Reporter's Roundtable: Mumia Abu-Jamal Update
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. A federal appeals court says former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal deserves a new penalty hearing. The Florida legislature says it's sorry for slavery. And could a 1968 slaying be tied to the recent murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey? That's our lineup for today's Reporters Roundtable. With us, Marc Caputo, a reporter for the Miami Herald; Bob Butler, an independent journalist and the president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association; and radio host Cynthia Pryor Hardy, whose talk show, "On Point With Cynthia," airs from Columbia, South Carolina.
Ms. CYTHIA PRYOR HARDY (Radio Host): Hi.
Mr. MARC CAPUTO (Miami Herald): How are you?
Mr. BOB BUTLER (Black Journalist Association): How are you?
CHIDEYA: So let's start out with Mumia, former Black Panther and radio reporter Mumia Abu-Jamal who has been on Death Row for 26 years. In 1981 he was convicted and sent to Pennsylvania's Death Row for the killing of a white policeman. He's always maintained his innocence and there are groups of dedicated activists trying to secure his release. They say the prosecution used unreliable witnesses and a predominantly white jury to secure his conviction.
On the other hand, Abu-Jamal has been the subject of several books that call his defense a sham, including one called "Cop Killer." Now, Abu-Jamal and his lawyer have been fighting for a new trial. Yesterday a U.S. federal appeals court upheld the murder conviction but said Abu-Jamal deserves a new penalty hearing. His death sentence could be reviewed by a lower court. So Cynthia, what do you think about this? This case has been going through the court for years, and do you think that this marks a turning point where advocates for his freedom have won a victory? Or is this just the process unfolding?
Ms. HARDY: Well, I think that, well, you're right, it does depend on what side you sit on. But certainly his advocates feel as if they've won a victory because it appears that his life, you know, will be saved. I think that, though, as people look at this court system and the history of our court system and our justice system throughout the years, there's a lot of room for people to feel as if he didn't get a fair shake. And based on that, when it comes to saving someone's life or sending them to death, then I think that is what causes people pause.
I do think, though, when you look at the timeframe of everything, particularly in 1981, and the assertions, of course, that the jury had flawed instructions, based on that, that's enough to, to at least cause you to stop, reconsider, and do the fair thing.
CHIDEYA: Bob, his lawyer argued in court that prosecutors deliberately took blacks off the jury. There were ten whites, two blacks that served on the jury. And why do you think the court decided to give him a penalty hearing, which basically doesn't deal with his guilt or innocence but just deals with what he should be serving for?
Mr. BUTLER: It sounds like the court's just trying to cover all its bases, to cover its, to cover itself, because I mean if there's any kind of impropriety, it could be overturned on appeal, although there have been many appeals in this case. Sounds like the court just said, look, okay, here's something that we can't automatically, we can't definitively say things were right. So let's just go back and just see whether he should be put to death or spend his life in, the rest of his life in prison.
And you know, if you're a Jamal supporter, that's not going to really be acceptable, because you want him to get out, and that doesn't seem like it's going to happen.
CHIDEYA: In your opinion - and Marc, I'm going to get to you in a second - but Bob, in your opinion, what significance does this case have in the black community? And what I mean by that is, you know, there are plenty of people within the ranks of the African-American communities around America who say, well, yeah, I think he did it; and then other folks who say he didn't do it; and other folks who say, well, maybe he did but it wasn't proven. Do you have a sense of how public opinion is flowing, particularly among African-Americans?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, this is similar to the O.J. case, when you have a guy who all the evidence seemed to indicate that he did it, people thought he did it, but it broke down our racial lines. If you were a black person, you think, well, maybe he did it, but you know what, there's been plenty of white folks who've gotten away with stuff like this and this is one for our side.
And the whites think just the opposite, that the guy was convicted, he should have been convicted. He should have been, you know, put in prison. You know, in a case like Jamal, it's kind of the same thing. A lot of people just don't know, but we know plenty of people of color who have been put in prison, you know, because of sketchy evidence. It seems like, you know, the burden of proof is less if you are a person of color to be convicted than it is if you are not a person of color.
CHIDEYA: Marc, when you think about this case, you know, you have the wife of the slain policeman who actually says this is a victory because Abu-Jamal will at least be in prison for the rest of his life. Is there, is the flavor for the death penalty maybe abating a bit in this country, even among people who were victims rights supporters?
Mr. CAPUTO: Yeah, well I can only talk for Florida, and you know, poll after poll and the time this was put for a vote a few years ago, not here. There is a general love of the death penalty in Florida. We're a real lock 'em up state. We are about to have 100,000 people incarcerated in state prisons soon. When I did the story recently the other day about the Florida legislature apologizing for its, quote, "shameful role in propagating slavery," I noted that 16 percent of the state's total population is African-American or black; 50.2 percent of the state's prison population is black.
No one is able to quite answer the question as to why. Obviously, you know, there are different theories, depending on where you stand in the law enforcement or, you know, racial community. And you know, some of interesting comments that some of the other guests have made, we have a case here in the legislature that's pending. A guy is to get $1.2 million for spending 24 years in prison for two rapes he didn't commit, a black guy. His name is Alan Crotzer.
And indeed, it seems here that if you're black, despite the fact that the last slave codes were obliterated from our state's constitution laws in 1868, it seems like the justice system is tilted against you and you do find these racial divisions in a variety of cases. Now, the Mumia case hasn't really, you know, set here in Florida, but we have quite a good number of racial disparities, and it doesn't seem like it's anything that's going to go away anytime soon.
