DEATH PENALTY-US: Retrial Possible for Most Famous Black Inmate
BOSTON, May 28 (IPS) - The talents and skills of leading U.S. lawyers, pathologists, scientists and independent criminal investigators are likely to be marshalled to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal if he is granted a new trial -- and also to highlight the role skin colour may play in U.S. death penalty convictions.
After nearly two decades of appeals, on May 17 a U.S. federal court of appeals took its first step towards possibly ordering a new trial for Abu-Jamal, one of the best-known among the country's 3,500 death row inmates. The decision of the panel of judges is expected to take several months in what has become one of the most controversial death penalty cases of all times.
Robert Bryan, the lawyer leading the battle for Abu-Jamal's life over the past four years, believes his client's case is very strong and that the appeal judges may order a new trial. Now for the first time since Abu-Jamal's conviction in 1982, the U.S. justice system is seriously considering whether racial discrimination and political bias interfered with Abu-Jamal's right to a fair trial.
"My goal is for him to go home to his family. That is the best of outcomes," Bryan told IPS.
Abu-Jamal, an outspoken political activist as a young man and still today from prison, was convicted by a nearly all-white jury in Philadelphia of the murder of policeman Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner was killed after he stopped a car driven by Abu-Jamal's brother in December 1981. Abu-Jamal was said to have run from his taxi to the scene and was arrested.
The facts of the crime are disputed. Eyewitness accounts are contradictory. Evidence is incomplete and has gone missing. Abu-Jamal was wounded in the chest by a bullet. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence.
"The thread that runs through this case from the day Mumia was arrested until today is racism. At the original trial, the jury only heard one side of the coin. It was a comedy of errors. This case has never been properly investigated," Bryan said.
At the appeals hearing, Bryan and others argued that Abu-Jamal's original trial was unfair because blacks were intentionally excluded from the jury, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The final jury consisted of 10 whites and two blacks. The population of Philadelphia at the time was 40 percent African American.
"What matters is that African American citizens were denied their right to participate in this important civic right and duty on the basis of race," Christina Swarns, a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People Legal Defence Fund, told IPS. "The questions of fairness have been there since the time the jury was chosen. Had the Pennsylvanian courts followed the law, this hearing would have been held many, many years ago -- and should have been."
There were other problems with the 1982 trial, Bryan said. The prosecutor misled the jury into believing that if they agreed to send Abu-Jamal to death row, the chance of him actually being executed was low. And the judge who presided over the trial, Albert Sabo, aimed a racial slur at the young journalist during a recess in the trial, Bryan said.
Sabo also had a conflict of interest and should never have presided over the trial, Jill Soffiyah Elijah, a member of the National Lawyer's Guild, told IPS. He was an active member of the Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful group that represents the interests of police and lobbies for the death penalty in cases where police officers have been murdered.
"They have lobbied heavily for Mr. Abu-Jamal's execution," said Elijah, also a professor at Harvard University. "Judge Sabo's involvement indicated a conflict of interest and compromised his ability to be objective."
According to reports elsewhere, Sabo, who died in 2002, was nicknamed "the hanging judge". In a 14 year period, he presided over trials in which 31 defendants were sentenced to death, more than any other U.S. judge. Twenty-nine of these came from ethnic minorities.
While Abu-Jamal's lawyers used the appeals court hearing to push for a new trial, prosecutors urged the judges to re-affirm his death row conviction. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has stated publicly that if the judges did this, he would order Abu-Jamal's execution.
Rendell has a long-standing interest in Abu-Jamal's case. He was Philadelphia district chief prosecutor in 1982, and it was his office and his employees who prosecuted Abu-Jamal.
In the past the district prosecutor's office had been involved in a pattern of discrimination in many cases, Bryan said. This included presenting false evidence and getting witnesses to lie. He was optimistic that the federal appeal judges would acknowledge this and allow Abu-Jamal a new trial.
"My goal is to win this case," Bryan said. "We have a lot of new evidence. If we can get a trial, it will be presented to the new jury. A lot of new pathology, DNA and ballistics will be done. I have faith that 12 men and women of the jury will let my client go home."
But Bryan would want to move the case out of Philadelphia. "There is so much corruption and unfairness in the Philadelphia court system, it's hard to imagine getting a fair trial," Bryan said.
Abu-Jamal, now 53, has won thousands of supporters around the world. "When they put him on death row, they thought they would shut him down," Bryan said. "Instead, Mumia has become an international symbol against the death penalty."
His supporters include Hollywood celebrities, politicians and university students. In St. Denis, France, a street is named after him.
At the appeals hearing, about 200 people packed the courtroom. Outside about 500 people demonstrated on Abu-Jamal's behalf. Supporters came from France, Germany and elsewhere. (END/2007)