Worldwide, supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row for 25 years now, are hopeful that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will grant him a new trial on May 17.
The court will hear three claims that Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial and state appeal were tainted by constitutional violations. His lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, will argue, first of all, that the prosecution illegally removed qualified jurors from the case because they were Black. In a city that was nearly 44 percent Black, only two members of the jury were African American.
The second claim is that the prosecutor’s summation was unconstitutional, telling the jurors “not to worry about convicting” because Abu-Jamal would have the right to appeal their verdict.
The third claim is that there was judicial bias on the part of the judge, the late Albert Sabo. Sabo was called the “hanging judge” because he had sentenced more people to death than any other Pennsylvania judge. A court stenographer came forward and testified that before the trial she heard Judge Sabo say, “I’m going to help them fry the n——r.”
But the court will also hear the prosecution’s request that the court reinstate Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. In 2001 a judge upheld his unjust conviction but challenged the sentence of death. Alternatively, the court could rule that Abu-Jamal remain in prison for life without parole.
On the night of Dec. 9, 1981, when Abu-Jamal was sitting in his cab in Center City Philadelphia, he saw his brother, William Cook, staggering in the street. Abu-Jamal ran over to see what had happened. Minutes later police found him and Officer Daniel Faulkner on the ground shot. Faulkner died and Abu-Jamal was arrested, savagely beaten and taken to a hospital in critical condition.
At his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal pleaded innocent, saying he did not kill Faulkner and knew nothing about his murder. Abu-Jamal asked to represent himself at his trial, but Judge Sabo refused and appointed an attorney for him. Abu-Jamal was not allowed to attend most of his trial because he was accused of disrupting the proceedings.
The trial had numerous unlawful aspects — including suppressed evidence, coercion of witnesses, secret meetings of three jury members and failure to test Abu-Jamal’s registered gun or to test his hand for powder residue at the scene of the murder.
In 1995, Arnold Beverly, in prison for another murder, confessed that he and another man were hired to kill Officer Faulkner. The confession was validated by two lie detector tests administered by a prominent polygraph expert. In a 2005 state appeal, Judge Pamela Dembe threw out the confession because it lacked timeliness and dismissed Abu-Jamal’s appeal.
This case is one of the important social justice cases of our time because it is a fight against persecution for political dissent. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner.
As a teenager, he was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. During his trial, this information was presented as evidence of premeditation.
He was president of the Association of Black Journalists at the time of his arrest. He had been news director of a radio station and reported the news on several stations. He reported on police brutality, police corruption and other issues nobody else would touch such as the 1978 police assault on the MOVE organization and the trial that followed. He continues to be a renowned journalist while on death row and has reported on issues from the prison industrial complex to the Iraq war as a prolific correspondent for Prison Radio. His commentary is broadcast on 100 radio stations.
It is no wonder that the Fraternal Order of Police aided by the corporate media has organized a national campaign to prevent Abu-Jamal from receiving a new, fair trial and is working for his execution. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was the district attorney when Abu-Jamal went on trial.
Because of the blatant injustice in this case, a broad “free Mumia Abu-Jamal” movement has developed through the years. Celebrities such as Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon and the late Ossie Davis have spoken out for a new trial. World leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Danielle Mitterand (former first lady of France) and members of the Japanese Diet, British Parliament and European Parliament support his cause. International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal is calling for a massive demonstration outside the federal building in Philadelphia on May 17. Said Danny Glover, “This is a critical moment in the fight for justice, not only for Mumia but also for ourselves.”
Rosita Johnson (phillyrose firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board and lives in Philadelphia.