THE only thing everyone can agree on in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal - a former freelance radio journalist and black activist convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 - is that his case has become a cause celebre. Last week, Judge Albert Sabo, who presided over the original trial, granted Mr. Abu-Jamal a stay of execution. The decision came as a surprise: From the start, the judge has been openly contemptuous of the defense. He also has sentenced more people to death than any other judge in Pennsylvania.
In his ruling, Judge Sabo said he granted the stay "not on the merits of the defendant's motion," but because higher courts would not have had enough time to review the case before the execution.
Whatever his reason for the decision, it was the right one. Abu-Jamal's innocence is far from proven: The prosecution made a strong case at the original trial. But enough legitimate questions have been raised about that trial to cast doubts on its fairness.
Diverse groups of people around the world have taken an interest in this case. Many of them have raised money for Abu-Jamal's defense. Protests have been held in the United States, South Africa, Rome, and Berlin.
The Pennsylvania district attorney's office said: "But for the disingenuous effort by the defense to portray this defendant as a political prisoner and turn this case into a media circus, this matter would be like dozens of other attempts by convicted murderers to avoid their well-deserved sentences."
The fact is, this matter is not like "dozens of others." True, the defense has skillfully gotten its message out to the public. But the questions regarding court bias, unreliable prosecution witnesses, a false confession, and shoddy work by Abu-Jamal's original lawyer are not without substance. There are sound legal reasons for giving this case a fresh hearing.
Regarding Abu-Jamal himself, he was long known as an advocate for Philadelphia's black communities. As a student, he helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party. Later, he supported MOVE, a black separatist group in Philadelphia. Some supporters call him "the voice of the voiceless." Others think he has served as a readily identifiable villain. It is, they say, a case of black radical versus white cop.
Not least, Abu-Jamal's case raises, yet again, longstanding concerns about the capriciousness and morality of the death penalty. It's a punishment that allows no margin for courtroom error or individual redemption. Putting aside for a moment questions of justice in this case, the death penalty itself is always unjust.