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Sidebar: Death Penalty Realities

Black Political Prisoners Jailed for Life-or Death!

by Rob Buckheit

In a recent forum at UNC Law School, famed attorney Leonard Weinglass and long-time activist Marche Clarke urged students and activists to work towards reversing two of the most egregious cases of political oppression in recent memory.

Two US political prisoners, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kwame Cannon, will lose their lives to vindictive city governments unless communities can mobilize themselves to protest their incarceration.

Weinglass, famed attorney of the Chicago Seven and current counsel to convicted murderer and death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, called his client "the only political prisoner on death row."

Journalist and founder of the Philadelphia Black Panthers Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the killing of a white Philadelphia police officer.

As a journalist, Abu-Jamal was labeled as "a voice for the voiceless" by the Philadelphia Inquirer for his work exposing what the US Department of Justice called "the practice of brutality against minorities" by that city's police department. Abu-Jamal was so well known for his work, and so hated by the city government, that at a press conference in 1978, Philadelphia Mayor Rizzo stood up, pointed at Abu-Jamal and said, "Young man, someday you will be held accountable for what you have done."

On December 9, 1981, the city government saw its chance to punish Abu-Jamal for his dissent. At 4 AM while working as a taxi driver, he drove up to the scene of a white police officer beating an African-American male, Abu-Jamal's own brother, in the street. He exited his cab to intervene, presumably with his 0.38 caliber gun in hand, and shots were fired. The police officer lay dead and Abu-Jamal was shot through the chest.

The city government successfully convicted Abu-Jamal for premeditated first-degree murder in a trial riddled with racial bias, judicial improprieties, witness tampering, and no legal defense for the accused. His appointed attorney never spoke with a witness, a pathologist, or a forensic expert. His attorney did not even read the medical examiner's report, because if he had, he could have brought out in court that Abu-Jamal's gun and the bullet that killed the police officer were not even the same caliber. After dismissing his attorney, Abu-Jamal tried to defend himself, but was eventually denied that right after a white juror complained that his dreadlocks frightened her.

Despite all this, the jury was ready to find Abu-Jamal guilty of the lesser charge of third-degree murder, until presiding judge Albert Sabo, who holds the US record for death penalty convictions, defined premeditation for the jury as the few seconds of thought before the accused pulls the trigger. Based on that ruling, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to die.

Mumia Abu-Jamal has spent the last 15 years of his life on death row, but he has not remained silent despite the government's attempts to isolate him from the outside world. He has written an internationally best selling book Live From Death Row, and he has just completed another. The international pleas on behalf of Abu-Jamal from Nelson Mandela, the Japanese Diet, and others have done much to bring attention to the case. Weinglass is currently traveling throughout the world, soliciting petitions on his client's behalf from national parliaments.

The legal fight is far from over. The highly politicized case now sits before the popularly-elected Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Weinglass admits things do not look promising. In the first week of March, the Court refused to hear oral arguments of the case. Still, the Court has not yet rejected Abu-Jamal's request for a new trial.

Weinglass urges communities to act on behalf of his client. He tells The Prism that the most effective actions can be achieved through the protest of university and church groups. He also hopes that individuals will speak out on talk-radio programs and in letters to the editor. You can write a letter to the Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer: P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101-8263. Also be sure to check out the many web sites on the Internet devoted to this incredible manipulation of state power.

Although not sentenced to death, Kwame Cannon is yet another African-American male who has had his life taken from him by the state for his connection to voices critical of the Greensboro city government. At age 16, he was sentenced to two life terms in prison for six non-violent burglaries in which he stole less than $500. Although in fact guilty of these crimes, Cannon too, is a political prisoner who is being punished for his mother's involvement in a 1978 Communist Workers Party march in Greensboro. During this demonstration, the Ku Klux Klan attacked the marchers, killing five people and injuring ten others, while the city police turned their backs. Cannon's mother was also involved in the subsequent, and successful, $300,000 lawsuit against the Greensboro city government only one year prior to her son's 1986 sentencing.

