Monday, May 25, 2009

Support the Free Mumia Coalition

Fundraising is a political task, & so this is an intensely political appeal. We are literally non-profit because we have no "stuff" to sell. All we "sell" is our commitment to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. But we need money to fulfill the goals we've set to free Mumia.

First, we've been relying on other organizations to lend us their sound systems for rallies & marches, and sometimes we just can't make it happen. Not every activist who has an important story to tell is a street orator, so we are too often stuck in New York or Philly with dynamic speakers but no sound system to make them heard. Convinced that everything is possible, a trio of our most dedicated organizers went forth & actually purchased a portable sound system so we can demonstrate for Mumia anywhere we can travel. This has cost us $350, and it came out of a hard-working activist's rent money. We need your donation right now to put the rent money back in his pocket. Ten donations at only $35 will keep the wolf from the door.

Our big campaign to demand that the Justice Department grant Mumia a civil rights investigation is gathering tremendous momentum, with some really high-profile names, such as Ruby Dee, Cornel West, and Charles Rangel signing on, as well as thousands of folks from the U.S. and abroad. To go forward with lobbying in D.C., we are working to raise $2,000 to charter a bus.

We also want to be sure that folks who take a day off from work and family responsibilities to travel 9 hours and lobby will feel empowered to do it. We'd really like to offer free bus fare and meals to Mumia's lobbyists, who will be educating and raising the consciousness of our elected officials. We're asking for seed money to make sure that no one who is willing to go is excluded. Please give generously to make a real change in our nation and to help free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

You may donate online at or using the link below:

or send checks and money orders (payable to Free Mumia Coalition, NYC/IFCO) to us at our fiscal sponsor, IFCO [Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization]:
402 West 145th Street
New York, NY 10031

Call 212-926-5757 with any fiscal questions or 212-330-8029 (Mumia Hotline) with any other questions.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Mumia Exception

(Embedded video, interview at Philadelphia City Hall on May 1, 2008, featured at

"The Mumia Exception"
by J. Patrick O'Connor

Since his conviction in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, through his numerous books, essays and radio commentaries, has become the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States and an international cause célèbre. Paris, for example, made him an honorary citizen in 2003, bestowing the honor for the first time since Pablo Picasso received it in 1971. The "Free Mumia" slogan is seen and heard around the world. Over the last 27 years he has become the most visible of the invisible 3,600 Death Row inmates in the United States.

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal cries out for justice not because he is famous but because he is innocent. Kenneth Freeman, the street-vendor partner of Abu-Jamal's younger brother, Billy Cook, killed Officer Faulkner moments after Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the chest as he approached the scene where Faulkner had pulled over the car Cook was driving. When Faulkner began beating Cook with an 18-inch long flashlight, Abu-Jamal ran from his nearby taxi to come to his brother's aid. After Abu-Jamal was shot and collapsed to the street, Freeman emerged from Cook's car, wrestled Faulkner to the sidewalk and then shot him to death. Freeman fled the scene on foot. Numerous witnesses told police they saw one or more black men fleeing right after the officer was shot. A driver's license application found in Faulkner's shirt pocket led the police directly to Freeman's home within hours of the shooting.

But the police did not want Freeman for this killing, releasing him without him even having to call his attorney. The police, led by the corrupt Inspector Alfonzo Giordano who took charge of the crime scene within minutes of the shooting, wanted to pin Faulkner's death on the blacked-out, police-bashing radio reporter at the scene. Freeman they would deal with later, meting out their own brand of street justice in the dead of night.

Five days after Faulkner's death, the Center City newsstand where Freeman and Billy Cook operated a vending stand burned to the ground at about 3 a.m. Freeman told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter hours after the arson that "there was no question in my mind that the police are behind this." The Inquirer also quoted a Center City police officer who was on patrol in the area that morning as saying, "It's entirely possible" that "certain sick members" of his department were responsible. "All I know is when I got to the station to start my shift at 7:30 this morning, the station house was filled with Cheshire grins." Although the "unsolved" arson bankrupted Freeman and Cook, a worse fate awaited Freeman.

On the night in 1985 when the police infamously firebombed the MOVE home and burned down 60 other row houses in the process, incinerating 11 MOVE members including five children, Freeman's dead body would be found nude and gagged in an empty lot, his hands handcuffed behind his back. There would be no police investigation into this obvious murder: the coroner listed his cause of death as a heart attack. Freeman was 31.

Abu-Jamal had been well known to local police since he joined the Philly chapter of the Black Panther Party at age 15. The next year he was named "lieutenant of information," an appointment the Inquirer ran on its front page, picturing the young radical at Panther headquarters. Even though the chapter would soon dissolve, both the police and the FBI continued to monitor Abu-Jamal when he left Philadelphia to attend Goddard College in Vermont and on his return to Philadelphia to take up his radio career. As his career took wing, landing him a high-profile job at Philadelphia's public radio station, that scrutiny intensified due to his overtly sympathetic coverage of the radical counter-culture group MOVE. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, police confrontations with MOVE were brutal displays of civic discord and police abuse that culminated in the 1985 firebombing.

