A ruling issued Dec. 27 by Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker has opened the door for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to appeal his 1982 conviction in a Philadelphia police officer’s death.
On Dec. 28, less than 24 hours after Tucker issued the decision, dozens of Abu-Jamal supporters rallied outside Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office demanding that he let the ruling stand that allows Abu-Jamal to seek long-denied legal relief. Rally participants ended their protest by blocking rush hour traffic around City Hall.
In his decision Tucker ruled for Abu-Jamal, saying that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself — stepped down — from hearing Abu-Jamal’s state appeals. Tucker claimed that Castille made the wrong decision, noting that even the appearance of being biased can damage the credibility of the judicial system.
Tucker cited statements Castille made as Philadelphia district attorney that suggested potential bias. He referenced Castille’s public claims of being a “law and order” prosecutor, who was responsible for putting 45 men on death row; his support for the Fraternal Order of Police; and new evidence of Castille singling out men convicted as “police killers.”
Evidence included Castille’s campaign speeches and letters advocating the issuance of death warrants — allowing executions — in cases like Mumia’s. In his 37-page decision Tucker wrote: “The claim of bias, prejudice and refusal of former Justice Castille to recuse himself is worthy of consideration as true justice must be completely just without even a hint of partiality, lack of integrity or impropriety.”
Tucker’s decision was split. He did conclude that the U.S. Supreme Court 2016 decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania did not fully apply since Castille, as Philadelphia district attorney, had not played a significant personal role in Abu-Jamal’s case before later denying his appeals as a PA judge.
However, summarizing the Williams ruling, Tucker wrote: “If a judge served as a prosecutor and then the judge, there is a finding of automatic bias and due process violation.” Defense lawyer Judith Ritter said Tucker recognized the “need for a new appeal untainted by this bias.” His decision presents a major break in the long legal struggle to free Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence
For more than three decades, internationally renowned political journalist and activist Abu-Jamal languished on death row and, more recently in general population (slow death row), because the Pennsylvania 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 Faulkner’s shooter, ran from the scene.
Freelance photographer Pedro Polakoff took 26 pictures of the scene that supported Abu-Jamal’s claim of innocence. The pictures provided clear evidence of police tampering with evidence and showed that prosecutorial witnesses lied during Abu-Jamal’s trial. The photos Polakoff provided to police and prosecutors were never shown to the jury.
The jury was also never told that Freeman’s driver’s license was found in Faulkner’s pocket. Polakoff reported interviewing witnesses who saw the shooter running from the scene before the police arrived.
The original case was heard by Judge Albert Sabo, who has sent more Pennsylvania prisoners to death row than any other judge. There is no doubt that Abu-Jamal’s trial was racially biased: The prosecution excluded African Americans from the jury, and during the trial Judge Albert Sabo declared, “I’m gonna 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, a lifetime member of the FOP, who came out of retirement just for this case. (Many articles on the history of this case can be found at workers.org.) Because of his Black Panther Party membership, his support of the MOVE organization and his work as a radical journalist, his trial and sentencing were politically motivated. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence in the shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal’s appeals restored; watershed moment for Krasner
Judge Tucker’s ruling means that Abu-Jamal’s right to appeals stemming from his 1982 conviction are restored and must be reheard in the Pennsylvania appeals court. His appeals were on the grounds that he was framed by the police, that the prosecution manufactured evidence of guilt and suppressed proof of his innocence, as well as other due process trial rights.
Abu-Jamal has 30 days from Tucker’s ruling to file a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on the grounds of the appearance of bias and impropriety.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has said he is reviewing Tucker’s decision and has not yet decided whether to challenge it.
Krasner, a former progressive defense attorney, ran for the DA’s office in 2017 on a platform that included working “for justice and not just convictions,” reviewing past convictions and freeing the wrongfully convicted. In Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal’s frame-up stands out as the city’s most notorious wrongful conviction.
Since taking office in January 2018, Krasner has introduced some limited reforms and his liberal reputation has brought national recognition. However in assuming the functions of Philadelphia district attorney, Krasner is now part of a bourgeois state apparatus which functions to maintain systemic racism, classism and repression. Upholding Abu-Jamal’s conviction has been central to the legacy of the office.
What Krasner ultimately decides to do about this case will be a watershed moment in his tenure.
To date his office has chosen to side with the Fraternal Order of Police in opposing Abu-Jamal’s appeals. The Faulkner family and the FOP have already stated they plan to plead with Krasner to oppose Tucker’s ruling. Krasner’s office has repeatedly rebuffed requests from Abu-Jamal supporters to meet with him.
Abu-Jamal’s brother, Keith Cook, praised everyone “who has come out in protests, stood in the snow, in the rain, written letters, sent postcards, filled courtrooms and more, for being part of the first break Mumia has had in years. We have to take this all the way … to stay on Krasner’s ass as much as we can.”
Pam Africa, of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, announced: “The people’s movement is responsible for this victory. A new appeal opens the door to Mumia’s freedom. After 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the charges should be dismissed and he should be freed.”
The next demonstration calling on Krasner not to appeal Tucker’s decision is scheduled outside of Krasner’s office at 3 South Penn Square, across from City Hall, on Saturday, Jan. 5, at noon. For more information visit mobilization4Mumia.com.