Amnesty International Visits Mumia Abu-Jamal

Revolutionary Worker #935, December 7, 1997

On November 24, a delegation from the human rights group Amnesty International (AI) visited Mumia Abu-Jamal on Pennsylvania's death row. The delegation was led by Pierre Sané, AI's Secretary General. The delegation also visited Scott Blystone, another death-row prisoner.

In a press statement Pierre Sané said, "We speak from Pennsylvania today to draw the world's attention to the racist and unjust use of the death penalty in this state, particularly in the city of Philadelphia. Amnesty International has serious doubts about the fairness of the trial procedures of the condemned prisoners that we are about to meet."

AI pointed out that 90 percent of the prisoners that have been sentenced to death in Philadelphia--103 out of 115--are people of oppressed nationalities. As Sané noted: "Many people believe that the death penalty is only used in a racist manner in the Southern states of the USA. But Philadelphia demonstrates that this is not the case at all. The city has proportionally sentenced more black people to death than any other jurisdiction in the country. We have to ask ourselves: would the death penalty be used to such an extent if the majority of its victims were white?"

AI also denounced the systematic exclusion of African Americans from juries in death penalty cases, a practice ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent years, Philadelphia prosecutors have been more than twice as likely to remove a prospective Black juror than a white one. The District Attorney's office held training sessions on how to exclude Black people from juries. AI pointed out that two-thirds of all jurors removed by the prosecution at Mumia's trial were Black.

Sané said in the press statement: "Philadelphia's death penalty is largely implemented by white people against black people. It cannot be fair that minorities are both subjected to the death penalty in such high numbers and systematically removed from participating in the judicial process."

Sané expressed serious doubts about the fairness of the trial procedures that convicted Mumia to death. He pointed out that the judge himself admitted that the case had "explosive tendencies in the community." But, as Sané pointed out, "The courts did not consider moving the proceedings to a different location to ensure an impartial trial." And during the penalty phase of the trial, the prosecution made inappropriate mention of Mumia's membership in the Black Panther Party and political views in order to elicit a death sentence from the jury.

Sané also made clear his concern about the open antagonism of the police toward Mumia, at a time when his appeal is being considered by the state Supreme Court. The head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police has been quoted as saying, "We want him burned and we want it done soon." Sané said, "We are concerned that the antagonism expressed by the law enforcement community towards Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as the lack of independent and impartial arbiters in Pennsylvania's appeals court system, may prevent him from receiving a fair and impartial hearing for the legal claims he has made concerning his original trial."

In the case of Scott Blystone, AI noted that the court-appointed attorney had been practicing for only three months, had never been involved in a murder trial and had no training or experience in death penalty law. The attorney did not present evidence that Blystone suffers from brain damage and a personality disorder--mitigating evidence that could have spared him from the death penalty. Sané pointed out, "While the district attorney assigns his brightest, most experienced staff to criminal cases, the indigent often end up with under-experienced, under-paid counsel."

AI is not the only organization that has criticized the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The state Bar Association recently voted in favor of a moratorium on executions, citing the disproportionate number of Black and mentally impaired prisoners sentenced to death.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office accused the Bar Association of being "out of touch with the people." Referring to that statement, Pierre Sané said: "What does the Attorney General mean by this? Is he saying that the people of Pennsylvania want the death penalty even if it is used in a racist and unfair manner? I doubt that this is the case. There was a time in the USA when lynching and segregation were popular, but that did not make these practices morally correct."

The day after visiting Mumia, Sané spoke at a meeting of the Philadelphia Bar Association and urged a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Representatives from the city DA's office were there to argue against a moratorium. After a heated debate, the Bar Association adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

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