Abu-Jamal's case has been politically charged from the beginning. By the time he was arrested for the murder of Officer Faulkner, he was a marked man to the police for his Black Panther Party association and his favorable reporting of MOVE. Inspector Giordano, who detested both Abu-Jamal and MOVE, would set the framing of Abu-Jamal in motion by falsely claiming that Abu-Jamal had told him in the paddy wagon that he had killed Faulkner. (Giordano would not be called by the prosecution to reiterate his fabrication at Abu-Jamal's trial. Instead, on the first business day following Abu-Jamal's sentencing, Giordano would be "relieved" of his duties by the police department on what would prove to be well-founded "suspicions of corruption." An FBI probe of rank corruption within the Philadelphia Police Department - the largest ever conducted by the U.S. Justice Department of a police force - would lead to Giordano's conviction four years later. The FBI investigation would ensnare numerous other high-ranking Philadelphia police officials and officers, many of them involved in Abu-Jamal's arrest and trial. Deputy Police Commissioner James Martin, who was in charge of all major investigations, including Faulkner's death, was the ringleader of a vast extortion enterprise operating in City Center.)
The trial of Abu-Jamal was a monumental miscarriage of justice from beginning to end, representing an extreme case of prosecutorial abuse and judicial bias. A pamphlet published by Amnesty International in 2000 stated it had "determined that numerous aspects of Mumia Abu-Jamal's case clearly failed to meet minimum standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings."

The trial judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo, presided at more trials that resulted in the defendants receiving the death penalty than any judge in the nation. Of the 31 so sentenced, five won reversals on appeal, an indication of extreme judicial bias. The Inquirer called him "a defendant's worst nightmare," a prominent defense attorney referred to him as "a prosecutor in robes." A former court stenographer said in an affidavit in 2001 that during Abu-Jamal's trial she overheard Sabo tell someone at the courthouse, "Yeah, and I am going to help them fry the nigger."

During the third day of jury selection, Sabo stripped Abu-Jamal of his right to represent himself and interview potential jurors despite the fact that the Inquirer reported Abu-Jamal was "intent and business like" in his questioning. On the second day of the trial, Sabo removed Abu-Jamal from the courtroom for insisting that MOVE founder John Africa replace his court appointed backup counsel, Anthony Jackson. In turn, Sabo appointed Jackson to represent Abu-Jamal. This would put to rout the possibility of a fair trial.

Abu-Jamal's first major appeal issue developed during jury selection when the prosecutor, Assistant D.A. Joseph McGill, used 10 or 11 of the 15 peremptory challenges he exercised to keep otherwise qualified blacks from sitting on this death-penalty-vetted jury. In a city with more than a 40 percent black population at the time, Abu-Jamal's jury ended up with only two blacks. In 1986 - four years after Abu-Jamal's trial - the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that it was unconstitutional for a prosecutor to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race. The ruling was retroactive.

The second major constitutional claim that would arise occurred at the end of the guilt phase of the trial when the prosecutor referenced the appeal process in his summation to the jury. He told the jury that if they found Abu-Jamal guilty of murder in the first degree that "there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final."

Although Officer Faulkner had been killed by Kenneth Freeman, the prosecution mounted its evidentiary case against Abu-Jamal on the perjured testimony of a prostitute informant and a cab driver with a suspended license for two DUIs who was on probation for throwing a Molotov cocktail into a school yard during a school day. Both of these witnesses had been handpicked by Giordano at the crime scene.

"The Mumia Exception"

As Amnesty International established in its 2000 pamphlet entitled "The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance," his tortuous appeal process has been fraught with "judicial machinations." Claims that won the day in other cases were repeatedly denied him.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turned down his first appeal even though one of his claims was almost identical to one that had persuaded the same court to grant Lawrence Baker a new trial in 1986. In that case, Commonwealth v. Baker, the court overturned Baker's death sentence for first-degree murder on the grounds that the prosecutor improperly referenced the lengthy appeal process afforded those sentenced to death. That prosecutor - Joseph McGill - was the same prosecutor who used similar - almost verbatim - language in his summation during both the guilt and sentencing phases of Mumia's trial. The judge who failed to strike the language in the Baker case was the same judge who presided at Mumia's trial, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo.

The State Supreme Court ruled in Baker that the use of such language "minimize[ed] the jury's sense of responsibility for a verdict of death." When Abu-Jamal's appeal included the very same issue, the court reversed its own precedent in the matter, denying the claim in a shocking unanimous decision.

A year later, in Commonwealth v. Beasley, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Leslie Beasley, but exerted its supervisory power to adopt a "per se rule precluding all remarks about the appellate process in all future trials." This rule not only reinstated the Baker precedent but it ordered all prosecutors in the state to refrain once and for all from referencing the appellate process in summations to the jury. The court could have made this new rule retroactive to Mumia's case, but did not.

As Amnesty International declared in its pamphlet about the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's judicial scheming leave "the disturbing impression that the court invented a new standard of procedure to apply to one case only: that of Mumia Abu-Jamal," Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington aptly dubs this and subsequent court decisions denying Mumia a new trial "the Mumia exception."

