SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal told a federal judge Friday that when he asked state prison officials for a hepatitis C drug earlier this year, they replied he was too healthy to qualify and that the treatment was too expensive.
Abu-Jamal has filed a lawsuit that alleges prison officials and doctors have systematically denied him proper care for maladies ranging from hepatitis C to high blood sugar. A federal magistrate has previously rejected his claims, saying he failed to show he would suffer "immediate irreparable harm" if he didn't get treatment.
Abu-Jamal, 61, wants access to a groundbreaking but costly hepatitis C drug that can cure more than 90 percent of patients.
"With it, I can be cured. Without it, I may die," said Abu-Jamal, testifying by video hookup from a state prison where he is serving life for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.
He told U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani about a painful rash that his lawyers say is caused by hepatitis C, a chronic blood-borne infection that gradually destroys the liver. He said he suffered constant itching and swelling from the rash, which covered most of his body for several months.
The itching "seemed to get worse and worse no matter what cream or drug or medication was prescribed. Nothing eased or cured the problem," said Abu-Jamal, adding he scratched until he was bloody.
He also told the judge about an episode in which he fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital in diabetic shock.
Under cross-examination, Abu-Jamal said his health has improved more recently.
Laura J. Neal, an attorney for the state Department of Corrections, said the case boils down to whether Abu-Jamal is entitled to "the very best form of treatment right now for hepatitis C." His life is not at imminent risk from the disease, she said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani rejected the state's argument earlier Friday that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Abu-Jamal failed to exhaust his administrative appeals.
Abu-Jamal, who has been in and out of the hospital this year and remains in the prison infirmary, wants Mariani to order his jailers to allow him to be seen by a doctor of his choosing and to provide adequate treatment. He also is demanding monetary damages.
His lawsuit said he was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2012, and that testing last summer found the virus was active.
"They have refused to treat it, and he has suffered pain and a threat to his very life out of that failure to treat," one of his lawyers, Robert Boyle, told the judge.
Prison doctors also failed to address a sudden spike in Abu-Jamal's blood sugar level in early March, and, weeks later, he lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital in diabetic shock, his suit said. The suit asserts the prison is violating the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment by withholding appropriate medical care.
A magistrate ruled in September that she was "particularly hesitant to dictate specific treatment" to the prison because Abu-Jamal was only recently confirmed as having an active hepatitis C infection. The magistrate recommended that Mariani rule against him.
Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther and radio journalist serving life in prison for the murder of white Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. He was initially sent to death row, but a federal court threw out his death sentence in 2008, citing flawed jury instructions.
Though his conviction has been upheld through years of appeals, Abu-Jamal has gained international support for his claim that he's the victim of a racist justice system.
About 60 supporters, including his brother, filled the courtroom in Scranton on Friday.