Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest Post-Conviction Relief Act petition will be heard in Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas before Judge Leon Tucker on April 30 in Philadelphia. It is now over a year since the appeal was first heard on April 24, 2017 — Abu-Jamal’s last birthday.
The long and arduous process has seen numerous court hearings. It has witnessed a pattern of repeated and intentional delays by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, including a yearlong failure to fully comply with Tucker’s rulings to turn over all files and memos related to Abu-Jamal’s case.
Demonstrators have repeatedly packed court hearings and filled the streets outside the court and at the DA’s office, demanding they “do the right thing” and comply with Tucker’s orders. Protesters will be out again in full force on April 30.
Supreme Court ruling vs. former Philly DA
Abu-Jamal’s petition seeks to overturn all of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions on his appeals from 1995 to 2008, citing bias and conflict of interest by former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille. During Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial for the alleged murder of a Philadelphia police officer, for which he pleaded innocent, Castille was a senior assistant DA. By 1989, Castille had become Philadelphia’s DA and opposed Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his conviction and death sentence.
Elected to the higher state court in 1994, Castille ruled against every appeal Abu-Jamal brought before him. Most of these appeals were critical of the actions of the DA’s office during Castille’s own tenure. During his campaign for the judicial office, Castille bragged that he had helped sentence 45 men, including Abu-Jamal, to death. He received financial backing from the Fraternal Order of Police, which has led the campaign to kill Abu-Jamal and once honored Castille as “Man of the Year.”
The basis of Abu-Jamal’s current legal challenge is a June 2016 precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court held that “it is a violation of the due process right to an impartial tribunal free of judicial bias if a judge participating in a criminal appeal had ‘a significant personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision’ in a defendant’s case.” (rachelwolkenstein.net)
The Williams case — Terry Williams had been convicted of murder in 1984 — involved Castille, who was serving as Philadelphia DA at the time and approved the prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty. When Williams’ appeal for a stay of his execution reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2012, then Justice Castille denied the request for penalty relief and reinstated the death sentence.
In Abu-Jamal’s case, as in that of Williams, Castille has refused every request asking him to step aside from ruling on post-conviction appeals. The Williams v. Pennsylvania decision appears to validate Abu-Jamal’s right to not have Castille hear his case.
At the initial April 24, 2017, hearing, then Deputy DA Ronald Eisenberg, a Castille protégé, argued that granting Abu-Jamal a new hearing would “be a huge impact” on the higher courts, saying, “At some point you just have to draw the line.” Abu-Jamal’s attorneys challenged this attitude, asking “just how much justice is too much justice?”
Eisenberg resigned last December and Philadelphia’s new and more progressive DA, Larry Krasner, took office this January. At the recent hearings on Abu-Jamal’s appeal, the assistant DAs under Krasner were granted two extensions based on their request for “more time to thoroughly research all files related to capital cases during Castille’s tenure.” A full hearing on this is scheduled for April 30.
The DA’s office has specifically been charged with producing a memo from Castille to former Assistant DA Gayle McLaughlin Barthold, in which he raised 18 capital cases, including Abu-Jamal’s. Judge Tucker has said he would review all cases involving Castille.
A year of international struggles
During this year of intense struggles around the case, numerous protests have been held in Philadelphia, other U.S. cities and globally. An international campaign was launched by the Fanon Foundation in Paris, which gathered hundreds of signers to an open letter to DA Krasner and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf entitled “International Call to Release the District Attorney and Police Files Relevant to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Case and to Free Him Now.” Among the signers are Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, Puerto Rican Nationalist hero Oscar López Rivera and Len McCluskey, general secretary of UNITE, the largest union in Britain.
Philadelphia activists launched a Free Mumia Film Festival running from April 17 to April 30 to foster a deeper understanding of the decadeslong case. The festival will include a celebration of Mumia’s birthday on April 24. See tinyurl.com/y9xlxomn for a full schedule.
While Philadelphia now has a more progressive DA, this is no guarantee of justice for Mumia. It remains to be seen if Krasner’s office will offer the same considerations to Abu-Jamal that it recently granted to Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill.
After making public a list of police officers whom previous DAs had advised prosecutors not to call as witnesses because they were known to lie, the DA’s office at Mill’s hearing on April 16 supported a new trial for the rapper because the officer involved in his arrest was on the list of dishonest cops. In Abu-Jamal’s case, 15 of the 35 police officers involved in collecting evidence in 1981 were subsequently jailed for evidence-tampering.
Krasner has promised to review previous cases involving police corruption. Mumia’s should be at the top of his list! An online petition drive asking Krasner to do the right thing for Mumia can be found at actionnetwork.org/petitions/freemumia.
The courts were never the sole vehicle for winning Mumia’s release from death row. Several decades of mass protests in Philadelphia and around the world won Mumia’s release from death row and then won treatment for his hepatitis C. Along with successful legal actions, a broad international movement made the difference, not just for Abu-Jamal but for other political prisoners too.
This broad, international movement remains as potent as ever. Be out on the streets of Philadelphia for Mumia on April 30!