The severe sentence is unprecedented in North Carolina. According to Marche Clarke, founder of the Greensboro Minority Prison Rights Project, Cannon, who is now 27 years old, "watches murderers come and go" while he remains incarcerated. Under the 1994 Structured Sentencing Law, ten years in prison is the maximum sentence for a person who has committed similar crimes, and the average sentence is less than eight years. Cannon has now served 11 years in prison, and neither of his two life sentences have been commuted.

Clarke is leading the fight to free Cannon, but she needs assistance from anyone and everyone. Volunteers are needed to help in research and writing and in creating press packets, and you need not have any training in either law or public relations. If you want to join the effort to free Kwame Cannon, contact Clarke at (910) 273-0935.

These two cases demonstrate that racism and injustice exist in city governments across the US. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court must grant Mumia Abu-Jamal a new, fair trial with adequate legal representation. Kwame Cannon has paid his debt to society in full. The remainder of his two life terms is what the Greensboro city government feels the Cannon family owes it. They owe Greensboro nothing. Until communities speak up against such conditions and demand justice, the criminal justice system will continue to be used by the state, not as a tool of order and stability, but of political persecution and racism.

  Rob Buckheit is a Chapel Hill resident.  

Death Penalty Realities

by Rob Buckheit

In the industrialized-and supposedly democratic-world, slightly more than 3100 criminals await execution for their crimes.

Nearly three dozen of these criminals can be found in Japan; the other 3100 live on death row right here in the United States.

If our nation is a free democracy where all its citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law, then the death penalty is applied equitably, regardless of class and race. Therefore, the demographics of death row should more or less parallel those of the nation as a whole. If this were true, 60% of death row inmates would be of the middle class, 30% of the lower class, and roughly 10% would be of the upper class. It would also follow that 75% of those condemned to die at the hands of the state would be white, 12% would be African-American, 10% would be Hispanic, and 3% would be Asian.

The harsh reality is that these assumptions could not be further from the truth.

Of the 3100 inmates on death row in the US, none are from the upper class, and a handful are from the middle class. An even more frightening statistic is that 85% of those facing capital punishment are African-American males convicted of killing whites. The reality is that capital punishment has never been applied fairly in all cases of murder, but rather, it specifically targets African-American men of little wealth or power who have been convicted of crimes against whites.

In February, the American Bar Association made an announcement that startled the legal community, but received little attention elsewhere. The ABA called for a moratorium on capital punishment due to the racial bias and lack of adequate legal representation that exists in such cases.

But the ABA announcement is no new, startling revelation. In 1972, the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia. They found it to be a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court referred to the practice of executions as a contradiction of American norms and a degradation of human dignity. They also found that it was applied unfairly towards the indigent and socially disadvantaged who did not know how to nor could afford a defense against such a punishment. The dissenters on the Court could do little more than quote public opinion polls in their arguments for maintaining the practice of executions.

However, this short breath of civility and justice in the US ended four short years later in 1976 when the Court reversed itself, reinstating capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia. This reversal paralleled rightward shifts in both the nation and in the composition of the Court. It found that death sentencing guidelines established by popularly-elected legislatures, though admittedly not nondiscriminatory, were adequate to reinstate the practice.

Many today who support the death penalty cite its deterrent effect. They claim that when a society hears that its murderers have been executed, it makes the members of that society think twice before taking the life of another. "Do not be fooled," says former New York governor and rumored Supreme Court nominee Mario Cuomo. "There is not one shred of evidence which supports the conclusion that the death penalty deters crime. And it's wrong for the state, the educator of all, to use violence to try to solve a problem."

In this glorious age of television, why are executions held at 2AM and never televised if the American public supports the practice so strongly? Is it because so many who were witnesses to a state-sanctioned death walk out as opponents of capital punishment, as happened in Florida last month?

Capital punishment is a practice as old as civilization itself. Yet the rest of the modern world has now rejected it as arcane. According to attorney Leonard Weinglass, it is a practice that violates the International Covenant on Human Rights, a treaty which the US has signed. "Even the Bosnian War Crimes Tribunal has already declared that it will not impose the death penalty," says Weinglass.

If the world cannot bring itself to execute men who have raped, tortured, and murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, how can the American public continue to allow an ineffective and racist tool of the state such as capital punishment to be used against poor African-American males?

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