State makes last-ditch effort to deny Mumia justice

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has a long and openly biased history when it comes to justice for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, having denied all his appeals over the 37-year ordeal to win his freedom. True to form, on Feb. 24, four justices on the state’s highest court granted an extremely rare King’s Bench Petition backed by the Fraternal Order of Police to move jurisdiction over Abu-Jamal’s current appeal away from Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office.

Pam Africa speaks at Philadelphia rally Feb. 28. WW photo: Joe Piette

This ruling, coming just one week before Krasner was due to respond to a request from Abu-Jamal’s attorneys for new hearings before the state’s Superior Court, brings a temporary halt to Mumia’s appeal.

Last November the FOP filed a King’s Bench petition in the name of Maureen Faulkner, who was the spouse of the police officer Abu-Jamal is accused of killing, after a lower court denied her previous request to be a “party of interest” to the case.

The petition, alleging Krasner is biased in favor of Abu-Jamal, asks the court to direct state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, not the Philadelphia DA’s office, to handle upcoming appeals.

King’s Bench used for ‘extraordinary relief’

A throwback to British colonial rule, King’s Bench gives the highest courts extraordinary authority to override the ordinary legal process. It lets the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoint a “special master” — most likely a prosecutor — to investigate whether Krasner’s office has a conflict of interest in handling Abu-Jamal’s appeals.  

This granting of “extraordinary relief” reeks of a cover-up and is all about thwarting justice.   

Last September Abu-Jamal’s attorneys petitioned to send the case back to the Philadelphia Courts of Common Pleas after new evidence in his case had been discovered in December 2018 in hidden file boxes. The subsequent FOP-backed filings came after Krasner accepted Mumia’s request. Krasner was expected to formally approve the petition on March 2.

The Faulkner/FOP King’s Bench petition criticizes Krasner for not being aggressive enough in opposing a ruling by Common Pleas Court Justice Leon Tucker granting Abu-Jamal’s right to new appeals. The police group also claims Krasner was “biased” because he turned over a former prosecutor’s evidence that they felt should have remained buried.

‘Where’s my money?’

Evidence uncovered in the hidden files supports long-held charges by Abu-Jamal’s legal defense of prosecutorial, judicial and police misconduct in this case — including witness coercion, racism in jury selection and withholding evidence favorable to the defense. 

One key piece is a letter to Joe McGill, the prosecutor in Abu-Jamal’s initial hearings, from Robert Chobert, the state’s key witness, asking, “Where is my money?” 

Chobert, a cab driver working with a revoked license, claimed to have seen Abu-Jamal shoot police officer Daniel Faulkner. However, photos belonging to the Philadelphia Bulletin proved that Chobert’s cab was not even at the scene. The King’s Bench Petition actually declares that DA Krasner should have colluded with prosecutor McGill to bury this evidence.

The real conflict of interest

While King’s Bench was not intended for use by an individual or group simply displeased with a government action, it appears that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court continues to make exceptions when it comes to the police. Many justices on this court, including two on the panel that ruled in favor of the petition, receive FOP funding. 

This court’s actions delay Abu-Jamal’s pending appeal, which just happens to involve charges of misconduct by a former member of the same court, retired Justice Ronald Castille. His well-established alliance with the FOP and bias against Abu-Jamal is central to this case. 

In 2016, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared it improper for a prosecutor who had sought the death penalty to later rule, as a judge, against the defendant’s appeal. That decision involved Castille, who was Philadelphia DA during the murder trial of Terrence Williams. Later, as a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, Castille rejected Williams’ appeal.

As Philadelphia DA during Abu-Jamal’s initial hearings for a new trial, Castille sought to expedite the death penalty in the case. While campaigning for the higher court bench, Castille ran as a death penalty advocate with broad support from the FOP. Once on the higher court, Castille refused to recuse himself from all four of Abu-Jamal’s appeals.

Judge Tucker’s granting of Abu-Jamal’s appeals was based, in part, on the Williams ruling. Summarizing his decision, Tucker wrote: “If a judge served as a prosecutor and then the judge, there is a finding of automatic bias and due process violation.”

Whither Krasner?

When Larry Krasner, a progressive defense attorney, ran for DA in 2017, many people of color communities and progressive organizations in Philadelphia had his back. He ran for office on his reputation as a lawyer who would take on the cops and the establishment. 

However, in assuming the functions of Philadelphia district attorney, Krasner became part of the bourgeois state apparatus that functions to maintain systemic racism, classism and repression. Upholding Abu-Jamal’s conviction has been central to the legacy of this office. If Krasner has demonstrated any clear bias in these proceedings, it’s been for the benefit of Castille and the FOP.

Krasner shocked and angered many supporters after the election when he appointed Castille to his transition team. At a Common Pleas Court proceeding in April 2018, in which Krasner’s office argued against Abu-Jamal’s appeal, this reporter witnessed members of the FOP and the Faulkner family thanking Krasner’s community representative for the DA’s handling of the case. 

At several hearings prior to Judge Tucker’s ruling in December 2018, the FOP, retired prosecutors and members of the Faulkner family packed the courtroom in obvious efforts to intimidate the judge. At a final hearing, as it became more evident that the judge might actually consider Abu-Jamal’s attorney’s arguments, Maureen Faulkner threw a tantrum and denounced the court.

Now the FOP and Faulkner want to replace DA Krasner with Attorney General Shapiro, who has established a reputation of bias against prisoners seeking justice.  When Krasner took office in January 2018, he fired several old guard prosecutors, including some who had been part of prior DA’s prosecution of Abu-Jamal.  Many were subsequently hired by Shapiro.

In a 1997 decision, Commonwealth v. Mulholland, the higher court ruled against a King’s Bench petition that sought to replace a prosecutor with one thought to be more favorable. The court called this request “prosecutor shopping.”

The “Hail Mary” efforts by the FOP in this petition reflect their futile efforts to prevent the truth in Abu-Jamal’s case from ever seeing the light of day. Many politicians whose careers were built on their participation in this case stand to lose.

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