40 years unjustly incarcerated/ Mumia petitions for new trial

Attorneys for imprisoned journalist and veteran Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal filed a petition Jan. 4 for a Post-Conviction Relief Appeal (PCRA), based on evidence found in six case file boxes they were first able to review in January 2019. The boxes were discovered in a remote storage room in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in late December 2018.

People rally to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia, July 3, 2021.

The uncovered evidence reveals a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of authority, including bribery of the state’s two key witnesses — a violation of Brady v. Maryland, and racist exclusion in jury selection — a violation of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Batson v. Kentucky.

Abu-Jamal was arrested and charged with the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981. The prosecution’s star witness during Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial was taxicab driver Robert Chobert, on probation for arson and driving with a suspended chauffeur’s license.

Chobert claimed he pulled up behind Faulkner’s police car and witnessed the killing. Pictures of the crime scene taken by press photographer Pedro Polakoff, 10 minutes after the shooting, showed an empty space where Chobert alleged he parked his cab.

Coerced state witnesses

Testifying again in Abu-Jamal’s initial 1995 PCRA hearing, Chobert admitted he was offered a deal by the District Attorney to reinstate his suspended license. A key piece of evidence found in the boxes shows he was offered more.

Abu-Jamal was convicted July 3, 1982. In a letter postmarked Aug. 6, 1982, Chobert wrote Joseph McGill, the sole trial prosecutor, stating: “I have been calling you to find out about the money own (sic) to me. So here is a letter finding out about the money.” He wrote, “Do you need me to sign anything? How long will it take to get it?”

The prosecution’s other principal witness was Cynthia White, a sex worker with a record of 38 prior arrests and five open cases pending at the time of the trial. White was the only witness who claimed to have seen all the events and to identify Abu-Jamal as the shooter. However, no other prosecution or defense witnesses reported seeing White at the scene, where she claimed to have been.

At the time of the trial, White was serving a prison sentence in Massachusetts. The prosecutor claimed she had been offered no incentives to testify and no promises were made to her offering leniency in her outstanding cases. However, evidence disclosed for the first time in January 2019 contained memoranda and letters revealing that McGill’s office repeatedly intervened to direct and monitor the outstanding charges against White, whose remaining cases were dismissed for “lack of prosecution.”

Racism in jury selection

The files disclosed in January 2019 contained powerful, new evidence that McGill tracked Black jurors by prominently placing the letter “B” next to their names. McGill had used most of his 20 peremptory challenges to eliminate Black and younger jurists — those most likely to oppose the death penalty.

Abu-Jamal’s attorneys call for the court to vacate his conviction and order a new trial or, in the alternative, provide an opportunity for discovery and schedule an evidentiary hearing based on the evidence disclosed in January 2019.

Justice delayed is justice denied

Abu-Jamal’s current appellate case, first filed in August 2016 and heard in a courtroom April 24, 2017, was based on the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Williams v. Pennsylvania. This case found due process was violated when former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille participated in the consideration of Terrance Williams’ appeal in a capital post-conviction case. 

Progressive attorney Larry Krasner took office January 2018 as Philadelphia’s District Attorney. Many had hoped Krasner would release Abu-Jamal, but he continued to uphold the frameup. 

Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker awarded Abu-Jamal the right to reopen his PCRA appeals Dec. 24, 2018. Four days later, Krasner reported the discovery of the six file boxes. Krasner appealed Tucker’s ruling, later relenting after public criticism. 

Abu-Jamal’s attorneys Judith Ritter and Sam Spital filed four PCRA petitions with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in September 2019. They petitioned to send the case back to Philadelphia Courts of Common Pleas, based on the new evidence discovered in the six file boxes. 

Then on Feb. 24, 2020, four justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted an extremely rare King’s Bench Petition from Faulkner’s widow, backed by the Fraternal Order of Police, to move jurisdiction over Abu-Jamal’s appeals away from Krasner’s office. The FOP criticized Krasner for not being aggressive enough in opposing Tucker.

In a split decision, the state court had denied the FOP petition in December 2020. Krasner finally responded to Abu-Jamal’s PCRA appeals on Feb. 3, 2021, and on March 17 the appeals proceeded to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which denied Abu-Jamal’s case on Oct. 26. Abu-Jamal’s attorneys opted not to appeal the Superior Court ruling and instead filed for an evidentiary hearing with the lower court.

Krasner won reelection in November 2021, despite the FOP’s blatant attempts to unseat him. During his tenure his office has exonerated over 20 people facing life in prison. Most of these cases were similar to Abu-Jamal’s, including police and prosecutors manipulating witnesses and hiding evidence from defense lawyers that would have resulted in not-guilty verdicts.

Abu-Jamal has been unjustly imprisoned for 40 years. His current appeal has been prolonged for five years. Abu-Jamal’s health has declined, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver from untreated Hepatitis C, COVID-19, and diagnosed with congestive heart disease in March 2021 that required open-heart surgery. DA Krasner and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf both have the authority to release Abu-Jamal or grant him a new trial. 

To further delay justice for an innocent man is to deny justice.


WW Photo: Joe Piette

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