped by the Philadelphia District Attorney, a major milestone for the controversial death row inmate whose plight has garnered international attention for 30 years. Convicted in 1981 for killing a police officer, Mumia’s case has come to symbolize the flaws in our court system that so often destroy lives through the biases and corruption of its authorities. A close friend who co-authored a book with Abu-Jamal, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill discusses the Mumia case with theGrio lending new insights into the life story of a man who some see as a prisoner of conscience. Mumia’s fight for freedom, according to Hill, is just beginning — but both Hill and Abu-Jamal are energized for the struggle.
TheGrio: What are your thoughts on the fact that the Philadelphia District Attorney has dropped the push for Mumia’s execution?
Dr. Marc Lamont Hill: The first reaction of course is one of joy. Mumia is my brother. There is tremendous joy and tremendous relief that that part of the struggle is over. After you get past the joy though, you become a little more critical of what’s going on. Seth Williams, the Philadelphia District Attorney, didn’t elect to choose life in prison because he was persuaded morally. He didn’t want, even in the sentencing hearing, for more evidence to come out or for more public conversation to occur about what’s going on with Mumia Abu Jamal and why brother Mumia is a victim of a crime.
The feeling I feel after the joy is one of being energized and ready to go. We have a bigger struggle ahead of us. The struggle is not over life and death anymore, in the most literal sense. But on another level it is. Life in prison is a death sentence. When you look at death row in particular, it is a death camp. And he has spent every minute of the last 30 years on death row. Death row was not meant to be inhabited for 30 years. This is a classic example of cruel and unusual punishment. And he was, quite frankly railroaded. So we’ve got to figure out the next phase. I am energized to figure that out.
There are some young people who don’t know who Mumia is. Can you give them an overview?
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a life long journalist and activist who has been on the side of justice for three decades now. In December of 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested and ultimately convicted of the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner. At the time of his arrest he was a very well-known Philadelphia journalist and a former Black Panther. The reason his case is controversial is partly because he comes out of a political movement that was fractured by a counterintelligence program that was committed to trumping up charges, arresting, and locking up for long periods of time anyone who was active in the freedom struggle.
When you look at the specifics of Mumia’s case, that becomes apparent. There is considerable doubt that the gun Mumia had registered to him was the gun that was fired. The ballistics didn’t actually match up. When officers arrived on the scene, they saw that Mumia had been shot by Officer Faulkner, but they didn’t check for gun powder residue on Mumia to see if he’d fired a gun, according to the detectives. That seems almost impossible. We have witnesses of the judge, Judge Sabo saying, “I’m gonna help fry the nigger.” We have the fact that Mumia’s participation in the Black Panther Party was used as evidence of his guilt, which is a violation of first amendment rights and the right to freedom of association.
The jury also got terrible instructions. They were told, “This decision really is not the final decision. There will be so many appeals after this, this really isn’t that big of a deal.” Basically reducing the responsibility of the jury, while making them think that they had to be unanimous in order to consider mitigating factors in terms of whether to give death or life. Jurors were excluded on the basis of race. We could go on and on with the evidence. All of this evidence, combined with the fact that Mumia’s politics were a central part of this story, speak to the fact that he was a political prisoner. People who do not support Mumia question the fact that he says someone else did it, but never named the person. Plus, his brother was present at the incident, but has never spoken about it. What do you make of this?
I can’t speculate on his brother at all. What I can say is that if the police were aware that someone else committed the crime, and were simply prosecuting Mumia because he didn’t tell, that would also be a miscarriage of justice. The issue here is that the police know that Mumia didn’t do it. The investigators know that they didn’t have proper evidence. So, irrespective of who actually did it — we know Mumia didn’t. We know he didn’t get a fair trial, and we know that he didn’t get a fair sentencing. We know all of that to be true. For me that’s the critical focus.
Have you spoken to him since this decision came down?
I didn’t get a chance to speak to him, because of the phone schedule [in prison]. I’ve spoken to him after every verdict, and he’s always excited, he’s always happy even though he tries to contain it a little bit. But more importantly he’s always sober and focused on the next phase.
How does Mumia see his life as part of the larger issue of black male incarceration
If Mumia had been white or middle class, he wouldn’t be incarcerated right now. The bigger issue here is that the criminal justice system is broken. At every level it’s broken, from the level of the arrest, to police involvement in our communities, to the selection of jurors, to the sentencing.
The reason is that black male bodies are seen as dangerous. Even Mumia, with his college degree, his master’s degree, his journalistic credentials and seven books, his body still represents something dangerous, something that is inherently subversive. Something that warrants lethal force. That’s the reality. All of us are living haunted by the specter and shadow of death. While Mumia is facing a more immediate circumstance, we’re all struggling with that.
How do you see his case in relationship with the Troy Davis execution?
You can’t think of Troy Davis and not think of Mumia and vice versa. When you look at somebody like Troy Davis, who again had so much evidence for so much doubt, the state still executed him. With Mumia, the state was still willing to execute him. The difference between Mumia and Troy Davis is that for the past thirty years we’ve worked on his behalf. He’s had an international cadre of support that included celebrities, wealthy people, and scholars.
If we had dedicated that much effort to Troy Davis, I would like to think that we could have created a different outcome. But the reality is, there are so many people on death row who don’t deserve to be there, who are wrongfully convicted, who have been wrongfully executed. The idea that we continue to execute people knowing that we’re so fallible is shameful.
Some think the combination of the Troy Davis execution and the Mumia case coming to prominence could make the death penalty an issue in the presidential election. Is that possible?
I’m not convinced it will become part of the presidential election agenda, because frankly both Democrats and Republicans have said very little about it. There are certain issues that seem so “common sense” as part of our national culture that there is no reason to debate them. There doesn’t seem to be a differing perspective between the left and the right about the legitimacy of prison or the death penalty. No one wants to be perceived as soft on crime. There will be the occasional act of clemency, or the occasional pardon because that allows us to believe that system itself is functional. But that’s as far as it goes. It’s sad, but it’s true.
You worked on a book with Mumia before he new that he was going to have his execution sentence thrown out. Do you plan on working with him on future projects?
We’re both committed to the project of destroying the prison regime in America. The future work we do will focus on that. Stopping this system that responds to poverty and social misery with incarceration and containment – any intellectual projects we do in the future will be around that. We are thinking of doing something on the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s big.
What should people do who want to get involved in this cause?
The first thing we need to do is free Mumia. That has to be one of our top priorities.
You mean actual freedom – as in freedom from prison?
Yeah. We want him home. Former archbishop Desmond Tutu issued a letter yesterday demanding his immediate release. I think there will be a greater push for that. There is an international community who is still fighting for his liberation, because again, he’s innocent. So until he comes home, there’s work to do. FreeMumia.com is a great way to find out information and become a part of that cause. We need to join local prison societies so that we can actually spend time in prisons and connect with prisoners, and provide support for them.
We need to challenge things like the War on Drugs, which only leads to mass incarceration and more social decay. I’m a prison abolitionist, so I’m always reluctant to talk about prison reform, but we need to fight for common sense reforms like health care. We need to fight for the repeal of the prison litigation reform act that makes it more difficult for prisoners to advocate for themselves. Once we do all this, hopefully things will be a lot better.
It’s a lot of work. The struggle is still in front of us, but we can make it happen.