PHILADELPHIA — Lawyers for Mumia Abu-Jamal told a federal appeals court here May 17 that Abu-Jamal should get a new trial because prosecutors illegally excluded Blacks from the jury that convicted him in 1982.
Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner. The jury that convicted him was composed of two Blacks and 10 whites.
Attorney Robert R. Bryan told the appeals court that prosecutors had struck 15 potential jurors, 10 of whom were Black. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Christine Swarns said evidence of discrimination was substantial and went beyond the strike rate, such as differences in the kinds of questions asked of Black potential jurors.
The government argued that since the issue of discrimination was never brought up at the original trial, it was not timely now. The three-judge panel suggested that it would be necessary to compare the percentage of Blacks struck from the jury to the racial composition of the jury pool, to determine if there really was discrimination, but Bryan said no such record exits. “We should not have to climb Mount Everest” to establish a case for a new trial, he said. “That’s all I’m asking for. Discrimination was at work in the D.A.’s office during that period.”
A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared that a criminal defendant who can prove that his prosecutor excluded potential jurors on the basis of race is entitled to a new trial. According to the transcript of Abu-Jamal’s trial, any Black potential juror who said that he/she had heard him on the radio was excluded from the jury.
In 2001 a federal judge overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence but upheld his conviction. The government immediately appealed and asked that the death sentence be reinstated. Meanwhile Abu-Jamal remained on death row.
The appeals court heard the arguments May 17 before a packed courtroom, including celebrities and foreign observers. Among them were Dick Gregory, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, a delegation from France and a group of German lawyers.
Outside, a crowd of over 500 held signs and banners demanding freedom or a new trial for Abu-Jamal. Among them was Coli Clark, a longtime civil rights advocate, who came all the way from Albany, N.Y., with a group called Grandmothers for Mumia.
It may take several months before the court makes a decision.