Mumia and the death penalty

Gerald Nicosia is currently doing research for a major new contemporary American history called BLACKNESS THROUGH THE LAND, which will chronicle the truly amazing case of black death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, the issues of racism in the American justice system, and the death penalty.
This case has already presented enormous (Nicosia refuses to say “insurmountable”) obstacles. The biggest of these is the intense passions on all sides, the view held by almost everyone involved that you are either “for” or “against” them. Clearly Mumia Abu-Jamal, like every other black person in America, is a victim of racism on some level. Just as clearly, Mumia Abu-Jamal would not be where he is today if he were not black. Without a doubt, the death penalty in America is administered in a racist fashion. Every study to date has shown that a black man killing a white has a far higher chance of getting the death penalty than a white man killing a black under otherwise identical circumstances.

However, the problem for a historian, and the complexity, reside in the fact that one cannot pronounce Mumia “innocent” simply on the basis of his being black and outspoken in a racist nation. There is certainly a heavy burden of evidence that must be refuted if Mumia’s innocence is to be established. Despite the outcries of the Mumia movement, the ballistics reports of the attorneys on both sides—prosecution and defense alike—have irrefutably established that the bullet that killed Officer Daniel Faulkner was of the same type, .38 Plus P, that was in Mumia’s gun the night of the shooting—a gun that was found with five spent shells in it, lying a few feet from Mumia (who had been shot himself in the altercation). Evidence of a third man, a “phantom shooter,” is sketchy at best. The man that the defense claims was the phantom shooter, Ken Freeman, was highly visible in Philadelphia for some time after the shooting; in fact, he even gave an interview to the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER in the week following the murder. It strains credulity to think the real killer hung around town for an extended period, knowing that both Mumia and his brother Billy Cook could identify him to the police; and that this cold-blooded murderer, instead of taking the first bus to Mexico, decided to give interviews to the press denouncing the police.

All this does not mean that Mumia is guilty, but it does mean that any historian worth his salt has got to spend a lot of time and concentration examining the evidence in detail. Unfortunately, as soon as Mumia’s group found out that I planned to consider all the evidence, I was put on a “blacklist” as “an enemy of the Left,” and called, in the newspaper SOCIALIST ACTION, a “faint heart, liar, and idiot.”

Mumia’s story is a tragedy; so is the widow Maureen Faulkner’s. I will remain a humanist historian and attempt to look at both of them, and all the other people involved, with compassion and understanding—despite namecalling and intimidation from whatever source. It will take time to sort through the thousands of facts, thousands of pages of testimony. I make no judgments at this point, other than to say that this nation has only begun to touch the surface of its racial issues, and that, as much as we would like there to be, there are no simple heroes and villains. Mumia has become a cult figure and a mythic hero of the Left, but his real story is largely untold. Whether or not he deserves to be regarded as a hero has yet to be determined. But in the meantime, hero worship of him beclouds the very real issue of the need to end the barbaric death penalty in America—which has been proven not to deter crime, which can never be administered with absolute certainty of executing the true criminal (witness the dozens freed recently by new DNA tests), and which rather than bringing “closure” only adds more sorrow and pain to the world, to the lives of the families and friends of those executed.

Watch this section in the coming months for updates on the progress of BLACKNESS THROUGH THE LAND.