Hundreds at Philly Courthouse Demand Justice for Mumia

by C. Clark Kissinger

The largest courtroom of the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals was packed with supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal as a three judge panel heard the latest oral arguments in his case. Outside hundreds more marched and chanted. People from all over the Eastern United States were there, including a whole history class from Hunter College in New York. There were also delegations from France and Germany.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the best known political prisoners in the world. Forces ranging from people of all walks of life to the European Parliament and Amnesty International have protested his unjust conviction. He has spent 27 years in isolation on death row, after being railroaded in a manifestly bogus trial. In 2001, a federal court refused to grant Mumia a new trial, but overturned his death sentence. Mumia has continued to fight his conviction, and the State of Pennsylvania has attempted in court to get the death penalty reinstated. This hearing was an attempt to reinstate Mumia's death penalty.

People were justifiably angry with the latest turn of events. This same federal appeals court had already thrown out the death sentence on Mumia in 2008 because the instructions given to the jury were in violation of well-established federal law. But now the U.S. Supreme Court, off an appeal by the state of Pennsylvania, had ordered the federal appeals court to reconsider their previous decision.

Casting a shadow over Mumia's whole appeal process has been the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (signed into law by Bill Clinton). A big thrust of this law is making it more difficult  for prisoners seeking to overturn illegal state court decisions in the federal courts. Under this law, it is not enough for Mumia to show that his death sentence was obtained through a violation of federal law—he has to show that it was obtained through an "unreasonable application of clearly established federal law." This wording is designed to give state courts "the benefit of the doubt" in pushing through executions.

Mumia was represented at the oral argument by Prof. Judith Ritter of Widener University School of Law. Prof. Ritter had successfully argued the issue of the jury instructions in the earlier 2008 oral arguments. In a carefully reasoned presentation she asked the court to sustain their previous finding that Mumia's death sentence be overturned as the new case cited by the Supreme Court did not apply.

Many at the courtroom were fired up off a film showing and debate the night before. The screening was of an anti-Mumia film called The Barrel of a Gun. The theme of the film is that Mumia, as a young Black Panther, was part of a whole movement dedicated to killing cops. It even speculates that Mumia and his brother had set up an ambush to kill a police officer.

What followed the screening, however, ended up exposing and refuting the arguments of the anti-Mumia forces. They had agreed to a debate on the case. Representing Mumia were attorney Michael Coard and Prof. Johanna Fernandez who recently made the film Justice on Trial. Arguing for Mumia's execution were the current District Attorney in Philadelphia, Seth Williams, and Tigre Hill, who made the film The Barrel of a Gun.

The debate quickly turned into a rout as it became apparent that neither Williams nor Hill was grounded in the basic facts of the case. For example, DA Seth Williams said there were four eye-witnesses to the killing, when in fact only one witness at Mumia's trial ever claimed to have seen the actual shooting.

While progressive legal observers remain hopeful that the Third Circuit panel will hold their ground and resist calls to reverse their previous decision, were that to happen the State of Pennsylvania can still convene a new jury and hold a new sentencing phase for the original conviction, in which Mumia could again be sentenced to death. Ever since Mumia's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his conviction was rejected, the State of Pennsylvania has been on a tear to execute Mumia.

No matter which way the current ruling goes, the losing side will undoubtedly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court again, plus there are still other legal issues concerning Mumia's sentencing that have never been ruled on. This means a considerable road ahead in court, but in a political climate that is much more reactionary than earlier years. A mass movement, reaching far and wide in society and around the world, was a crucial factor in stopping the rulers of this country from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal in the 1980s and '90s. It is ever more important that people must come together behind the demand to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Revolution #217, November 21, 2010