Revolution#125, April 6, 2008
Federal Appeals Court Continues the Mumia Railroad
Philadelphia, March 27—A divided three-judge panel of the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision on the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. By a vote of 2 to 1, the appeals court let stand Mumia’s original conviction, but upheld a lower court decision that overturned his death sentence because of a misleading jury verdict form.
This decision continues the 27-year railroad of a Black revolutionary writer and activist, framed by the infamous racist court system of Philadelphia. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been held in isolation on Pennsylvania’s death row since his 1982 trial that was a travesty of justice.
This latest development in Mumia’s case is serious and dangerous. Not only has Mumia’s appeal been turned down by a federal appeals court, the state of Pennsylvania could take this as a green light to have another crack at sentencing him to death by correcting the “error” in the original trial.
Shortly before dawn, on December 9, 1981, Mumia was driving his cab on a downtown Philadelphia street. He saw a cop viciously beating his brother, William Cook, with a metal flashlight. Mumia rushed to help his brother, and there was a confrontation. When the smoke cleared, Mumia was on the curb in a pool of his own blood. The cop lay on the street nearby, dying from bullet wounds. Although others were at the scene, the police immediately charged Mumia, who was well known to them as a revolutionary journalist and a former Black Panther, with the murder of the cop.
At his 1982 trial, Mumia was denied the right to serve as his own attorney and was barred from the courtroom for half his trial. The prosecution claimed that Mumia had confessed—a confession that cops only “remembered” months after the incident. Witnesses were coerced into giving false testimony. Key evidence was never seen by the jury. A court reporter overheard the trial judge saying that he was going to help the cops “fry the n****r.” Mumia was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 1995, when a death warrant was signed for Mumia, an international mass movement arose and made his case a major question in society—it became a dividing line and rallying point for many thousands of people, including prominent intellectuals and artists. The European Parliament, Amnesty International, and others called for a new trial. In 2001 a federal district court judge upheld Mumia’s conviction but overturned his death sentence because of the misleading jury verdict form in the original trial. But he was still denied justice—not only kept in prison but on death row.
The principal issue in Mumia’s appeal was the use by prosecutors of “peremptory” challenges to knock Black people off the jury at his original trial. (Each side can knock a certain number of jurors off without giving a reason.) The practice of using peremptory challenges to keep minorities off juries was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. But Philadelphia is infamous for this practice. The District Attorney’s office even produced a training video for new prosecutors on how to do it.
The new appeals court decision throws out Mumia’s appeal on the grounds that he failed to raise the issue of the peremptory challenges at his trial and that there were no valid statistics on the race of the whole jury pool.
But wait a minute! Why didn’t Mumia raise this issue at his trial? Because he was represented by an incompetent court-appointed attorney who begged the court to be dismissed from the case, and because Mumia himself was kicked out of the courtroom for continuing to demand the right to represent himself. Yet in the current appeal, Mumia was not allowed to raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel. So there you have the “Catch 22”: Mumia can’t appeal the racist exclusions because his lawyer didn’t raise the issue at the trial, but Mumia is not allowed to base his appeal on the very failure of counsel that the appeals court is pointing out.
In a spirited dissent from the majority on the court, Judge Thomas L. Ambro stated: “Excluding even a single person from a jury because of race violates the Equal Protection Clause of our Constitution.” He went on to point out that the majority seemed have made up a whole new set of rules just for the Mumia case because this same court had granted new trials in a number of similar cases where the defendants had not raised the issue of racially stacked juries at trial.
The appeals court decision leaves the state of Pennsylvania with the options of convening a new jury to rerun the penalty phase of Mumia’s trial (in which Mumia could again be sentenced to death) or commuting Mumia’s sentence to life in prison. Mumia’s attorney has announced that the decision will be appealed to the full 3rd Circuit—a procedure where all the judges of the circuit court rehear the case as a group to review the decision made by only three judges.
Mumia has held firm through 26 years in solitary confinement and repeated threats of execution. His books, weekly columns, and radio commentaries inspire people across the globe. People everywhere need to continue to demand the freedom of this revolutionary political prisoner.
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