Mumia Abu-Jamal faces US Supreme Court, as supporters mobilize globally
By Hans Bennett
On Friday, December 19, 2008, death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal filed his appeal to the US Supreme Court, asking it to consider his case for a new guilt-phase trial. One month before, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed its separate appeal to the US Supreme Court asking to have Abu-Jamal executed without a new sentencing-phase trial.
At this critical stage in Abu-Jamal’s case, supporters organized a week of global solidarity actions that began on December 6, the day of the large protest in Philadelphia, almost 27 years after Abu-Jamal was arrested for the December 9, 1981 shooting death of white police officer Daniel Faulkner, and later convicted in a 1982 trial that Amnesty International has declared a "violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty".
There were solidarity actions inside the US and around the world, including Mexico, Venezuela, Germany, France, England, Switzerland. Several US events screened the new DVD video titled Fighting for Mumia's Freedom: a report from Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, over 200 protesters gathered outside the District Attorney’s office across the street from City Hall. Journalists for Mumia’s new video report from the demonstration features an interview with persecuted Civil Rights Lawyer Lynne Stewart, and footage of Pam Africa speaking outside the DA’s office about the newly discovered crime scene photos taken by press photographer Pedro Polakoff, and the DA’s role in hiding them from the defense. The coordinator of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Pam Africa cited Polakoff’s statements today that he approached the DA’s office with the photos in 1981/82 and 1995, but was completely ignored by them. Subsequently, Polakoff’s photos were never seen by the 1982 jury, or by the defense. Africa presented the evidence to Philadelphia PD Civil Affairs Captain William Fisher to deliver to DA Lynne Abraham.
Protesters marched from the DA’s office to the Federal Court Building where Abu-Jamal had oral arguments on May 17, 2007. The march stopped at the 13th and Locust crime scene where Journalists for Mumia gave a presentation focusing on the photo by Polakoff that shows a blank space where key prosecution witness Robert Chobert testified to being parked in his taxi as he allegedly observed Abu-Jamal shoot Faulkner. An online video of the presentation is available alongside the special presentation flyer.
That week, Journalists for Mumia was featured by Philadelphia’s independent news website GeoClan.com. I argued in the interview that “those advocating Mumia’s execution show a disturbing lack of concern about the undeniable problems of racism (and all documented police / DA / judicial misconduct) throughout. At the most fundamental level, the ‘Fry Mumia’ campaign’s lack of concern is racist….The FOP is appealing to a racist lynch mob mentality that has long infected the US, so calling this a ‘legal lynching’ is no exaggeration.”
In Mexico City, Mexico, supporters organized a week of actions, including a protest rally outside the US Embassy. Linking Mumia’s case to repression and political prisoners in Mexico, speakers at the US Embassy included ex-Atenco prisoners Edith Rosales and César del Valle, as well as a guitar performance by Atenco survivor Jorge Salinas, whose arms were temporarily paralyzed and hands fractured when he was almost killed by police at Atenco. Survivors Mariana, Edith y Norma who courageously told their story of being raped at Atenco. Solidarity statements were read from Mexican political prisoners Gloria Arenas Agis and her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales, and from the Atenco political prisoners in the Molino de Flores prison at Texcoco, México.
Braulio Alvarez, a member of the Venezuelan parliament and leader of the farmers struggle in Venezuela said in his message written for the week, that Venezuelan supporters had decided “to go the American embassy in Caracas to hand to the ambassador a letter to the governor of Pennsylvania, demanding that he immediately liberate Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
Berlin, Germany’s, week of solidarity culminated in a demonstration where hundreds marched to the US Embassy with slogans like "Freiheit für Mumia Abu-Jamal - Weg mit der Todesstrafe überall" ("Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal - Abolish the death penalty everywhere").
Also demonstrating the international interest in this case, the new British documentary film about Abu-Jamal, titled In Prison My Whole Life, premiered December 8 on the Sundance Channel. Previous interviews with William Francome, and Livia Giuggioli Firth, revealed that In Prison features an interview with Abu-Jamal’s brother Billy Cook, and the newly discovered crime scene photos. Officially endorsed by Amnesty International, Amnesty UK Director Kate Allen said: "We hope that the film's viewers will back our call for a fair retrial for Mumia Abu-Jamal--and also support our work opposing the death penalty in the US and around the world."
Appealing to the US Supreme Court
Both the DA and Abu-Jamal are asking the US Supreme Court to consider their appeals of the March 27, 2008 rulings by the US Third Circuit Court, when the court denied Abu-Jamal a new guilt-phase trial but ruled that there must be a new sentencing- phase trial if the DA still wants the death penalty. Therefore, Abu-Jamal is appealing for a new guilt-phase trial, while the DA is appealing to execute him without a new sentencing-phase trial. On October 6, 2008, the US Supreme Court rejected an unrelated appeal from Abu-Jamal.
