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Philadelphia’s ‘Progressive’ DA Keeps Mumia Behind Bars

In a decision made by a corrupt and deeply racist legal system, Mumia Abu-Jamal was falsely convicted in 1982 of shooting and killing a police officer. High hopes for the influence of District Attorney Larry Krasner have been disappointed, revealing the bankruptcy of placing “progressive” lawyers in positions of executive power as a tactic for change.

Francesca Gomes

May 17, 2018
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Emma Lee/WHYY

In 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of the murder of Daniel Faulkner, a cop in the Philadelphia Police Department. Since the moment of his arrest, the coordinated attacks on Mumia have constituted an egregious, sustained campaign against a man who can only be described as a political prisoner. The trial, which included some of the worst abuses of an already brutal legal system, was only the beginning of over three decades of attacks.

Mumia had become a Black Panther after experiencing police brutality when he was a teenager. He founded the Philadelphia branch of the Panthers at the age of 14 and was under COINTELPRO surveillance for several years until he left the party. (An attorney later wrote in an affidavit regarding this period: ”Mr. Jamal was subjected to surveillance, harassment, disruption, politically motivated arrests and attempted frame-ups by the FBI, who worked in conjunction with the Philadelphia Police Department.”)

Mumia eventually became an important voice in journalism who was renowned for his work covering MOVE, a radical separatist movement for Black liberation. He followed, documented, and reported on the variety of ways in which the state harassed and attacked the MOVE community. Based largely on this work exposing the racist treatment of the movement, he was elected the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in 1981, at which time he was working as a cab driver in addition to his journalism career.

He was arrested on December 9, 1981 when the police found him near the body of Daniel Faulkner, who had been involved in an altercation with Mumia’s brother. Faulkner had died of a shot to the head, and Mumia had been shot in the stomach.

A racist frame-up

The trial was a grotesque travesty of the American “justice” system. The judge assigned to the case, Albert F. Sabo, was well known for his affinity for the police as well as his fondness for the death penalty — during his 14 years on the bench, he sentenced 31 people to death, 29 of them People of Color. 1D. Baldus, et al., “Race Discrimination and the Death Penalty in the Post Furman Era: An Empirical and Legal Overview, with Preliminary Findings from Philadelphia,” Cornell Law Review 83, (September 1998). Sabo’s behavior during the trial was a vivid demonstration of the ways in which the legal system can be manipulated to intensify oppression against left politics and defenders of Black communities. The judge denied Mumia’s requests to represent himself, instead forcing the public defender assigned to the case — who had repeatedly stated that he was not capable of providing Mumia with an adequate defense — to continue acting as Mumia’s attorney. Sabo also refused to approve basic funding requests for investigations, ballistics tests, or medical pathology, and oversaw the prosecution as it stacked the jury with a disproportionate number of white jurors who were openly and clearly prejudiced in favor of the police.

The police, for their part, clumsily fabricated a spurious hospital confession, supposedly given by Mumia, and coerced sex workers into giving false testimony against him with threats of jail time. Additionally, “Abu-Jamal’s attorneys contend that a number of witnesses changed their original statements regarding what they saw on the night of the crime after being coerced, threatened or offered inducements by the police.”2Greg Ruggiero, ed., The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000), 28.

At the conclusion of the trial, Mumia was sentenced to death — a sentence he appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1989. He began filing federal appeals to overturn the conviction in December of 1999, and in 2011, his sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police was outraged and has not ceased in their campaign for Abu-Jamal’s execution despite the fact that both the prosecutors and Faulkner’s family have long abandoned their demand for the application of the death penalty.

Corruption, brutality, and bombings: Philadelphia law enforcement, 1978-1997

Since 1978, various government agencies in the City of Philadelphia have been notorious for extreme levels of both corruption and racism. When the Philadelphia Police Department came under scrutiny in 1978, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections found that “the level of police abuse had reached that of homicidal violence and that Philadelphia lacked the necessary police leadership to control the lawlessness.”3Ibid.

During that same year, the police besieged a house in the MOVE community. After a cop was shot in the standoff, a resident was brutally beaten by the rest of the police — who bulldozed the property the next day in order to destroy all evidence. Eight years later, the loud, vocal demands of the group and the flouting of private property through the practice of squatting in vacant buildings had become intolerable to the cops, who began a violent standoff in 1985. It ended with the deaths of 11 people, including five children, after the cops dropped a makeshift bomb from a helicopter.

The 39th District Corruption Scandal, investigated from 1995 to 1997, focused on five police officers who engaged in particularly egregious and nefarious practices. One of them was the cop who had tried to convince his girlfriend to give false testimony against Mumia during his trial. The officers, who had preyed on a severely underfunded community in North Philadelphia for years and had terrorized its residents, were charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and “pocketing more than $100,000 in cash they robbed from suspected drug dealers through beatings, intimidations, illegal searches, and denying suspects their constitutional rights.”