Abu-Jamal's Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing in 1995 was doomed from the beginning when Judge Sabo - the original trial judge - would not recuse himself from the case and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would not remove him for bias.

Abu-Jamal's federal habeas corpus appeal - decided by Federal District Judge William Yohn in 2001 - should have resulted in at least an evidentiary hearing on Abu-Jamal's Batson claim that the prosecutor unconstitutionally purged blacks from the jury by using peremptory strikes to exclude 10 or 11 otherwise qualified black jurors from being empanelled. Abu-Jamal's attorneys had included a study conducted by Professor David Baldus that documented the systematic use of peremptory challenges to exclude blacks by Prosecutor McGill in the six death-penalty cases he prosecuted in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia. Abu-Jamal's trial was one of the six trials studied by Baldus. Judge Yohn barred the study on the erroneous grounds that the study was not from a relevant time period when, in fact, it was completely relevant. Judge Yohn's error was egregious and could have been easily avoided if he had held one evidentiary hearing on that defense claim. But during the two years that Judge Yohn considered Abu-Jamal's habeas appeal, he held no hearings.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit should have corrected that district court mistake by remanding Abu-Jamal's case back to Judge Yohn to hold the evidentiary hearing on the Batson claim, but in another example of the "Mumia exception," the court instead continued the long and tortured denial of Mumia's right to a fair trial. In a 2 to 1 decision released on March 27, 2008 that reeked of politics and racism, the court ruled that Abu-Jamal had failed to meet his burden in providing a prima facie case. He failed, the majority wrote, because his attorneys were unable to establish the racial composition of the entire jury pool.

In the decision written by Chief Judge Anthony Scirica, the court stated that "Abu-Jamal had the opportunity to develop this evidence at the PCRA evidentiary hearing, but failed to do so. There may be instances where a prima facie case can be made without evidence of the strike rate and exclusion rate. But, in this case [i.e., "the Mumia exception" is in play], we cannot find the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling [denying the Batson claim] unreasonable based on this incomplete record."

In a nutshell, the majority denied Mumia's Batson claim on a technicality of its own invention, not on its merits. It also broke with the sacrosanct stare decisis doctrine - the principle that the precedent decisions are to be followed by the courts - by ignoring its own previous opposite ruling in the Holloway v. Horn case of 2004 and the Brinson v. Vaughn case of 2005. It is a general maxim that when a point has been settled by decision, it forms a precedent which is not afterwards to be departed from. In a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 1989 in a case entitled United States v. Washington, the decision stated that an appeal court's panel is "bound by decisions of prior panels unless an en banc decision, Supreme Court decision, or subsequent legislation undermines those decisions." None of those variables were in play when the Third Circuit Court majority ruled against Mumia's Batson claim.

Judge Thomas Ambro's dissent was sharp: "I do not agree with them [the majority] that Mumia Abu-Jamal fails to meet the low bar for making a prima facie case under Batson. In holding otherwise, they raise the standard necessary to make out a prima facie case beyond what Batson calls for."

In other words, the majority, in this case alone, has upped the ante required for making a Batson claim beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court stipulated. When ruling in Batson in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court did not require that the racial composition of the entire jury pool be known before a Batson claim may be raised. The high court ruled that a defendant must show only "an inference" of prosecutorial discrimination in purging potential jurors. Prosecutor McGill's using 10 or 11 of the 15 peremptory strikes he deployed is just such an inference - and an extremely strong one. McGill's strike rate of over 66 percent against potential black jurors is in itself prima facie evidence of race discrimination. Prima facie is a Latin term meaning "at first view," meaning the evidence being presented is presumed to be true unless disproved.

In commenting on Holloway v. Horn, a Batson-type case with striking similarities to Abu-Jamal's claim, Judge Ambro - the lone Democrat-appointed judge on the three judge panel - demonstrated just how disingenuous the panel's ruling against Abu-Jamal's Batson claim was. "In Holloway, Judge Ambro wrote in his 41-page dissent, "we emphasized that 'requiring the presentation of [a record detailing the race of the venire] simply to move past the first state - the prima facie stage - in the Batson analysis places an undue burden upon the defendant.' There we found the strike rate - 11 of 12 peremptory strikes against black persons - satisfied the prima facie burden." In Holloway, the Third Circuit ruled that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision denying Holloway's Batson claim was "contrary to" and an "unreasonable application" of the Batson standard.

In fact, in rendering both its Holloway and Brinson decision, the Third Circuit specifically rejected the requirement that a petitioner develop a complete record of the jury pool. In making its ruling in Abu-Jamal's appeal, it reversed itself to make the pretext of an incomplete jury record his fatal misstep. Basing its ruling against Abu-Jamal's Batson claim on this invented pretext demonstrated how desperate the majority was to block Abu-Jamal's Batson claim. What the majority was implying was that Abu-Jamal's jury pool may well have consisted of 60 or 70 percent black people and that therefore the prosecutor's using 66 percent of his strikes to oust potential black jurors was statistically normal and did not create a prima facie case of discrimination. This hypothesis is, of course, absurd on its face. Blacks have been underrepresented on Philadelphia juries for years - and remain so today. What was likely was that the jury pool at Abu-Jamal's trial was at least 70 percent white.

