Everyone has heard the phrase “Free Mumia” — but Christina Swarns, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s director of criminal practice, has been working for eight years to do just that. She’s a member of the team that represented Mumia Abu-Jamal in appeals of his controversial murder conviction and death sentence for the 1981 murder of a white police officer.
The case of the former Black Panther, journalist and social commentator is known worldwide because of the widespread perception that he was the victim of an unjust and racist system.
Swarns and her colleagues saw a victory this week, when, after a court battle that spanned 30 years, Philadelphia prosecutors announced that they would drop their pursuit of the death penalty for Abu-Jamal.
The Root talked to Swarns about what the development means, what’s next for her client and what the famous case represents about American criminal justice.
The Root: How does this development further the interests of justice?
CS: First of all, law for the worst of the worst offenders reserves the death penalty. And Mumia does not fit that description. He had zero history of violence, he was a family man, he was a journalist and he’s been incarcerated for 30 years with no violence or disciplinary problems in prison. He’s become a remarkable thinker and commentator on criminal-justice and social-justice issues. By no stretch of the definition does he meet the definition of worst of the worst. The death penalty for him was absolutely not appropriate.
TR: What’s next in this case?
CS: Well, the immediate next step is to get him off death row. He’s under 23 and one lockdown, meaning he spends 23 hours a day in his cell, by himself. The next step is to get him out of extreme solitary-confinement conditions so for the first time in 23 years he can hug his family. His contact with his wife, his children, with us [his legal team] has been from behind glass.
TR: This, case, like the Troy Davis case, inspired a pubic dialogue about the death penalty and criminal justice overall. Why did they inspire such a strong reaction?
CS: I think they both really clearly demonstrate the shortcomings of how the American death-penalty system works. In Mumia’s case, this is a person who never should have had the death penalty. In Troy Davis’ case as well, it just shows that something happens in the process where decisions are made, and when a light is shined on them and you get an objective, clear look at them, they don’t make any sense at all.
The reaction shows the discomfort people are having with the death penalty. There’s no question people are being wrongfully convicted. Both cases are really good examples of how unreliable evidence can still yield convictions.
TR: Who’s the next Mumia? Who else is on death row despite questionable evidence against them?
CS: I represent people throughout the South in death cases, and my colleagues represent people condemned thought this country. In every case I have handled, there are similar issues to Mumia’s case — improper jury instructions, evidence of mitigation that’s not presented and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
The problem with Mumia’s case is that it’s not at all unique. The story is being told and retold in courtrooms around the country. It is the norm, not the exception.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.