Something is very rotten in the state of Pennsylvania. Gov. Ridge has signed 176 death warrants in the last five years. That’s five times more than his predecessors signed in 25 years.
He has done this in defiance of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Bar Associations, both of which have urged a moratorium until the death penalty can be shown to be racially unbiased and otherwise justified. Right now, the percentage of African American men on death row is nearly 700 percent higher than in the population at large, a larger racial disparity than in any other state.
This means that an African American man growing up in Philadelphia is eleven and a half times more likely to end up on death row than one in Georgia or Alabama.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is the most famous such man. A radio journalist and political activist, he was accused and convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer. However, there are allegations of 29 constitutional violations in his trial, as well as prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias in jury selection, and fabrication of evidence. There may also be new evidence of his innocence.
There must be a new trial. If not, this case will join those that undermine public faith in the justice system, and live on in history as a divisive force.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, for example, 82 prisoners have been exonerated. If there is no new trial, it may appear that the governor supports this execution in order to render a case moot and conceal errors in the system. It is in his own interest-both in the short term politically and the long term historically-to re-think his signing of the death warrant.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a human being who deserves the same defense and respect that each of us would want. That would be reason enough. But he also stands for many other people, past, present, and future.
His case could encourage a crucial examination of the death penalty. It could lead us to investigate the prison industrial complex, and the reasons why more and more prisons are being built even as the crime rate declines. It could help reveal who is in prison-and why.
Most important right now is the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal. But his case is also crucial to our safety and democracy. We all have a stake in the nature of justice in Pennsylvania.
Gloria Steinem is the editor of Ms. magazine