The Third Circuit - if it had followed its own precedent - would have found the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling denying Abu-Jamal's Batson claim "contrary to" and an "unreasonable application" of the Batson standard and remanded the case back to Federal District Court Judge Yohn to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the prosecutor's reasons for excluding the 10 potential black jurors he struck. If that hearing satisfied Judge Yohn that all of the prosecutor's reasons for striking potential black jurors were race neutral, the Batson claim would fail. If, conversely, that hearing revealed racial discrimination on the part of the prosecutor during jury selection - even if only concerning one potential juror - Judge Yohn would have been compelled to order a new trial for Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal's final opportunity for judicial relief was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in November of 2008 in the form of a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. On February 4, the high court docketed and accepted that filing. According to Abu-Jamal's lead attorney, Robert Bryan of San Francisco, "The central issue in this case is racism in jury selection. The prosecution systematically removed people from sitting on the trial jury purely because of the color of their skin, that is, being black."

For at least two compelling reasons, it appeared that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant Abu-Jamal's petition. In its last term, the high court expanded its 1986 Batson ruling in its Synder v. Maryland decision to warrant a new trial if a minority defendant could show the inference of racial bias in the prosecutor's peremptory exclusion of one juror. Under Batson, the defense needed to show an inference - i.e., a pattern - of racial bias in the overall jury selection process. Ironically, the Supreme Court's 7-2 decision strengthening and expanding Batson's reach was written by Justice Samuel Alito, most recently of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The second reason was that the Third Circuit's ruling denying Abu-Jamal's Batson claim undermined both the Batson and Synder decisions by placing new restrictions on a defendant's ability to file a Batson claim. The Third Circuit ruling against Abu-Jamal had the effect of creating new law by tampering with a long-established Supreme Court precedent.

As a result, there seemed to be something more than a remote possibility that the Supreme Court would agree to grant Abu-Jamal's writ.

A Writ of Certiorari is a decision by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal from a lower court. Supreme Court justices rarely give a reason why they accept or deny Cert. Although all nine justices are involved in considering Cert Petitions, it takes only four justices to grant a Writ of Certiorari, even if five justices are against it. This is known as "the rule of four."

Despite needing only four votes to have his Batson claim argued, the Supreme Court on April 6, 2009 tersely denied Abu-Jamal's request for a writ. The so-called "liberal block" of Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, Souter, and Breyer disintegrated, yielding to the awesome political power of the "Mumia exception."

Abu-Jamal - who turned 55 on April 24, 2009 - will, barring the most unlikely intervention by a future governor of Pennsylvania, spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

J. Patrick O'Connor is the editor of Crime Magazine ( and the author of The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, published by Lawrence Hill Books in 2008.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Prisoners Defending Prisoners: Review of new book by Mumia Abu-Jamal

From: Hans Bennett

Prisoners Defending Prisoners: Review of new book by Mumia Abu-Jamal
by Carolina Saldaña

(Spanish language version below)

“My only wish is to tell a story that has never been told before,” says Mumia Abu-Jamal of his new book Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A., City Lights Books, 2009.

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s sixth book written from death row is coming out at the very time that the Supreme Court of the United States has slammed the door in his face and the campaign to execute him has been renewed. The book was presented on April 24 in Philadelphia, New York, Oakland, Detroit, Boston, Houston, Portland, Los Ángeles, Seattle, Olympia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., to celebrate his birthday and open a new stage in the battle for his life and freedom.

(See Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble at Philadelphia event:

He tells us that there are tens of thousands of jailhouse lawyers in the prisons of the United States. Little known, if they are known at all, outside prison walls, they are men and women who handle their own cases, defend other prisoners, or file suits to bring about changes in prison conditions. With insight, respect, empathy, and humor, Mumia brings us the words and experiences of around thirty of them, some of whom he has known personally in the prisons of Pennsylvania and others who have corresponded with him or responded to his surveys. Most of them fight their cases in unfamiliar territory because they didn’t go to law school before they ended up in prison; they’ve learned the law on their own, usually with the help of other, more experienced prisoners.

“They've not forgotten how to fight,” says Mumia. “They've not forgotten how to resist. They've not forgotten how to help others, often the most helpless around them. And they've not forgotten how to win.... Some of these people have, quite literally, saved people's lives by their work. Others have changed the rules of the game.”
To thank them for their services in protecting the Constitution, they are punished more harshly than any other single group of prisoners.

In this book, we get to know Steve Evans, who learned the law by himself and taught many other prisoners (with the exception of snitches and baby rapers) how to handle their own cases. His pupil Warren Henderson had to learn to read before he could learn the law, but he developed such a love of reading that he stole hundreds of books with the dream of setting up a library for the kids in the ‘hood when he got out of prison, and went on to successfully defend himself in court. Midge DeLuca, who had cancer when she went to jail decided to help other women who needed medical care after reading a line from her favorite poet Audre Lorde, “only our silences will hurt us.”

