New Legal Openings for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Steve Bloom

MARCH 2006 — DON’T call it a breakthrough. Not yet. But last December the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which includes Philadelphia) accepted three key legal questions for review in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A decision in Mumia’s favor on any one of the three would require a new trial, at the very least.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther and award-winning journalist (called “the voice of the voiceless” as a result of his work for Philadelphia radio stations). He was convicted, in a frameup trial, for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner.

Since the guilty verdict, many legal experts and others who have looked at the case —including Amnesty International — have demanded Mumia’s release from prison or a new trial.

The state of Pennsylvania, however, has been backed so far in every legal review by state and federal courts, with the sole exception of a 2001 ruling by Federal District Court Judge William Yohn on the penalty phase of the trial. (See “Police Riot, Drama Builds in Mumia Case,” by Steve Bloom, ATC 96, January-February 2002.)

Yohn ruled in Mumia’s favor on that one question, overturning his death sentence on the grounds that the original trial judge, Albert Sabo, gave prejudicial instructions to the jury. However, both Mumia and the state are appealing Judge Yohn’s decision.

The state wants the death penalty reinstated. Mumia wants his entire trial invalidated and the conviction overturned. As long as these appeals are in process Judge Yohn’s ruling will not take effect, and Mumia remains on death row.

In addition to the three new issues before it, the Federal Court of Appeals will, therefore, also have to make a ruling regarding Yohn’s findings on the death penalty phase of the trial. Once the Court of Appeals makes its determination, the only remaining appeal would be to the U.S. Supreme Court. So the stakes at this level are significant.

What’s Being Reviewed

The first new question that the court has certified for review is “Claim 14” in Mumia’s legal appeal brief. This has to do with the summation to the jury by the prosecutor during the original trial, where it was stated that Mumia would have “appeal after appeal” if he were convicted.

Claim 14 asserts that this statement turned basic legal concepts — such as “reasonable doubt” and “presumption of innocence”— into their opposites, allowing the jury to convict Mumia in good conscience even if they were not completely convinced by the evidence, believing that such a decision would be overturned on review if there was any problem.

The next claim by Mumia — number16 — asserts that the prosecution misused its right to challenge jurors without cause (“peremptory challenges”) in order to exclude Blacks. In another case (Batson vs. Kentucky) this practice was ruled unconstitutional. But it is not yet determined whether, or how, the Batson precedent will affect Mumia’s appeal.

The final question taken for review is “Claim 29:” Was Mumia denied a fair trial because of racial bias on the part of the trial judge, Albert Sabo? One example of this bias was presented in an affidavit by Terri Maurer-Carter in 2001.

Carter, a former court reporter (not the reporter at Mumia’s trial but present in the courthouse while Mumia’s trial was taking place) testifies to having overheard Judge Sabo declare, during an informal conversation in his chambers, “I’m going to help them fry the n****r.”

Even before Carter’s testimony there was more than sufficient evidence to cite Sabo’s racism as a major factor in the case. But again, until now, no court at the state or federal level has been willing to consider this issue, despite repeated appeals from Mumia and his attorneys.

The Court of Appeals has now scheduled time for both the prosecution and defense to present legal briefs on claims 14, 16, and 29. This process will last at least through the Spring. Then a three judge panel of the court will hold a hearing, and make a ruling.
Clearly, a court review of these legal claims represents a major victory for Mumia. At the same time, a decision by the court to consider these issues does not guarantee a favorable ruling.

Supporters of Mumia’s freedom, along with all those who simply stand for a fair judicial process in the USA, cannot assume the Federal Court of Appeals will make a final decision based on logic or justice. Public vigilance and pressure must remain a constant factor if justice is what we want, at long last, for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

ATC 122, May-June 2006