Stars fight for life of Panther on death row

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Opponents of the death penalty, civil rights advocates and Hollywood celebrities have joined new legal efforts to save the life of Mumia Abu- Jamal, the former Black Panther activist facing execution this summer for the murder of a white police officer in Philadelphia almost 14 years ago.

Two months remain beforeAbu-Jamal, 41, whose appeals have been rejected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, is due to die by lethal injection. But his case is already a cause celebre, whose threat to race relations is obvious.

Rallies and fundraisers are under way to publicise the claim of Abu-Jamal's defenders that he is not a killer, but an innocent black activist, targeted because of his radical views, and convicted in a trumped-up case.

His lawyers accuse police and state prosecutors of coercing evidence from witnesses and deliberately ignoring others who would have defended Abu-Jamal. They say the jury of 10 whites and two blacks which convicted him in 1982 was biased against him, in a city where racial tensions at the time were high.

Police insist the conviction has been upheld by every higher court which has examined it. The defence, it claims, is "grasping at straws".

Whatever the merits of his case, Abu-Jamal is the most famous of the 3,000 men on death row. At the time of his arrest, he was a radio personality and head of the Philadelphia association of black journalists, known in his heyday as the "voice of the voiceless". In 1994, National Public Radio planned to broadcast a weekly commentary by him on prison life, before relenting in the face of objections by the police and right-wing congressmen.

But bookshops across the country carry Abu-Jamal's Live from Death Row, a collection of essays on race, capital punishment and the civil rights record of President Bill Clinton. He also secured a $30,000 (pounds 18,000) advance, which created more publicity for his cause.

His first brush with authority came at the age of 14, in 1968, when he was arrested after protesting at a rally held by the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. A year later the FBI opened its file on Abu-Jamal when he took part in a demonstration supporting the Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton, then in prison. Later he was closely involved with the radical Move group.

Until last November, although he had exhausted the appeals process, his life was not in danger. But the election of Tom Ridge, a law-and-order Republican, to succeed a liberal Democrat, Robert Casey, as Governor of Pennsylvania, changed everything. In seven months, Mr Ridge has signed more than a dozen death warrants, including that of Abu-Jamal for 17 August. Pennsylvania six weeks ago carried out its first execution in 32 years, the first in a big north-eastern state since capital punishment was resumed in the US in 1976.

As the date nears, passions run higher. To his supporters, Abu-Jamal is a martyr. But to the celebrities, who include Whoopi Goldberg and the former Mash co-star Mike Farrell, Philadelphia's district attorney's office has responded in an open letter. He calls their behaviour "an insult to police officers, families of victims, and the thousands of law-abiding citizens," repelled by their "misguided and misinformed support for this cunning and despicable murderer". The city's police have asked colleagues across the country to boycott the stars.

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