We also meet quite a few rebels, revolutionaries, and political prisoners, such as the MOVE members and sympathizers who dramatically defied the authority of the courts in a long series of trials, often with unorthodox tactics; Rashaan Brooks-Bey, who organized strikes and other actions for prisoners’ rights, and along with his co-plaintiffs Russell Maroon Shoatz, Robert Joyner, and Kareem Howard, openly confronted the judge and demanded that the police be jailed; Martin Sostre, the legendary organizer of the Afro-Asian Book Store in Buffalo, NY, who won many suits and influenced many of his fellow prisoners; Iron Thunderhorse, long-time prisoners’ rights organizer, now legally blind; and Ed Mead, originally a social prisoner turned prisoners’ rights activist, and later member of the George Jackson Brigade and then co-founder of Prison Legal News.

Scorned by judges and district attorneys and faced with a serious lack of resources and public apathy, jailhouse lawyers often lose their cases, but they have scored some impressive wins.

-- In Pennsylvania, Richard Mayberry’s battles to represent himself began in the mid-‘60s, and in spite of being sent to the hole many times, he finally eliminated some of the major obstacles. He also won a class-action suit in 1978 that brought drastic changes in the prisons of several states in the areas of health, overcrowding, and punishments such as the “glass cages.”

-- In 1971, David Ruiz filed suit against the Texas prison system, which was run like a slave plantation, resulting in far-reaching reforms ordered by Judge William Wayne Justice.

-- In Pennsylvania, at the beginning of the ‘80s, a class action suit filed by Rashaan Brooks-Bey resulted in the closure of a repressive unit at the Pittsburgh prison. The prisoners also won two hours of outdoor exercise instead of fifteen minutes, laundry service, covered food trays, and an end to four strip searches every time they had a visitor.

-- In California, appeals filed by Jane Dorotik have led to the freedom of a good number of women falsely imprisoned at Chowchilla. Her work is underscored in a chapter dedicated to the work of several women jailhouse lawyers at a time when there has been a tremendous increase in the women’s prison population ––300% in the last few years.

-- Barry “Running Bear” Gibbs achieved the revocation of his own death sentence as well as those of two other prisoners. He remembers how he felt when one of them yelled out the good news. Says Running Bear: “Saving someone’s life via pen and paper is a rewarding and unforgettable experience.”

-- The shameful sentencing of 9 MOVE members to prison terms of 30-100 years in 1978 was followed by an astounding victory for the organization in 1981, when Mo and John Africa successfully defended themselves on arms and explosives charges. Their unusual tactics included summoning the 9 MOVE prisoners to testify about the aims of their struggle, the good character of John Africa, and the treason of the state’s witnesses, as well as a final speech by John Africa about the survival of the planet. The jury, with tears in their eyes, exonerated them completely.

--A few months later, MOVE sympathizer Abdul Jon was able to get assault charges thrown out against him, Jeanette, and Teresa África, at least temporarily, after the three suffered a brutal beating by the police. His clear, logical arguments made the high-sounding (false) arguments of the D.A. laughable. Although it was a minor victory, says Mumia, it gives something of the flavor of the long string of MOVE trials.

Mumia brings out the irony of the situation in which even though John Africa was exonerated by a jury for possession of arms and explosives, he was murdered on May 13, 1985, along with Theresa Africa and 9 other MOVE members with explosives illegally obtained from the federal government to bomb MOVE’s house. Yet not a single local or federal agent was ever brought to justice. The only person accused, tried, and sentenced to 7 years for “inciting a riot” was Ramona Africa, who dared to survive the massacre. If she hadn’t handled her own case, she would probably have spent many more years in jail, due to all the initial charges against her.

Mumia has no doubt about the fact that, in the final analysis, the law is whatever the judge says it is. In one interesting chapter, he explores several definitions of the law, including that of the person “now deemed the avatar of Western Capitalism,” Adam Smith: “Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the in¬equality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hin¬dered by the government would soon reduce the oth¬ers to an equality with themselves by open violence.”

For prisoners, however, the law is neither a theory nor an idea because they experience its brutal reality. Furthermore, those who know Black History are aware that millions of people were legally enslaved. There were different laws for Africans, called “Slave Codes,” which reemerged after the Civil War as “Black Codes” and penalized behavior such as “vagrancy, breach of job contracts, absence from work, possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts.” Mumia explains that precisely because jailhouse lawyers had challenged the use of the law as an instrument of domination, former President Bill Clinton, in 1996, achieved the passage of a law limiting the rights of prisoners to file appeals or suits and prohibiting recovery for psychological or mental harm or injury, in violation of the Convention against Torture. To the Slave Codes and the Black Codes, he says, we can now add Prison Codes.

Naturally, the book reveals many aspects of the conditions in United States prisons, including the torture practiced there: “What millions saw in the garish reflections of Iraq was but a foreign edition of the reality of American prisons: places of legalized torture, humiliation and abuse—practices exported from domestic U.S. hellholes to ones overseas.”

What distinguishes street lawyers from jailhouse lawyers? The conservative bent in the profession, explains Mumia, goes back to the days when professional lawyers were seen as instruments of the British Crown, who only worked for the rich. “Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence (no women signed) in 1776, twenty-nine of them, or roughly 52 percent, were lawyers or judges. They would erect a legal structure that would protect property yet deprecate freedom—at least the freedom of enslaved African people. The lawyers brought with them a sensibility that is at the heart of the profession, an inbred conservatism.” As a matter of fact, the first three Presidents of the United States were aristocrats, albeit without title, and slave owners. “They helped erect a legal structure that would protect the wealth and privileges of their class.”