On March 27, 2008 the US Third Circuit Court's three-judge panel of Thomas Ambro, Anthony Scirica, and Robert Cowen ruled against three different appeal issues, refusing to grant either a new guilt-phase trial or a preliminary hearing that could have led to a new guilt-phase trial for Abu-Jamal. However, on the issue of racist jury selection, also known as the Batson claim, the three judge panel of split 2-1, with Ambro dissenting.
Abu-Jamal filed his appeal of this ruling with the US Supreme Court today, Dec. 19. Arguably the key issue will be the 1986 Batson v. Kentucky ruling established the right to a new trial if jurors were excluded on the basis of race. At the 1982 trial Prosecutor McGill used 10-11 of his 15 peremptory strikes to remove otherwise acceptable black jurors, yet the court ruled that there was not even the appearance of discrimination. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Ambro wrote that the denial of a preliminary Batson hearing "goes against the grain of our prior actions…I see no reason why we should not afford Abu-Jamal the courtesy of our precedents."
Separately, the DA is appealing to execute without a new sentencing-phase trial, having filed their brief on November 14, 2008. Abu-Jamal’s deadline to respond to this is January 21, 2009.
On March 27, the three-judge panel unanimously affirmed Federal District Court Judge William Yohn's 2001 decision "overturning" the death sentence. Citing the 1988 Mills v. Maryland precedent, Yohn had ruled that sentencing forms used by jurors and Judge Sabo's instructions to the jury were potentially confusing, and jurors could have mistakenly believed that they had to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstances in order to consider them as weighing against a death sentence.
According to this ruling, if the DA wants to re-instate the death sentence, the DA must call for a new penalty-phase jury trial where new evidence of Mumia's innocence can be presented. However, the jury can only choose between a sentence of life in prison without parole or a death sentence.
The DA is appealing this 2001/2008 ruling to the US Supreme Court, so if the court agrees to consider the DA’s appeal and rules in their favor, Mumia can then be executed without benefit of the new sentencing trial. However, if the court upholds the 2001 and 2008 rulings, then the DA will either request a new sentencing trial or accept life in prison without the chance of parole.
Notably, at the DA's request, during the post-2001 appeals, Mumia has never left his death row cell or been given general population "privileges" such as contact visits with family.
Reacting to the DA’s Appeal
Following news that the DA was appealing to execute without a new sentencing trial, I spoke with Dave Lindorff, J. Patrick O'Connor, and William Francome.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: An investigation into the death row case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He says that “the obsession of a string of Philadelphia district attorneys, beginning with current Governor Ed Rendell and ending with current DA Lynn Abraham with killing Mumia Abu-Jamal, despite his now having spent 26 years in the living hell of Pennsylvania's death row, is truly repulsive and inhuman. It has ruined the live of Daniel Faulkner's widow whose life has become a pathetic campaign of vengeance. It has cost the taxpayers of Philadelphia and of the state of Pennsylvania untold millions of dollars. And meanwhile, there is every reason to believe that Abu-Jamal was wrongly convicted of first degree murder and should never have been sentenced to death in the first place. The obsession to kill him, which began from the moment police first arrived on the scene in December, 1981, has led to a decades long travesty of and insult to the principles of justice, which is continuing to this day.”
William Francome, from the British film In Prison My Whole Life says that this “shows again the political nature of this case. It is my opinion that their office would not like to have to go through with another sentencing phase of the trial, with the attention that it would receive. They wish that this case would just disappear and that Mumia would be quiet, yet they do not want to face the Fraternal Order of Police who would be outraged if the DA wasn't pushing for a death sentence… The sad thing is that amongst the political battles, a man’s life is at stake and I find the attempt at reinstating the death sentence (which is a completely irreversible and inhumane practice), to be abhorrent.”
J. Patrick O’Connor is the author of “The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Despite several book tours and an important NY Times article when Framing was released in May 2008, it has been virtually ignored by the mainstream media. O’Connor argues that the DA’s appeal is “without merit and represents pure gamesmanship by outgoing D.A. Lynne Abraham…The last thing the Philadelphia DA's Office wants to conduct is a new sentencing hearing, an event it continues to put off by filing this latest appeal. That's really what this latest appeal is all about.”
The Power of the People
At the December 6 protest, Pam Africa stressed that the DA is trying to execute Abu-Jamal despite the strong evidence of both an unfair trial and innocence. Not having any faith in the court system, she argued that justice will only come from popular pressure, and made an urgent plea for supporters to do all they can at this critical hour. In his message recorded for the international week of solidarity, Abu-Jamal thanked his supporters and decried the recent denial of a new guilt-phase trial:
“As you’ve seen, the law is but politics by other means, and the judges but politicians in judges’ robes. It doesn’t matter what the cases say. It doesn’t matter what the so-called rules say. They’ve never followed them from day one. What matters is what you say. What matters is what you do. So I thank you all for being there, for fighting for what’s right, for fighting for life, for fighting for liberty. I thank you all and I love you all.”