Soon after the exposure of the depth of corruption in the 39th District, a videotape surfaced, proving the commonplace use of racist tactics by the Philadelphia DA. Jack McMahon (Assistant District Attorney from 1982 to 1990) taped an instructional lecture on jury selection, including notes on how to avoid complying with the 1986 Supreme Court ruling against making selection decisions based on race. His recommendations included avoiding “smart people,” social workers, teachers (except that: “If you get, like, a white teacher teaching in a black school that’s sick of these guys maybe, that may be one you accept”), and low-income members of minority groups. He also notes, “In selecting blacks, you don’t want the real educated ones,” and “Avoid selecting older black women when the defendant is a young black man.”

It was in this context that Mumia was tried and convicted, and it was in this context that his appeals were denied.

The promise of a “progressive” DA

Enter Larry Krasner — the “progressive” District Attorney who promised to change all this. Krasner was elected last November on a platform of dramatic changes to the long-corrupt and particularly violent and racist legal system of the city. His 30 years as a criminal defense lawyer specializing in civil rights cases, many of which he argued on a pro bono basis, included defenses of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philadelphia protesters.

Many newer socialists, particularly those in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), insisted that it was important to support the campaigns of people like Krasner and that the promise of criminal justice reforms was one with promise. In the article “Yesterday Was a Good Day,” Jacobin reported that “With a campaign spearheaded by former Bernie Sanders volunteers and pledges to end to cash bail, the death penalty, and mass incarceration, he won by a three-to-one ratio, thanks largely to the votes of the city’s communities of color. ‘This is what a movement looks like,’ he told a crowd of supporters.” DSA leadership, who had endorsed Krasner’s run, were positively jubilant at the election of a “progressive” who would carry out a kinder, gentler version of state incarceration.

Riding a wave of victory, and firing 31 prosecutors from the DA’s Office within his first week, Krasner seemed to many to be a promising breath of fresh air. He ended criminal prosecution for marijuana possession, told prosecutors to end the practice of extorting bail money from those accused of minor crimes, and even filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that have been accused of responsibility in the opioid epidemic. He was lauded by Sean King of The Intercept as “exceeding expectations,” citing a long list of welcome reforms to the criminal justice system.

However, the leaders of the transition team chosen by Krasner included none other than former DA Ronald Castille, who recently retired from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Castille campaigned for the position of chief justice on his record of securing 45 death penalty convictions during his time as Philadelphia DA. He was a “tough on crime” candidate, pressuring the Pennsylvania legislature to pass bills for the mandatory minimum sentencing of drug dealers. He also encouraged the legislature to grant district attorneys the ability to overturn judges’ decisions to place juveniles in rehabilitation, allowing the DA to incarcerate them instead.

Krasner’s choice of Castille was particularly galling given the fact that, in 2017, a Philadelphia judge had ordered the DA’s office to release all files and records regarding Castille’s involvement in the Abu-Jamal case. The recent Supreme Court decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania in 2016 declared it a violation of due process — and therefore unconstitutional — for a judge to be involved in any case in which they had earlier served as a prosecutor. Castille had acted both as the Philadelphia ADA during Mumia’s trial in 1982 and as the Philadelphia DA from 1986 to 1991, overseeing and working against Mumia’s appeals, and when he became a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1994, he continued both his interest and involvement in Mumia’s case.

Yet this pro-death-penalty, racist prosecutor is someone Krasner decided was important to have on his team because, in his words, “What I need is people with experience who are going to tell me honestly where they stand, and he’s reflective of that.” He went on to say (regarding the presence of employment attorneys) that, “You’ve got to be careful of who is let go and who you bring in. That’s a priority when you’re trying to achieve culture change in an office that hasn’t changed orientation in three decades.”

Krasner: business as usual

Meanwhile, despite Krasner’s moves to review past sentences to lessen those his new program deemed to be excessively harsh, he has been unable to actually enforce any of them because judges are lining up to block and reject the revised deals he makes. It’s a clear demonstration of the ability of the state to subvert and outright prevent any changes to the criminal justice system on the part of an individual progressive in an executive position.

Krasner’s office has not only been ineffectual on broad reforms; it has also been complicit in the continued incarceration of Mumia, whose health has been in decline for years due to cirrhosis as a result of mistreated Hepatitis-C. Recently, Krasner moved from complicity to actually assisting the upholding of the racist conviction as the DA’s office is actively stalling on the court-ordered release of the documents that would unequivocally prove Castille’s continued involvement in and active opposition to Mumia’s appeals. DA representatives have consistently asked for continuances, using various excuses — everything from needing to formulate a new office policy to deal with cases based on the Williams decision to requiring more time to “further investigate” the issue. As of last month’s hearing, Krasner has still not complied with the court-ordered release of the files.