Today, when lawyers graduate from law school, they aren’t “officers of the community,” but “officers of the court.” Their loyalty is not the accused, but instead “to the court, the bench, the civil throne.” This explains, at least in part, the great distance that exists between lawyer and client and the client’s lack of trust in him. It is almost impossible for a poor person to have a good lawyer and even more so when the defendant is not white.

Jailhouse lawyers, however, have a different relationship to the State. In some cases, even the most progressive street lawyers have taken the side of the State against them. Mumia explains that in the midst of the post 9/11 anthrax scare, several states passed laws allowing the State to open legal or court mail outside the presence of the prisoner, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The measure was negotiated with the support of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) but finally rolled back thanks to the hard work of three jailhouse lawyers ––Derrick Dale Fontroy, Theodore Savage, and Aaron C. Wheeler. On the other hand, it’s extremely rare for a jailhouse lawyer to negotiate a case. They have no loyalty to the court, they’re not professional lawyers, and they have no one to whom they can sell out. They’re not part of the “club.”

Even with the high esteem that Mumia has for the jailhouse lawyers described in this book, he also points out the limits of their efforts. At the end of the ‘70s, Delbert Africa had warned him of a dangerous trap. He explained that the problem is that many prisoners study the law, they believe the law, and they believe it applies to them. Then, when they realize that the system doesn’t follow its own laws, and that on the contrary, laws are made and broken at the whim of the judge, they just go crazy.

Mumia assures us that he has known prisoners who have gone mad for this very reason. He’s also known some who have taken advantage of the prisoners they represent. But the main limit he points out is the insufficiency of their good efforts when it comes to making fundamental changes in the prison system. In order to put an end to this system, any effort to use the law against power must be in the context of broad social movements, both inside and outside of the prisons, to transform the society as a whole.

Modest, as ever, Mumia barely mentions his own work as a jailhouse lawyer who has helped other prisoners get out of prison. One of these is Harold Wilson, who has now changed his name to Amin, participates in the campaign to free Mumia, and spoke at the book presentation in Philadelphia on April 24 and in New York City on April 25.

Videos from Philadelphia event:

(Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble:

(Samiya Davis:

(Abdul Jon:

Angela Davis speaking in Oakland:


Presos que defienden a presos: reseña del nuevo libro de Mumia Abu-Jamal

“Sólo quiero contar una historia que nunca se ha contado,” dice Mumia Abu-Jamal sobre su nuevo libro Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. (Abogados desde la cárcel: presos que defienden a presos vs. Estados Unidos), City Lights Books, 2009.

El sexto libro escrito por Mumia Abu-Jamal desde el corredor de la muerte se publica justamente en el momento cuando la Suprema Corte de Estados Unidos le avienta la puerta en la cara y la campaña para ejecutarlo se renueva. Es presentado el 24 de abril en Filadelfia, Nueva York, Oakland, Detroit, Boston, Houston, Portland, Los Ángeles, Seattle, Olympia, Baltimore y Washington D.C., para festejar su cumpleaños y abrir una nueva etapa en la batalla por su vida y libertad.
(Vean: Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble en el evento de Filadelfia

Nos dice que hay decenas de miles de jailhouse lawyers en las cárceles de Estados Unidos. Poco conocidos en el mundo fuera de los muros, son hombres y mujeres que litigan sus propios casos, defienden a otros presos o levantan demandas para efectuar cambios en las condiciones de las prisiones. Con agudeza, respeto, empatía y humor, Mumia presenta las palabras y vivencias de una treintena de ellos, algunos que él ha conocido personalmente en las prisiones de Pensilvania y otros que le han enviado cartas o respuestas a sus encuestas. La mayoría batallan en terreno ajeno porque no tenían estudios formales en derecho antes de ingresar a la prisión; son autodidactas y han aprendido la ley bajo el tutelaje de otros presos con más experiencia.

Dice Mumia: “No se han olvidado pelear. No se han olvidado resistir. No se han olvidado ayudar a los demás, en muchos casos las personas más indefensas. Y no se han olvidado ganar....Algunas de estas personas han salvado las vidas de otras, literalmente. Otras han cambiado las reglas del juego”. Para agradecerles sus servicios en proteger la Constitución, las autoridades suelen castigar a estos abogados más que a cualquier otro grupo de presos.

En este libro, conocemos a Steve Evans, quien estudió el derecho por su cuenta y enseñó a muchos otros presos cómo litigar un caso – a todos menos los soplones y violadores de niños. Su alumno Warren Henderson tuvo que aprender a leer en prisión antes de estudiar el derecho, pero tan grande era su pasión para la lectura que robó cientos de libros para realizar su sueño de organizar una biblioteca en su barrio al salir de prisión, y en varias ocasiones tuvo éxito en defenderse. Midge DeLuca, quien padecía el cáncer, decidió ayudar a las otras presas enfermas después de leer la línea de su poeta favorita Audre Lorde: “Sólo nuestros silencios nos lastimarán”.

