Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New lawyers committed to new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer
April 19, 2011

NEW YORK ( - Mumia Abu-Jamal, 58, often called the “world's most famous death-row prisoner” penned a letter from his cell in Pennsylvania's SCI Greene prison last November telling supporters about changes to his legal team.

“They are experienced intelligent and well-motivated lawyers, who know what they are doing,” he wrote.

On April 3, his supporters, grassroots activists representing anti-death penalty organizations, Pan-Africanists, nationalists, organized labor activists, the Million Worker March and anti-war organizations gathered on the ninth floor in Riverside Church to meet the two lead co-counselors.

Attorney Christine Swarms, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund's Criminal Justice Project, and Judith Ritter, professor at Widener Law School in Wilmington, Del., were greeted with a rousing ovation from the standing-room only crowd. The applause came with the announcement from event moderator Suzzanne Ross, chairperson of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition of New York City, that the Legal Defense Fund had taken on Mr. Abu Jamal's case. “Mumia is very relieved that his case is in the hands of the new team,” Ms. Ross said, before turning the podium over to the two attorneys.

The event co-sponsors were the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Riverside Church Prison Ministry.

The journalist, former Black Panther and supporter of the police-targeted back to the earth MOVE organization was sentenced to death in 1982 after being found guilty of the Dec. 9, 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mr. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence.

During his 30-year imprisonment, Mr. Abu-Jamal has published several books, the most notable being “Letters from Death Row” (1995), written newspaper columns and created commentary for radio airplay.

In 2001, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pa. found constitutional error in the jury instruction and verdict form used in the 1982 penalty phase of his case. The finding was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008, but was sent back to the Third Circuit Court by the U.S. Supreme Court last year for further review.

Mr. Abu-Jamal's appeal is still pending before the Third Circuit Court. “We do not know when the decision will be made,” Ms. Ritter told the gathering. The legal team's ultimate goal remains a new trial, which has been rejected by many courts, she said.

Ms. Ritter, who has represented the man called the “voice of the people” since 2002, noted Philadelphia's first Black district attorney, Seth Williams, may seek a new penalty trial with a new jury. Ms. Ritter has argued questions over instructions given to the jury before Mr. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to the death penalty in appeals before federal courts in 2007 and 2010.

“It is absolutely an honor to represent Mumia Abu-Jamal,” said Ms. Swarms. “No question the criminal justice system has failed him and that has everything to do with race. That is why the LDF is in this case.”

The activist attorney said the Legal Defense Fund is committed to eliminating racism in the criminal justice system nationally.

“The death penalty is the child of this country, which is a direct descendant of slavery, a violent way of controlling and maintaining slavery,” Attorney Swarms said.

The death sentence became a form of legal lynching by 1930 and 89 percent of those in America sentenced to death for rape between 1930 and 1972 were Black, she noted.

“So you can see that race is the most significant factor in giving the death penalty as a sentence,” Ms. Swarms concluded.

The gathering at Riverside Church received a surprise when Mr. Abu-Jamal called. He thanked everyone for coming out, saying there are so many problems in the country it would seem difficult to get people motivated to deal with his 30-year-old case.

Several people lined up to ask the popular political prisoner questions via telephone. “What has kept your spirit up?” asked one questioner.

“It has been a long, hard struggle. I have been blessed with a loving family. I am inspired when I see people organize against neo-colonial imperialism,” Mr. Abu-Jamal.

Ms. Ross told The Final Call, “The spirit in that room showed the significance of this movement 30 years later. Having the LDF is a major turning point, a lot of lawyers would not touch this case LDF wants to win,” she said.

Pam Africa, the tireless driver of the International Coalition out of Philadelphia, told The Final Call her job is “to agitate and make people stay on the move. The fact of it is we are all on death-row.”

“Support is again growing for Mumia. It's good seeing people come out asking what can collectively be done to free him,” said Ralph Poynter, husband of jailed activist attorney Lynne Stewart. “Lynne says that Mumia is the point person.  His life is on the line now her life is on the line tomorrow,” Mr. Poynter added.

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