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Citing withheld evidence

Mumia Abu-Jamal supporters call for civil rights investigation

Published Jul 8, 2009 5:48 PM

On April 6, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal from death-row journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner at a 1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/ 001/2000), the EuropeanParliament, the Japanese Diet, Nelson Mandela, and numerous others.

Abu-Jamal had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the U.S. Third Circuit Court ruling of March 27, 2008, which rejected his bid, based on three issues, for a new guilt-phase trial.

One issue was that of racially discriminatory jury selection, based on the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, on which the three-judge panel split 2-1, with Judge Thomas Ambro dissenting. Ambro argued that prosecutor Joseph McGill’s use of 10 out of his 15 peremptory strikes to remove otherwise acceptable African-American jurors was itself enough evidence of racial discrimination to grant Abu-Jamal a preliminary hearing that could have led to a new trial.

In denying Abu-Jamal this preliminary hearing, Ambro argued that the Court was creating new rules that were being exclusively applied to Abu-Jamal’s case. The denial “goes against the grain of our prior actions. ... I see no reason why we should not afford Abu-Jamal the courtesy of our precedents,” wrote Ambro.

Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal are responding to the April 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling by launching a campaign (freemumia.com/civilrights.html) calling for a federal civil rights investigation into Abu-Jamal’s case. The campaign’s supporters include the Riverside Church’s Prison Ministry [New York City], actress Ruby Dee, Professor Cornel West and U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, who is Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

In 2004, the NAACP passed a resolution supporting a new trial for Abu-Jamal, and campaign supporters will be gathering to publicize the civil rights campaign at the upcoming NAACP National Convention in New York City, July 11-16, and to pressure the NAACP to honor their earlier resolutions by actively supporting the current campaign seeking an investigation.

Supporters will then be in Washington, D.C., on July 22 to lobby their elected officials, and in mid-September, they’ll return to Washington, D.C., for a major press conference.

Thousands of signatures have been collected for a public letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which reads: “Inasmuch as there is no other court to which Abu-Jamal can appeal for justice, we turn to you for remedy of a 27-year history of gross violations of U.S. constitutional law and international standards of justice.”

The letter cites Holder’s recent investigation into the case of former Senator Ted Stevens, which led to all charges against him being dropped: “You were specifically outraged by the fact that the prosecution withheld information critical to the defense’s argument for acquittal, a violation clearly committed by the prosecution in Abu-Jamal’s case. Mumia Abu-Jamal, though not a U.S. Senator of great wealth and power, is a Black man revered around the world for his courage, clarity, and commitment, and deserves no less than Senator Stevens.”

Several campaigns seeking a civil right investigation into the Abu-Jamal case have been launched since 1995, at which time the Congressional Black Caucus was one of many groups that publicly supported an investigation. In a 1995 letter written independently of the CBC, Representatives Chaka Fattah, Ron Dellums, Cynthia McKinney, Maxine Waters and John Conyers (now Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) stated, “There is ample evidence that Mr. Abu-Jamal’s constitutional rights were violated, that he did not receive a fair trial, and that he is, in fact, innocent.”

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fois rejected the CBC’s request, yet in a September 1995 letter written to Congressman Ron Dellums conceded that even though there is a five-year statute of limitations for a civil rights investigation, the statute does not apply if “there is significant evidence of an ongoing conspiracy.”

One of the 2009 campaign’s organizers is Dr. Suzanne Ross, a spokesperson for the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition of New York City (www.freemumia.com). Citing Fois’ letter, Ross argues that the “continued denial of justice to Mumia in the federal courts, as documented by dissenting Judge Thomas Ambro,” is evidence of an “ongoing conspiracy” and thus merits an investigation.

[Ross continued:] “Throughout the history of this case, we were always told, ‘Wait until we get to the federal courts. They will surely overturn the racism and gross misconduct of Judge Sabo,’ but we never got even a preliminary hearing on the issue considered most winnable: racial bias in jury selection, the so-called Batson issue.”

Ross also criticizes the Third Circuit’s denial of Abu-Jamal’s claim that Judge Sabo was unfair at the 1995-97 PCRA [Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act] hearings and considers this denial to be further evidence of an “ongoing conspiracy.” Ross argues that the courts’ continued affirmation of Sabo’s rulings during the PCRA hearings, and Sabo’s ultimate ruling that nothing presented at the PCRA hearings was significant enough to merit a new trial, serves to legitimize numerous injustices throughout Abu-Jamal’s case.

Specifically referring to the issue of withheld evidence, which was central to the case of former Senator Ted Stevens, Ross identifies five key instances in Abu-Jamal’s case where “evidence was withheld that could have led to Mumia’s acquittal.” The DA’s office withheld two items from Abu-Jamal’s defense: the actual location of the driver’s license application found in Officer Faulkner’s pocket and Pedro Polakoff’s crime scene photos.

At the request of prosecutor McGill, Judge Sabo ruled to block three items from the jury: prosecution eyewitness Robert Chobert’s probation status and criminal history; testimony from defense eyewitness Veronica Jones about police attempts to solicit false testimony; and testimony from police officer Gary Waskshul that contradicted other prosecution witnesses.

“The urgent need for a civil rights investigation is heightened because the DA is still trying to execute Mumia,” emphasized Ross, an organizer of the campaign seeking an investigation. This past April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Abu-Jamal’s appeal for a new guilt-phase trial, but the Court has yet to rule on whether to hear the appeal made simultaneously by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, which seeks to execute Abu-Jamal without granting him a new penalty-phase trial.

For more information on how you can support the campaign for a federal civil rights investigation, and to sign the online letter and petition to Attorney General Holder, please visit freemumia.com/civilrights.html or www.iacenter.org/mumiapetition/.

Excerpted from an article that appeared in the SF Bay View Newspaper on June 16 at www.sfbayview.com.

Bennett is a founder of Journalists for Mumia.