También conocemos a varios rebeldes, revolucionarios y presos políticos, inclusive los integrantes y simpatizantes de la organización MOVE, quienes desafiaron la autoridad de las cortes rotundamente en una larga serie de juicios; Rashaan Brooks-Bey, organizador de huelgas y otras acciones por los derechos de presos, quien junto con sus compañeros Russell Maroon Shoatz, Robert Joyner y Kareem Howard, solía enfrentar al juez directamente y exigía el encarcelamiento de los policías; Martin Sostre, el legendario organizador de la librería Afro-Asiático en Buffalo, NY, quien influyó en el pensamiento de muchos otros presos; Iron Thunderhorse, organizador por los derechos de presos, ahora legalmente ciego; y Ed Mead, originalmente un preso social que se volvió activista por los derechos de presos, después integrante de la Brigada George Jackson y co fundador de Prison Legal News.

Ante el desprecio de los jueces y fiscales, la extrema falta de recursos, y la apatía pública, los abogados desde la cárcel frecuentemente pierden sus casos, pero también han ganado unas impresionantes victorias.

-- En el estado de Pensilvania, Richard Mayberry empezó sus batallas para auto-representarse a mediados de los años ’60 y a pesar de duros castigos en el hoyo, quitó unos obstáculos para hacerlo. También ganó una demanda en 1978, que resultó en drásticos cambios en las prisiones de varios estados en el terreno de salud, hacinamiento y castigos tales como las “jaulas de vidrio”, entre muchas otras cosas.

-- En 1971, David Ruiz levantó una demanda contra el sistema carcelario del estado de Tejas, operado como una plantación de esclavos, la cual resultó en extensas reformas ordenadas por el juez William Wayne Justice.

-- En Pensilvania a principio de los años ‘80, una demanda presentada por Rashaan Brooks-Bey de parte de todos los presos logró que una unidad represiva fuera cerrada en la prisión de Pittsburgh. Los presos ganaron dos horas de ejercicio al aire libre en lugar de quince minutos, servicio de lavandería, tapaderas para las charolas de comida, y una prohibición a la práctica de desnudarlos cuatro veces cada vez que recibieran visitas.

-- En el estado de California, Jane Dorotik entabla apelaciones que han resultado en la libertad de un buen número de mujeres falsamente encarceladas en el penal Chowchilla. Su trabajo está destacado en un capítulo dedicado al trabajo de varias presas abogadas ante el tremendo aumento en el encarcelamiento de mujeres-- 300% en años recientes.

-- Barry “Running Bear” Gibbs (el Oso) logró que su propia sentencia de muerte fuera revocada igual que las de otros dos presos. Se acuerda de como se sentía cuando uno de los jóvenes le gritó las buenas noticias. Dice el Oso: “Salvarle la vida a alguien por medio de tinta y papel es una experiencia grata e inolvidable”.

-- La vergonzosa condena de 9 integrantes de la organización MOVE a desde 30 a 100 años en prisión en 1978, fue seguida por una asombrosa victoria para la organización en 1981, cuando Mo y John África se defendieron con éxito contra cargos de acopio de armas y explosivos. Sus tácticas poco comunes incluyeron un citatorio a sus 9 compañeros encarcelados para dar testimonio sobre los propósitos de su lucha, el buen carácter de John África y la traición de los testigos de cargo, más un discurso final de John África sobre la sobrevivencia del planeta. El jurado, con lágrimas en los ojos, los exoneró completamente.

--Unos meses después, el simpatizante de MOVE Abdul Jon logró la revocación temporal de cargos de agresión con lesiones contra él, Jeanette y Theresa África cuando fueron ellos los que sufrieron una golpiza brutal por la policía. Sus argumentos sencillos y lógicos hacen risibles los altisonantes (y falsos) argumentos de la fiscalía. Aunque fuera una victoria menor, dice Mumia, da el sabor de la larga serie de procesos contra MOVE.

Mumia señala la ironía de que aunque John África fue absuelto por un jurado del acopio de armas y explosivos, él fue asesinado el 13 de mayo de 1985, junto con Theresa África y otros 9 integrantes de MOVE con explosivos obtenidos ilegalmente del gobierno de Estados Unidos para bombardear la casa colectiva de MOVE. Sin embargo, ningún agente local o federal fue enjuiciado por el crimen. La única persona acusada, enjuiciada y condenada a 7 años por “incitar un motín” fue Ramona África, quien “se atrevió a sobrevivir la matanza.” De no haber manejado su propio caso, ella probablemente hubiera pasado muchos años más en la cárcel, dadas todas las acusaciones iniciales en su contra.

Para Mumia, no cabe duda de que, al fin y al cabo, la ley es lo que diga el juez. En un capítulo interesante, explora varias definiciones de la ley, inclusive la del hombre conocido como “el avatar del capitalismo occidental,” Adán Smith: “La ley y los gobiernos se pueden considerar...como una combinación de los ricos para oprimir a los pobres para conservar para ellos la desigualdad de los bienes, los cuales de otra manera estarían destruidas por los asaltos de los pobres, quienes, si no impedidos por el gobierno, muy pronto reducirían a los demás a una igualdad con ellos a través de la violencia abierta”.