CHIDEYA: Let's dig in on the Florida apology. The legislature said that it expresses it's profound regret for Florida's role in sanctioning and perpetuating involuntary servitude among generations of African slaves. That's a pretty broad apology, and there have been other states that have done it. But was this an easy get or was this highly controversial within the ranks of people who made the decision?
Mr. CAPUTO: Well, it was done with great political skill. The Senate president, who's white, his name is ken Pruitt, he knew that this would engender some sort of controversy so he made sure to steer a very fine course by having this resolution voted on by voice vote, not by board vote. And the reason is, is that, you know, we have essentially gerrymandered representative and senatorial districts here where you're going to have a lot of, you know, white Republican voters packed into certain members' districts and a lot of, you know, black Democratic voters in others.
And there does tend to be a difference of perception when it comes to acts like this. So some of those senators who might have been less inclined to vote yea didn't necessarily get put on the boards to vote yea or nay, and it made it pass much more easily. The former House clerk read a fairly detailed and rather shocking history of the legislature's role in passing laws to incarcerate and punish people for essentially being black.
You know, and he read, if I can, I thought this was remarkable, a letter from one of the first governors of Florida, not the first, a Richard Keith Call, who tried to explain to a Northerner why we should keep slavery, and he described blacks this way: Here was an animal in the form of a man possessing the greatest physical power and the greatest capacity for labor and endurance without one principle to his nature, one faculty of mind or feeling of heart, without spirit of pride of character, to enable him to regard slavery as a degradation, a wild barbarian to be tamed and civilized by the discipline of slavery.
Some senators actually cried when they heard this. But the real sad thing is we have online anonymous comments that can be posted as stories and you know, kind of the racial hatred that has spewed out from this, you know, we're constantly having to delete these things. They keep popping back up. It's kind of shocking.
CHIDEYA: Well, you know, we have another topic that we want to turn to before we wrap up. So I'm going to actually move on. I am sure that both of you wanted to comment on that. But Bob, you've been investigating a story in Oakland, California about reporter Chauncey Bailey. He was gunned down while investigating the finances of a group that ran Oakland's Europe Black Muslim Bakery. Now you've found out that Santa Barbara police have reopened the investigation into a 40-year-old double homicide that might have ties to your Muslim Bakery. You are with the Chauncey Bailey Project, which came about after the slaying, and how did you guys get onto this lead?
Mr. BUTLER: I wanted to do a story about the good work the bakery did. It's been an institution in North West Oakland for - since 1970, say. And right now all the stories that we're writing are really negative stories about all the crime that's taken place there over the last two or three years since Dr. Yusef Bay died in 2003. And so I heard it had started down in Santa Barbara. So I went down there to try to get confirmation that yes, it did, try to go by the site, talk to people that knew about it.
And I was talking to a woman about it; she was, oh yeah, I remember that. It started here. It was here for a while, but there were some problems. And I said problems, what kind of problems? She said, oh well, there was a double murder. I'm like what?
CHIDEYA: Oh yeah.
Mr. BUTLER: And I had no idea about this, and so I began digging in and I went to the library and went down to the microfilm room, microfiche room, and found some old stories that talked about it. And one of the things that struck me was that it turned out that the guy who was killed, his name is Wendell Scott, had written a letter to Elijah Mohammed complaining about his minister. And that letter got back to the minister apparently and the minister's name was Billy Stevens. Billy Stevens was the brother of Joseph Stevens, who became Yusef Bay and began running the Black Muslim Bakery. So I'm like - whoa.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, so Cynthia, I'm going to ask you, this was a case where you have this crusading African-American journalist trying to dig into life in the community. Are people, are journalists across the country, especially African-American journalists, plugging into this?
Ms. HARDY: I think so. I think African-American journalists collectively realize that our justice system is not just for everyone and our communities continually look to us to tell them the real deal, because they recognize that oftentimes mainstream media doesn't do it. So it's really good to have African-American journalists, even African-American journalists that work for non-traditional newspapers, maybe not the mainstream newspapers, that are out there committed to actually looking for the story behind the story, the truth of the matter, because oftentimes our people won't get that.
And we all have a hunch in the back of our minds that we know when something doesn't quite feel right or it doesn't quite fit right, and to uncover what he uncovered in our communities, something that has been lost for many, many years, I think gives encouragement to a number of African-American journalists out there who are digging for the truth.
CHIDEYA: Let me get Bob in quickly before we wrap this up. What's next for you in terms of taking a look at this?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, we've already heard from, we had no idea where the family of Wendell Scott was. We've heard from his family. Next the police are going to be talking to Billy, who's now up in Oakland, and his ex-wife Mary, who was the victim's sister, Burdy(ph) Scott's sister. So it's a very interesting situation. It's actually dangerous. And people have said, you know, be careful, and I agree.
CHIDEYA: Well, Bob, real investigative journalism. Thank you all so much.
Mr. BUTLER: Thank you, Farai.
Mr. CAPUTO: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Bob Butler is an independent journalist and the president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association. He was here at NPR West. Cynthia Pryor Hardy is the host of the radio talk show "On Point With Cynthia." She joined us from WLTR in Columbia, South Carolina. And Marc Caputo is a reporter for the Miami Herald.