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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Mumia abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier

December 9th will mark the 32nd anniversary of Mumia abu Jamal’s imprisonment. Relentless agitation, coupled with good legal work, saved him from the executioner. Mumia is no longer on death row, but he still faces life in prison.

On a flight home from France in June 2001, after attending the First World Congress to Abolish the Death Penalty, I was seated next to a law student and we talked about Mumia’s case. The student and I were both involved in the movement to save Mumia’s life. At that time Mumia was still on Pennsylvania’s death row, convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia policeman. I had recently read the several thousand-page transcript of his trial, which I found illuminating in light of extensive experience reading trial transcripts while serving two Massachusetts Appeals Court legal clerkships in the 1980’s.

Mumia’s lawyer, the late Leonard Weinglass, had a brilliant record. Weinglass had succeeded in reversing the death sentences of all of his seven previous death-row clients. Despite this, Mumia had lost every round in Pennsylvania State Court, but Weinglass would soon file Mumia’s first Federal District Court appeal.

Weinglass’s ability, coupled with the serious legal questions raised by the transcript I had read, gave me confidence that he would win some part of the Federal case. However, I expressed my concern to the law student that a smart federal judge might vacate the death sentence, but uphold the guilty verdict, leaving Mumia to spend the rest of life in prison. Despite the unfair trial and a mounting body of evidence that Mumia did not commit the crime, the powerful Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and almost all major Republican and Democratic state office holders were proclaiming his guilt. The FOP was actively lobbying for Mumia’s execution, which rendered it improbable that a Federal Court would overturn a verdict against a radical black male convicted of killing a white policeman. A smart judge also would do this because it would keep Mumia in prison, but make it more difficult for his supporters to continue the massive campaign for his release.

That’s what had happened in American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier’s case. Even though he’d been jailed for decades and it was widely known that Peltier did not kill the FBI agents, it had been difficult to maintain a large-scale movement on his behalf, because he did not face execution. Eventually the Federal Judge put Mumia in the same position as Leonard Peltier. He vacated the death sentence, but upheld the verdict.

Leonard Peltier has been jailed for five years longer than Mumia. Wikipedia lists his earliest projected release date as 2040. He’ll be 96 years old. After reading Mumia’s trial transcript I became convinced that after such an unfair trial no one deserved to spend 32 days in prison, let along 32 years, and rather than incarceration, Leonard Peltier should get the Nobel Peace Prize for his service to his people.

We should continue to agitate for the release of both Leonard Peltier and Mumia abu Jamal. The Commander-in-Chief of our global empire, our first African-American President, is unlikely to have the desire or the guts to pardon radical Native or African-American leaders convicted of killing white law enforcement officers. We must, however, continue to struggle on Mumia and Leonard’s behalf not only because they deserve to be free, but also because we are all diminished as long as they are incarcerated.
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