News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of
Amnesty International News Service 193/99
AI INDEX: AMR 51/167/99
14 October 1999

Pennsylvania governor signs death warrant on Mumia Abu-Jamal: an overtly political act

Yesterday's signing of a death warrant for the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal on 2 December by Governor Ridge of Pennsylvania is an attempt to gain what he perceives to be a political advantage, Amnesty International said today.

Governor Ridge took this action in the full knowledge that Mumia Abu-Jamal has yet to file the federal appeals available to him -- an action that will postpone his execution for several years.

"This death warrant serves no purpose except to put Mumia Abu-Jamal on 'death watch' -- causing him unnecessary suf-fering. This is playing politics with a man's life," said Pierre Sané, Amnesty International's Secretary General.

"The unnecessary infliction of suffering upon a prisoner by a government official constitutes torture."

In November 1997, Pierre Sané visited Mumia Abu-Jamal and fellow death row prisoner Scott Blystone at SCI Greene Pennsylvania. Scott Blystone described to Mr Sané the intense strain of undergoing preparation for execution, a process both he and Abu-Jamal suffered in 1995: "They handcuff you, belt you and shackle your feet. It's silent, you can hear your heart beating. They take you to death watch -- cells surrounded by plexiglass walls so sound can't get through. There's a camera at the front of your cell that watches you 24-hours a day. You're standing there alive and they're asking you where to send your body. After surviving a death warrant I felt like I'd lost my soul -- it kills part of you."

Under the time limits imposed by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, lawyers for Mumia Abu-Jamal had until the end of October to file a habeas corpus appeal in the federal court. Therefore Governor Ridge cannot argue that he needed to sign the death warrant in order to force Abu-Jamal to file his appeal.

"The vast majority -- or almost all -- of the death warrants signed by Governor Ridge have had two effects: forced the pris-oner concerned to undergo the harsh regime of 'death watch'; and forced the prisoner to file his appeals earlier, when the appeal may be insufficiently prepared," Pierre Sané added.

"The unnecessary signing of death warrants is an attempt to rush death row prisoners through appeals that are guaran-teed to them by the US Constitution."

Amnesty International is calling on the Pennsylvania authorities to rescind this death warrant immediately, and to cease issuing further death warrants while inmates still have appeals pending.

 

Background

Governor Ridge has signed 176 death warrants since becoming governor in 1995. Five times the number signed by two previous governors over a 25-year period. All but three of the warrants signed by Governor Ridge were cancelled by the courts; all three of the prisoners killed had given up their appeals and consented to their execution.

Amnesty International has long-term concerns around the fairness of Mumia Abu-Jamal's trial. The organization first raised its concerns with the Penns ylvanian authorities in 1991. To date, none of Amnesty International's concerns have been adequately addressed. The organization is currently conducting an exhaustive study of the trial transcript and other related documents and will announce its findings in early 2000.

Executions in the USA are currently running at record rates since the resumption of executions in 1977. Seventy-seven prisoners have been put to death so far in 1999, the highest number for any year since 1954.

Numerous laws have been passed in recent years at both state and federal level to speed the appeal process and facili-tate more executions. This is despite numerous death row inmates being previously found to have had their rights under the US Constitution violated at their trial. In more than 80 cases, death row prisoners transpired to be innocent of the crime for which they were condemned. Amnesty International fears that this increasing rush to execute will lead to numer-ous prisoners being put to death after trials that were in violation of international standards of justice.

Amnesty International, International Secretariat
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