Revolution #162, April 19, 2009

Supreme Court Rejects Mumia Appeal

On April 6, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of death-row inmate and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. There was no ruling in his case, it was simply included in a list of cases that the Supreme Court is refusing to even hear. Ominously, the list of refused cases did not include an appeal by the State of Pennsylvania which is seeking to reinstate Mumia's original death sentence.

This greatly raises the danger that Mumia might face execution.

In 1982, Mumia was found guilty of the murder of a Philadelphia cop after a completely unjust trial. And he has now been in solitary confinement on death row for almost 27 years.

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. He was shot in the chest—and was found sitting on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood. A cop lay on the street nearby, dying from bullet wounds. The police 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.

A growing mass movement prevented Mumia's execution in 1995, but he was still denied justice and remained on death row. By 2000, Mumia's case had become an international issue. 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 unconstitutional jury instructions.

The heart of Mumia's appeal in the federal courts has been the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges to block 10 or 11 African Americans from being on Mumia's jury. The racial stacking of juries in Philadelphia was such a common practice at that time that the District Attorney's office even produced a training film for new assistant DA's on how to do it.

All this was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in its 1986 landmark decision in Batson v. Kentucky. In fact, when now Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, he wrote in a case similar to Mumia's that if even one potential juror is removed from a panel for reasons of race or religion, then that trial's verdict is fatally flawed and must be overturned.

But the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal demonstrates that the political needs of the ruling class consistently trump the niceties of law. Linn Washington Jr., columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune and Temple University professor of journalism wrote: "This Supreme Court decision again underscores the 'Mumia Exception' where courts ignore or radically alter existing precedent to reject granting this inmate the same legal relief given to others raising the same legal points."

Mumia has never backed down in the face of all this. And the system has continued in its determination to crush his unrepentant revolutionary stand. In 2008, the Third Circuit rejected Mumia's appeal by a vote of 2-1. Appellate Judge Thomas Ambro criticized the majority judges, asking why, for this particular petitioner, they were raising the bar for the evidence required to prove racial bias.

The Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton, limits each defendant to one and only one federal appeal. So the failure of the Supreme Court to even hear Mumia's case marks the end of the line for his appeals to the federal courts.

Lower federal courts previously overturned Mumia's death sentence because of unconstitutional instructions to the original jury. But the Supreme Court might still reinstate this death sentence off Pennsylvania's appeal, which is still pending. Even if the high court refuses to reinstate the original death penalty, Pennsylvania still has the option to empanel a new jury and rerun the penalty phase of Mumia's original trial--asking a new jury to choose between life in prison and execution.

This criminal system under which we live has now subjected Mumia to over a quarter century of systematic torture. He is locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day and only allowed to see family and lawyers through a plexiglass window. Outside his cell he is always shackled and chained.

Writing in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker, Professor Atul Gawande of the Harvard Medical School, points out that holding prisoners in long-term solitary confinement is a mechanism of torture. "It wasn't always like this," Prof. Gawande writes. "The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. . . America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons."

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