Capital Punishment Foes Rally Around Condemned Former Black Panther
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Death penalty opponents in the United States, Canada and Europe are rallying behind a condemned former Black Panther, claiming his case is an example of racism in capital punishment.
Mumia Abu-Jamal of Philadelphia is on Pennsylvania’s death row for the fatal 1981 shooting of a white police officer. He was convicted in 1982 and exhausted his state court appeals last year. His latest appeal petition, filed in May, is pending before the Supreme Court.
″The case has become the rallying cry for opponents of the racist death penalty,″ said Rachel Wolkenstein, staff attorney for the New York-based Partisan Defense Committee, organizer of protests staged in London, New York, Paris, Hamburg, East Berlin and Toronto.
Studies have shown that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to blacks, Hispanics, the poor and the indigent.
Among the inmates on death row, 43 percent are black, more than three times the percentage of blacks in the general population, acording to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. More than twice as many blacks who killed whites were executed since 1973 as blacks who killed other blacks, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A rally is planned for July 12 in Sydney, Australia, followed by others July 14 in Philadelphia, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.
Petitions with 20,000 signatures seeking a reprieve for Jamal have been sent to Gov. Robert Casey, along with a letter from the Toronto Labour Council on behalf of 180,000 trade unionists in Canada.
″This campaign has brought together a powerful array of forces″ who want an end to death sentences, said Gene Herson, rally chairman for the committee.
U.S. Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., and actor Ed Asner are among those supporting a lesser sentence for Jamal.
″In addition to my hatred of the death penalty ... I know that Mumia did not have a fair trial,″ liberal attorney William Kuntzler said during a June 28 rally in New York.
Deputy District Attorney Gaele Barthold said prosecutors would have no comment because Jamal’s case is in litigation.
Witnesses testified that Jamal, 36, shot Officer Daniel Faulkner once in the back and four times at close range after the policeman stopped Jamal’s brother for a traffic violation. Jamal was critically injured when Faulkner returned fire, and later recovered.
Jamal, formerly known as Wesley Cook, was a member of the Black Panthers and later became a supporter of the radical group MOVE and a follower of the Rastafarian movement.
He was a radio news reporter known for his focus on social issues and served as president of the city Association of Black Journalists. He lost the radio job in a dispute over objectivity and was working as a taxi driver before the shooting.
Ms. Wolkenstein contends Jamal had been a police target for years.
″He’s on death row specifically because as a Black Panther and prominent journalist he spoke out against racist state repression,″ she said.
John O’Brien, recording secretary for the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, said he had no knowledge of Jamal’s having been a police target, but he said the police union and its members would fight any attempt to overturn Jamal’s death sentence.
″As far as I’m concerned, that man deserves to die,″ he said. ″He killed that man on purpose. He could have left after shooting him once, but no, he came over and put another bullet in his head.″
Jamal, who claims he did not shoot the police officer, did not testify at his trial.
Defense attorney Marilyn J. Gelby has argued that the prosecutor improperly told jurors Jamal would have ″appeal after appeal after appeal″ if convicted. The state Supreme Court said the argument was permissible, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a similar ruling from Mississippi in 1985.
Such an argument ″is seen to mean that the jury is really not taking its responsibility for the death penalty,″ Ms. Gelb said.