It seems almost too good to be true. On April 15, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced the creation of a new Conviction Review Unit to investigate disputed homicide convictions that have legitimate claims of new evidence and where defendants have declared their innocence.
“The very legitimacy of the criminal-justice system comes when the populace believes that those who … are truly innocent are set free,” said Williams. (phillynews.com, Apr. 17)
This certainly applies to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
For more than three decades, internationally renowned political journalist Abu-Jamal has languished on death row and, more recently, in general population in Pennsylvania prisons because the criminal injustice system has systematically maneuvered to deny him a fair trial or any semblance of justice.
In December 1981, Abu-Jamal, who was driving a taxi, happened upon an altercation between his brother, William Cook, and police officer Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner, who had been shot, fired at Abu-Jamal as he approached. Cook’s companion, Kenneth Freeman, whom many suspect was the shooter of Faulkner, ran from the scene.
Twenty-six pictures were taken at the scene by freelance photographer Pedro Polakoff before police arrived and while they were carrying out their “investigation.” The photos supported Abu-Jamal’s claim of innocence and provided clear evidence that prosecutorial witnesses lied during Abu-Jamal’s trial, but they were never shown to the jury. The jury was never told that Freeman’s driver’s license was found in Faulkner’s pocket.
The case was heard by Judge Albert Sabo, who sent more prisoners to death row than any other judge. Racism was evident throughout the trial, especially in the jury selection process. Former court stenographer Terri Mauer-Carter later testified to hearing Sabo tell another person, “I’m going to help them fry the n——r.”
Denied the right to represent himself, Abu-Jamal was forced to accept the counsel of public defender Anthony Jackson, who was subsequently disbarred. Prosecutor Joseph McGill’s erroneous instructions to the jury were later the basis for Abu-Jamal’s release from death row.
Abu-Jamal’s first level of appeal — a Post Conviction Release Act hearing in 1995 — was heard by the same Judge Sabo, who came out of retirement just for this case.
The ‘Mumia Exception’
Legal court rulings that had allowed other prisoners to be retried or released were reversed when the same legal questions were raised in Abu-Jamal’s case. Journalist Linn Washington Jr. coined the phrase “the Mumia Exception” to describe the practice repeatedly employed by state and federal courts to strip Abu-Jamal of the same legal relief provided to other inmates.
Federal courts continued this practice when in a split 2-1 decision in 2008, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Abu-Jamal’s request for a new trial on the basis of racism in jury selection. In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the Supreme Court had ruled that a prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges could not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race, yet the injustice system did not apply this ruling to Abu-Jamal’s case. In a 41-page dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Ambrose wrote, “The ruling goes against the grain of our prior actions.”
All along, the capitalist courts have maneuvered to deny justice for Abu-Jamal. Evidence of 29 constitutional violations was brought to federal appeals court on Abu-Jamal’s behalf in 1999. In a 2001 ruling that negated the death sentence but denied a new trial, Judge William H. Yohn only ruled on the sentencing phase of the trial, not on the evidence of judicial or prosecutorial misconduct in Abu-Jamal’s original trials.
In April 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Yohn’s decision and denied appeals requested by the district attorney’s office. In December 2011, District Attorney Seth Williams closed the door to further evidence of Abu-Jamal’s innocence being brought before a jury when his office declined to hold a new sentencing phase trial.
In addition to reopening Abu-Jamal’s case, Williams should be investigating the Fraternal Order of Police for evidence tampering, witness intimidation, and coercion and extortion of politicians. One-third of the 35 police officers responsible for gathering evidence and investigating Abu-Jamal’s case were subsequently jailed for extortion and evidence tampering in connection with other cases. Judge Sabo was a life member of the FOP.
Earlier this year, the FOP used its racist campaign against Abu-Jamal to block President Barack Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The FOP cited Adegbile’s defense of Abu-Jamal as grounds for his disqualification, while steamrolling over a defendant’s right to counsel.
Abu-Jamal noted, “What do you call a country where cops decide who will be judges, prosecutors and government officials? We call it a police state.” (prisonradio.org, Mar. 6)
Seth Williams: Stand by your words! Investigate Mumia Abu-Jamal’s legitimate claim of innocence. We challenge you and the political structure, from Philadelphia to Pennsylvania and including the Obama administration, to finally do the right thing.