Sin embargo, para los presos, la ley no es una teoría o una idea porque viven la brutal realidad. Además, los que conocen la historia africano-americana en Estados Unidos saben que millones de personas fueron esclavizados legalmente. Hubo leyes distintas para los Africanos llamadas los “Códigos de Esclavos”, los cuales reaparecieron después de la Guerra Civil como los “Códigos Negros” que penalizaron conductas como el vagabundeo, posesión de armas, ausencia del trabajo, gestos o actos insultantes. Mumia sostiene que precisamente porque los abogados desde la cárcel habían retado la utilización de la ley como instrumento de dominación, el ex presidente Bill Clinton, en 1996, logró la aprobación de una ley que limita los derechos de los presos para entablar apelaciones o demandas y prohíbe las indemnizaciones punitivas por daños y perjuicios psicológicos o mentales, en violación de la Convención contra la Tortura. A los “Códigos de Esclavos” y los “Códigos Negros”, dice Mumia, se suman los “Códigos de Prisión”.

Naturalmente, el libro revela muchos aspectos de las condiciones en las prisiones de Estados Unidos, incluso la tortura practicada ahí: “Lo que millones vimos en las reflexiones espeluznantes de Irak no era otra cosa que una edición exterior de la realidad de las prisiones estadounidenses: lugares de tortura, humillación y abuso ––prácticas exportadas de los infiernos domésticos de este país a otros en el extranjero”.

¿En qué se distinguen los abogados licenciados en derecho y los abogados de la cárcel? El conservadurismo inherente en la profesión, explica Mumia, se remonta a los días cuando los licenciados eran vistos como instrumentos de la Corona Británica que sólo trabajaban para los ricos. “De los 56 hombres que firmaron la Declaración de Independencia (ninguna mujer firmó) en 1776, 29 de ellos, o aproximadamente 52 por ciento, eran abogados o jueces. Establecieron una estructura legal que protegía la propiedad pero que despreciaba la libertad ––por lo menos la libertad del pueblo africano esclavizado. Los abogados trajeron con ellos una sensibilidad que está en el corazón de la profesión, un conservadurismo innato”. De hecho, los tres primeros presidentes de Estados Unidos eran aristócratas, aunque sin título, y dueños de esclavos. “Establecieron una estructura legal para proteger la riqueza y privilegio de su clase”.

Hoy en día cuando los abogados se reciben, no son “oficiales de la comunidad”, sino “oficiales de la corte”. Su lealtad no es al acusado sino “a la corte, al banco, al trono civil”. Esto explica, en parte, la gran distancia entre el licenciado y su cliente y la falta de confianza que el cliente le tiene. Es casi imposible que una persona pobre tenga un buen abogado y aún más difícil cuando el acusado no sea blanco.

Los abogados desde la cárcel, sin embargo, tienen una relación diferente con el Estado. En unos casos, hasta los abogados muy progresistas han tomado el lado del Estado contra ellos. Explica Mumia que en medio de la histeria post 9/11 sobre el ántrax, varios estados aprobaron leyes que permitieron al Estado abrir correo legal fuera de la presencia de los presos, en violación de la Primera Enmienda a la Constitución. La medida fue negociada con el apoyo de la liberal Unión Americana de Libertades Civiles (ACLU) pero por fin revocada gracias a los duros esfuerzos de tres abogados desde la cárcel ––Derrick Dale Fontroy, Theodore Savage, y Aaron C. Wheeler. Por otro lado, es raro que los abogados desde la cárcel negocien un caso. No tienen lealtad a la corte, no son licenciados, y no tienen nadie a quién venderse. No son parte del “club”.

Con todo el aprecio que Mumia les tiene a los abogados retratados en este libro, él también señala los límites de sus esfuerzos. A finales de los años ’70, Delbert África le había avisado de una peligrosa trampa. Le explicó que el problema reside en que muchos de estos presos estudian la ley, creen en la ley, creen que se aplica a ellos, y cuando se dan cuenta que el Sistema no sigue sus propias leyes, que al contrario, la ley se hace y se rompe al antojo de los jueces, se vuelven locos.

Mumia afirma haber conocido unos presos vueltos locos precisamente por esta razón. También ha conocido unos que han abusado de los presos que representan. Sin embargo, el límite más fuerte que él señala es la insuficiencia de sus buenos esfuerzos para lograr cambios fundamentales en el sistema carcelario. Para acabar con este sistema, cualquier esfuerzo para utilizar la ley contra el poder tiene que ser parte de amplios movimientos dentro y fuera de las prisiones para transformar la sociedad.

Humilde, como siempre, Mumia apenas menciona sus propios esfuerzos como abogado autodidacta que ha ayudado a otros presos salir de prisión. Uno de ellos es Harold Wilson, quien ha escogido el nombre Amin y ahora participa en la campaña para liberar a Mumia. Fue uno de los invitados a hablar en el evento del 24 de abril en la ciudad de Nueva York.