Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Off Topic: Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves death row to face prison justice

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted killer of a Philadelphia police officer, has been removed from death row. This is important news for many around the world. The politicized circus that is Abu-Jamal is beyond the scope of this blog. Abu-Jamal was convicted by a unanimous jury after just three hours of deliberation, and despite decades of appeals, his conviction has never been overturned. Yet, he is an international cause célèbre who, for many, symbolizes something much larger than his own case: a terribly flawed and racist justice system.

It is fair to say that many of Abu-Jamal's supporters, both the famous and not-so-famous, have never actually studied the facts of his case. For them, the facts were never really the point, except the ones that fit the narrative that supports Abu-Jamal's innocence. And perhaps that accounts for the pronounced uneasiness about the international attention heaped on Abu-Jamal even by those of us who recognize the many flaws in our system: justice is all about the facts; it can't be divorced from the facts. Politicizing criminal law is fraught with dangers precisely because politicizing anything tends to cause people to disregard, twist, pound, and contort facts to suit a preferred outcome.

And that is not to say that I know that Abu-Jamal was the killer, because I don't. And neither do you.

In any event, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, with the blessing of the slain police officer's widow, announced today that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty again because it would lead to "an unknowable number of years" of appeals.

The police officer's widow then uttered something from the deep recesses of her anger. "I am heartened that he will be taken from the protective cloister [of death row] he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind — the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons." 

I hope I am never subjected to the kind of prolonged pain she has experienced, so I will not blame her for saying it. But neither can I condone what she said.  It is well to note that many people with no excuse utter the same thing about any man sent to prison.  The public's thirst for vengeance--here in the prison capital of the world--is never quenched. For many, and probably most, people, "prison justice" is good, and prison rape is a punchline.

But "prison justice" is no justice at all.  Ask Dwayne Dail. Mr. Dail was a blond-haired, handsome, 19-year-old kid, who was wrongfully convicted of rape based on the say-so of a twelve year old girl and junk science. The judge handed down the stiffest punishment the charges allowed: back-to-back life sentences, plus another 18 years for good measure. As the deputies dragged him from the courtroom, Mr. Dail clutched benches and tables. He screamed for his sister, for his mother, for his father, for his brothers--begging them, "Don't let them take me." But no one could stop what was about to happen to him. His mother sobbed.

Mr. Dail was innocent, but he served 18 years in prison where he was subjected to brutal and unspeakable prison atrocities. He was repeatedly victimized by the very crime he was wrongly convicted of.  Mr. Dail's story is all too common. What happened to him is neither a punchline, nor is it justice. It is an abomination for which all persons of good will should weep.

I have not studied Mr. Abu-Jamal's case carefully enough to opine intelligently about it. But regardless of whether he is innocent or guilty, I do not wish that on him. None of us should.