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Mumia Abu-Jamal has been incarcerated on Pennsylvania's death row for the past 17 years. His case has generated more controversy and received more attention, both national and international, than that of any other inmate currently under sentence of death in the United States of America (USA).
Mumia Abu-Jamal, black, was convicted and sentenced to death in July 1982 for the murder of white police officer Daniel Faulkner on 9 December 1981. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence since 1981. Since the trial, those advocating his release or retrial have contested the validity of much of the evidence used to obtain his conviction. These accusations have been countered by members of the law enforcement community and their supporters, who have agitated for Mumia Abu-Jamal's execution while maintaining that the trial was unbiased and fair.
In light of the contradictory and incomplete evidence in this case, Amnesty International can take no position on the guilt or innocence of Mumia Abu Jamal Nor has the organization identified him as a political prisoner, although it has previously expressed its concern over the activities of a government counterintelligence program, which appeared to number Abu-Jamal among its targets (see page 24). However, the organization is concerned that political statements attributed to him as a teenager were improperly used by the prosecution in its efforts to obtain a death sentence against him. In any event, the administration of the death penalty in the USA remains a highly politicized affair, sanctioned and supported by elected officials for itsperceived political advantages. The politicization of Mumia Abu-Jamal's case may not only have prejudiced his right to a fair trial, but may now be undermining his right to fair and impartial treatment in the appeal courts.
After many years of monitoring Mumia Abu-Jamal's case and a thorough study of original documents, including the entire trial transcript, the organization has concluded that the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty. Amnesty International therefore believes that the interests of justice would best be served by the granting of a new trial to Mumia Abu-Jamal (see conclusion).
In October 1999, Abu-Jamal filed his initial federal appeal. The federal courts represent Abu-Jamal's final opportunity to have many of the troubling issues in his case addressed and corrected. However, as discussed below, the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act severely limits the federal courts' ability to ensure that legal proceedings at state-level guaranteed the defendants' rights enshrined in the US Constitution and under international human rights standards. Amnesty International has chosen this time, a time when Abu-Jamal's life is in the balance, to release this report.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of more than three and a half thousand people on death row in 37 states and under federal law throughout the USA. By the end of 1999, 598 prisoners had been put to death in 30 states since executions resumed in 1977; in 1999 alone, 98 prisoners died at the hands of the state, a record year since the 1950s. The US authorities have repeatedly violated international minimum safeguards in their continuing resort to capital punishment. Violations include the execution of the mentally impaired, of child offenders, and of those who received inadequate legal representation at trial. Those sentenced to death in the USA are overwhelmingly the poor, and disproportionately come from racial and ethnic minority communities. The risk of wrongful conviction remains high, with more than 80 prisoners released from death rows since 1973 after evidence of their innocence emerged. Many came close to execution before the courts acted on their claims of wrongful conviction. Others have gone to their deaths despite serious doubts concerning their guilt.
Amnesty International unconditionally opposes the death penalty under all circumstances. Even if it were possible for a country to create a judicial system entirely fair and free from bias and error, the punishment of death would still violate the most fundamental of all human rights. Each death sentence and execution is an affront to human dignity: the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
In opposing the death penalty, Amnesty International in no way seeks to minimize or condone the crimes for which those sentenced to death and executed were convicted. Nor does the organization seek to belittle the appalling suffering of the families of murder victims, lot whom it has the greatest sympathy. However, the finality and cruelty inherent in the death penalty render it incompatible with norms of modern day civilized behaviour and an inappropriate and unacceptable response to violent crime.
The continued and accelerating use of the death penalty is one of many serious human rights violations that Amnesty International has identified and repeatedly raised with the US authorities. These other concerns include a nationwide pattern of police brutality; the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, inhuman or degrading conditions of confinement and the mistreatment of asylum seekers.
THE BACKDROP: PHILADELPHIA, A CITY
OF RACIAL TENSIONS, POLICE BRUTALITY
AND POLICE CORRUPTION
The shooting of Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 and Mumia Abu-Jamal's trial the following year took place in Philadelphia, a city fraught with tension between the predominately white authorities and the African American and other minority communities. Both before and since that time, numerous instances have come to light of police brutality and the use of disproportionate force with lethal consequences; of the corruption of police officers and the fabrication of evidence against those suspected of criminal acts.
In 1973, a federal judge for the US District Court stated that police abuse occurred with such frequency in Philadelphia that it could not be "dismissed as rare, isolated instances" and that city officials did "little or nothing" to punish or prevent police abuse.
In 1979, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the then-mayor of Philadelphia, Prank Rizzo, and other city officials for condoning police brutality. The lawsuit listed 290 persons shot by the city's police officers between 1975 and 1979, the majority of whom were from ethnic minorities. During Frank Rizzo's eight years as mayor, fatal shootings by Philadelphia police officers increased by 20 per cent annually. In the year after he left office, 1980, fatal shootings declined 67 per cent. Mayor Rizzo appeared to tolerate police misconduct. In 1978, he told an audience of 700 police officers "Even when you're wrong, I'm going to back you."
An investigation in 1978 by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Crime and Corrections found that a small but significant number of Philadelphia police routinely engaged in verbal and physical abuse of citizens to a degree the subcommittee considered "lawless." The investigation concluded that the level of police abuse had reached that of homicidal violence and that Philadelphia lacked the necessary police leadership to control the lawlessness.
Also in 1978, the police became involved in a siege of a house occupied by members of MOVE. During an attempt to force the occupants to leave the building a shot was fired, causing the police to open fire at the house (it is disputed whether the police or those in the house fired the initial shot). At this time, one police officer was fatally wounded; MOVE members later maintained that the police officer was killed by gun fire from other officers. As the occupants surrendered to the police, television cameras filmed a police officer striking Delbert Africa (all members of MOVE adopt the second name of Africa) with the butt of a shotgun and then dragging him along the ground as other police officers kicked him. Police bulldozed the house to the ground the following day, destroying the crime scene and making analysis of many of the day's events impossible. Nine members of MOVE were tried on charges of third degree murder, conspiracy, and multiple counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault; all were found guilty and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was closely involved with MOVE. It is highly likely that the officers who arrested him, although perhaps unaware of his identity, would have immediately associated him with the organization because of his dreadlocks, a hairstyle adopted by all members of MOVE as part of their beliefs. Abu-Jamal was also a former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and was under surveillance by the FBI's Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO (see box). Prior to his arrest, Abu-Jamal worked as a journalist and had written articles critical of the authorities in Philadelphia. To supplement his income, he was working as a taxi cab driver at the time of the crime.