Calling it “unlawfully purposed, vaguely executed, and patently overbroad,” a federal judge in Pennsylvania yesterday struck down the state’s “Revictimization Relief Act,” the law foes nicknamed the “Silence Mumia Act.” The law was rushed through the state legislature last October and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett barely three weeks after Goddard College in Vermont announced that it would use a taped speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal as its commencement address. It gave crime victims or prosecutors the right to seek a court order to “stop any conduct by an offender or former inmate that perpetuates a crime’s effects on the victim.”
Christopher C. Conner, chief judge of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, held the law unconstitutional in response to two separate lawsuits, by Abu-Jamal and several other current or former prisoners; prison-oriented nonprofit and advocacy groups, and media outlets that included Prison Legal News and the Philadelphia City Paper. “The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate, and its enduring guarantee of freedom of speech subsumes the right to expressive conduct that some may find offensive,” he wrote. Judge Conner bluntly rejected state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s arguments that the law’s primary goal was to eliminate “taunting” or “harassing” behavior toward victims, that it was directed against “conduct” and that any First Amendment infringement was “incidental.” He wrote:
The Act contains no restrictive language supporting the construction urged by the Attorney General…. Nor does the Act’s legislative history reinforce the attorney general’s interpretation. No supporter spoke of an intent to prevent a convicted rapist from “crank calling” his victim, or a convicted kidnapper from standing outside of her victim’s home for hours on end. Indeed, throughout its brief legislative gestation, the law was championed primarily as a device for suppressing offender speech. The Act’s sponsor extolled its capacity to silence Abu-Jamal. The chairman of the house judiciary committee opined that the act would end the “extreme distress” suffered by victims when offenders achieve celebrity, admonishing Goddard College for providing a “cold blooded murderer” with a speaking forum. [State Sen. John] Rafferty praised the act for creating a remedy “when the perpetrator of the crime is getting attention that [the victim] may feel is not warranted.” And Gov. Corbett commended the legislature for expeditiously passing a law that quells the “obscene celebrity” of an “unrepentant cop killer.”
Instead, he concluded, the law “clearly reflects an intent to inhibit expression based exclusively on content” and that its terms “single out a distinct group” in order to discourage them from speaking. The judge added that the four-sentence law was so vague—that it failed to define either who was an “offender” or what qualified at “mental anguish”—that it would be impossible for people to tell what it covered by any means “short of clairvoyance.”
As Attorney General Kane agreed “that any conduct which elicits mental anguish in a victim might fall within the Act’s inestimable sweep,” he wrote, the law could logically sanction a criminal’s apology to their victim, testimony about prison conditions, and even an “accused person’s right to profess his innocence before he is proven guilty.”
As for its ability to protect victims, he added, the Attorney General “conceded” during her oral arguments that she was not sure if Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the Philadelphia police officer Abu-Jamal was framed for killing, “could successfully obtain relief” under the law. In response, a spokesperson for the state House Republican leadership called Judge Conner’s ruling “woefully short of the facts.” “It begs the question, Did he even read the law?” Steve Miskin told the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
State Rep. Mike Vereb, the law’s sponsor, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would introduce a rewritten version if Kane did not file an appeal. “Justice isn’t just about the criminals and their rights,” he said. “It’s about the victims and their rights.” Meanwhile, Abu-Jamal, 61, remains seriously ill after collapsing from severe diabetic shock a month ago, although he was released from the prison infirmary and returned to his cell. “He is extremely swollen in his neck, chest, legs, and his skin is worse than ever, with open sores. He was not in a wheelchair, but can only take baby steps,” the San Francisco-based Prison Radio Network reported, based on information from an April 24 visit by Abu-Jamal’s wife, Wadiya. “He is very weak. He was nodding off during the visit. He was not able to eat—he was fed with a spoon. These are symptoms that could be associated with hyper-glucose levels, diabetic shock, diabetic coma, and with kidney stress and failure.”
“They are outright killing him in front of us,” Pam Africa, head of International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, told Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington. “He is in pain. His skin is so bad from that rash that he looks like a burn victim.” Evidence indicates that Abu-Jamal “is experiencing a barbaric ‘slow execution’ through calculated medical mistreatment and medical neglect,” Washington, a longtime colleague and supporter, charged on Counterpunch. “Despite Abu-Jamal’s obvious painful and deteriorating medical condition, Pennsylvania prison authorities have barred Abu-Jamal from receiving access to or consultation from medical experts assembled by his supporters. Those experts could provide the quality of care unavailable at either the demonstrably incompetent or malignant infirmary inside the prison where he is housed or that non-prison hospital authorities utilized.”