Amidst this stonewalling, Krasner’s ADA came out in active defense of Castille and against Mumia’s appeal. “Three days before the April 30 hearing, DA Kavanagh issued a letter to Judge Tucker claiming that their ‘exhaustive search’ had not found the missing Castille memo. It concluded: ‘Although Mr. Castille was the District Attorney when defendant’s (Abu-Jamal’s) direct appeal was pending and then presided as the Justice/Chief Justice over defendant’s PCRA appeals in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it is the Commonwealth’s position that he did not have the requisite ‘significant, personal involvement’ in a ‘critical decision’ in this case to give rise to a substantive due process violation as set forth in Williams.’”

It would seem that Krasner is extremely ambitious and quick to make certain basic reforms, but when it comes to a gross violation of human rights and an imprisonment based on racism and oppression, his office is alternatingly paralyzed by doubt and feverishly upholding the exact corruption and abuse of the (already severely racist) legal system he promised to reform.

The danger of reaching the conclusion that Larry Krasner was simply too weak-willed to carry through on his promises — that a stronger, more dedicated individual could accomplish sweeping positive reforms that would end mass incarceration and reduce racist practices in the legal system — is that this mistake will be repeated. As pointed out in “District Attorney: No Role For a Socialist,” it is impossible for anyone — be they progressive or socialist — to administer the capitalist state without making the level of compromise that ensures they are actively engaging in oppression. Krasner’s failed attempts to make successful changes, even with many left-liberal supporters behind him, and his inability to fight against the determination of the state to keep Mumia in prison make this abundantly clear.

And those who rallied on the streets outside Krasner’s office on April 30 had no illusions about the role of a District Attorney, and they issued loud demands that he release the documents relating to Castille’s involvement in Mumia’s case.

State attempts to silence support

Not content with Mumia’s lifelong incarceration resulting from a shameless frame-up, denial of his appeals, open and cynical manipulation of the bourgeois legal system, and serious illness due to medical neglect, the state reacts with malice when faced with even symbolic challenges to this oppression.

The idea of popular support for Mumia is so intolerable for them that, when the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Denis named a street after him, the Executive Committee of the Republican Party for the 59th Ward of the City of Philadelphia filed charges in the French legal system against both the City of Paris and Saint-Denis for “glorifying” Abu-Jamal and accused both municipalities of “apology or denial of crime.”

And when New Jersey teacher Marylin Zuniga told her students that Mumia Abu-Jamal was very ill and then entertained their very age-appropriate request to send him “Get Well Soon” cards, Orange Township Public Schools immediately demanded she be fired. Despite widespread support for Zuniga, the Orange Preparatory Academy board dismissed her on May 13, 2015.

The importance of Mumia Abu-Jamal

While Mumia’s experience is both immensely tragic on a human level and starkly symbolic of the legal system’s gross and inhuman oppression of Black people, his political importance goes far beyond the legalities of his case. Rachel Wolkenstein, co-counsel on Mumia’s case for much of the 1990’s, writes: “…Abu-Jamal’s case is a special case of political persecution, intended to be a lesson for any who dare to speak out in opposition to racist oppression, bias and other inequities of American capitalism.” She points out that “A Bastille Day rally was held for Mumia in Philadelphia, July 14, 1990. The FOP organized a counter-rally. The head of the Philly FOP, Richard Costello, declared that all Mumia’s supporters were part of a ‘misfit terrorist group’ who should be put on an ‘electric couch.’” Obviously, it’s no surprise that these cop organizers brazenly suggested that people who engage in political dissent deserve the death penalty, since from the perspective of the state, the only thing more outrageous than an imprisoned Black man being able to continue to be heard is for many others to support him.

The importance of the continued imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal lies in both the direct and specific message sent by the oppressors — this is what the state does to Black voices who challenge it — and what it reveals about the level of racism sewn into the fabric of the U.S. legal system. As Wolkenstein says, “To the American capitalist state, governed through both the Democratic and Republican parties, Mumia represents the specter of black revolt, of defiant opposition to their system of racist oppression.”

As one of the most important political prisoners of our time, we must uphold this opposition by demanding the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. We cannot put our faith in a “progressive” district attorney. Only a movement from outside the rotten legal system can put pressure on the system itself.


1 D. Baldus, et al., “Race Discrimination and the Death Penalty in the Post Furman Era: An Empirical and Legal Overview, with Preliminary Findings from Philadelphia,” Cornell Law Review 83, (September 1998).
2 Greg Ruggiero, ed., The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000), 28.
3 Ibid.
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Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.

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Image: Joshua Briz/AP

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