A Critical Stage in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Case

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Steve Bloom

WHILE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL sits on death row the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering his application for a new trial. And his defense team is turning up more and more evidence that Mumia’s original conviction for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner was the result of a police frameup.

In 1995 Judge Albert Sabo, the same judge who presided over Mumia’s original trial, held a hearing on his appeal for a new one. At this hearing William Singletary explained how he had witnessed the killing and Mumia had not done it; the gunman fled shortly before the police arrived on the scene.

When Singletary made a statement to this effect the police simply tore it up. They subsequently threatened and harassed him to such an extent that he was forced to move out of Philadelphia.

Then, last October, Veronica Jones, a witness for the prosecution in the original trial, recanted her testimony. She told of being pressured by the police into inventing a story which would implicate Mumia in the shooting.

In January, Pamela Jenkins — the star government witness in a case against six police officers in Philadelphia’s 39th District who were convicted of gross misconduct, including the framing of innocent people — signed a statement for Mumia’s attorneys. In it she explained that one of the convicted officers, Tom Ryan, tried to compel her to give false testimony against Mumia.

Jenkins also severely compromises the only eyewitness at the original trial who claimed that she had actually seen Mumia fire the gun — Cynthia White. According to Jenkins: “During this same period of time [when the police were trying to get Jenkins to testify falsely] Cynthia White told me that she was afraid of the police and that the police were trying to get her to say something about the shooting.”

All of this, of course, comes on top of a host of facts from the initial trial which demonstrate clearly that Mumia did not get a fair chance to defend himself. These include ballistics evidence which proves that events could not have taken place as the police say they did. Mumia’s defense had no money to carry out its own ballistic tests before the trial.

Yet this overwhelming weight of evidence — new and old — may not be enough to assure a positive outcome for Mumia’s appeal. On February 27 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued two rulings which, attorneys for the defense have said, raise a serious question about how it will rule.

Mumia had asked for the right to present an oral argument before the court, to help the judges sort out 500 pages of written briefs taking up twenty-three separate issues in the case. While there is no automatic right to such oral argument, it is within the normal functioning of the court to grant it and it would have been logical in this case.

The second ruling was even more unusual. The court allowed the District Attorney to file an additional brief, responding to the second brief presented on Mumia’s behalf. Normal rules provide for the appellant to file an initial brief, the opposing party to file an answering brief, with a final response by the appellant to that answer: three briefs in all.

In this case, however, the court is allowing Mumia’s prosecutors to have the last word. What makes this even more sinister is that on a previous occasion, when Mumia filed a brief regarding Veronica Jones, the same court violated its own rules by refusing to accept the defense’s reply brief to the answer of the District Attorney.

If the Pennsylvania court rules against a new trial it is likely that Governor Tom Ridge will immediately sign another death warrant. Mumia’s only appeal at that point will be to the federal courts. New rules relating to appeals in death penalty cases, adopted by Congress as part of the “Anti-Terrorism Bill,” make this a somewhat daunting prospect.

For one thing, the federal courts are now required to presume that all findings of fact by the state courts are correct. If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denies a new trial it will undoubtedly uphold Sabo’s ruling that Veronica Jones’ recanting of her testimony is not credible. According to the law, the presumption of the federal courts must be that this judicial opinion is, indeed, factually correct.

Sabo even accepted the explanation of how a police officer who spent the entire first night at Mumia’s side neglected to note his “confession” in a log that he kept. (The log said that Mumia remained completely silent.)

The policeman now says that the alleged confession, which constituted crucial evidence at the trial, just didn’t seem important at the time. The federal courts must, apparently, recognize the “facts” of this narrative in the same way.

Also, based on the new law, it is not enough for the defense to demonstrate, during the federal appeals process, that there were constitutional errors committed during Mumia’s original trial, or in the denial of a new trial by Judge Sabo and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It must be shown that the errors reflect an “unreasonable” interpretation of the constitution by the state courts, a burden almost impossible to meet.

While Mumia’s federal appeal is pending there will be no automatic stay of execution. The court could decide that it will hear and rule on the appeal before the date set in the new death warrant. This raises the grisly possibility of an unfavorable decision being handed down just days, or even hours, before Mumia’s execution is scheduled to take place.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania prison authorities have stepped up their harassment of Mumia. On February 13 he was given ten days to cut his hair or face disciplinary action. He has worn natural dreadlocks for religious reasons during the last sixteen years. In 1985 Mumia defied a similar order and was placed in solitary confinement until

One of Mumia’s civil attorneys, Jere Krakoff, was barred from visiting him in prison, though he had done so six previous times. Mail from his attorneys continues to be illegally opened. And a member of the Bruderhof community — a religious group which is opposed to the death penalty and has been active in the campaign to free Mumia — was physically thrown out of the prison after a visit and permanently prohibited from returning.

In a related event, on February 24 the “Pennsylvania Radio Network” sponsored by Temple University canceled its broadcasts of Pacifica Radio’s program “Democracy Now” because the show was planning to run a series of commentaries by Mumia. This is a reprise of events in 1994, when National Public Radio was pressured into changing its decision to run commentaries by Mumia as part of its news program “All Things Considered.”

On March 25 the Santa Cruz, California City Council passed a resolution demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. It is the first U.S. government body of any kind to take such an action.

Now is a critical time to renew our efforts to gain a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal — a trial that would almost certainly result in his acquittal.

ATC 68, May-June 1997