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Pennsylvania legislators pass important crime victims' rights law

Among the most controversial figures in modern Pennsylvania history is a man named Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. During the nearly 30 years he spent on death row, Abu-Jamal made a name for himself from his prison cell as a writer and political activist. His death sentence was commuted in 2012, and the 60-year-old will instead spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But even behind bars, Abu-Jamal has repeatedly been given platforms to speak publicly, including most recently delivering a pre-recorded commencement speech at a small Vermont college. Critics believe that moves like this allow convicted criminals to harass and further traumatize crime victims and their families. That's why Pennsylvania legislators recently passed a bill that seeks to curtail public speech rights of convicted offenders and former inmates when their speech could perpetuate the effects of their crimes on victims.

The "Re-victimization Relief Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett, allows "crime victims or prosecutors acting on their behalf to file a civil action against an offender to seek injunctive relief, including attorney fees and related costs," according to news sources. As the name of the bill suggests, it is intended to prevent further victimization by offenders who have managed to gain a sort of celebrity status.

Although the bill is meant to apply to any offender who might be speaking publicly, it seems to have been passed with Abu-Jamal in mind. Since he will be in a Pennsylvania prison for the remainder of his life, the bill could make it possible for Daniel Faulkner's widow to file lawsuits that prevent further pre-recorded speeches by Abu-Jamal.

A letter written by Faulkner's widow reads, in part: "My family and I have been forced to endure the emotionally painful and degrading avalanche of public speaking done by [a] remorseless killer . . . The time has come to put an end to the desecration of free speech laws by Mumia and anyone else in the Pennsylvania state system who has violently taken the life of another."

Like Mumia Abu-Jamal himself, this legislation is controversial. Some fear that any intrusion into free speech rights is a slippery slope. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania crime victims may now rest a little easier knowing that they have a legal remedy against offenders seeking a public platform for self-promotion.

Source: PennLive.com, "Victims' right law inspired by Mumia Abu-Jamal surprises his college alma mater," Jan Murphy, Oct. 21, 2014

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