By C. Clark Kissinger
Revolutionary Worker #1133, January 6, 2002
On December 18 the breaking news came across the wire services: a federal judge had ruled that Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence was in violation of the law. People active in the fight for justice for Mumia immediately began calling friends and posting the news on the Internet.
This was the first time in 20 years a court had admitted there was anything wrong in the trial that railroaded this revolutionary political prisoner to death row. But a close look at the court ruling reveals sobering realities.
There is the danger that Yohn's ruling could be overturned by the next higher court, the Circuit Court--and Mumia could be put back on the fast track to execution. Philadelphia DA Lynn Abraham immediately gave notice that she would appeal Yohn's ruling to the Circuit Court. And if Yohn's ruling is overturned, Mumia's death sentence would be restored --and the Pennsylvania governor could immediately announce an execution date.
Alternately, Yohn's ruling allows the prosecutors to schedule another sentencing hearing for Mumia. A new sentencing hearing could once again result in the death penalty. This is a very serious threat in today's climate, when the government is flushing the rights of defendants down the toilet and sanctifying the police in a major way. And reactionary voices are loudly demanding the restoration of the death penalty on Mumia.
In a deeply unjust decision, Yohn upheld Mumia's conviction! His ruling on the death sentence focused on a particular point in the sentencing procedure in the original trial which openly went against legal guidelines. But Yohn turned down 20 claims in Mumia's petition for habeas corpus which argue clearly and in detail that Mumia was wrongly convicted. These claims include many instances of misconduct by the trial judge and the prosecution: suppression of evidence, coercion of witnesses, police perjury, forcing a totally ineffective court-appointed lawyer on Mumia, and the refusal of Mumia's right to defend himself or to have assistance from counsel of his choice. Yohn also turned down Mumia's claim that the judge and prosecutor engaged in racist jury selection--although he left open the possibility on this one point for later appeal (more on this later).
Yohn's upholding of the conviction means that if his ruling against the death sentence stands, Mumia would be left with a sentence of life in prison without parole. This would be a totally unjust outcome, one that threatens to completely close the prison door on Mumia. Various organizations and individuals--including Amnesty International, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Refuse & Resist!, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine--have spoken out to call for continuing the fight to win complete justice for Mumia.
Spotlight on Injustice
It has been 20 years since Mumia was convicted for the murder of a Philadelphia cop and sentenced to death--in a trial so outrageous that Amnesty International called it a "travesty of justice." Since then, Mumia has continued to write and speak out from death row against injustice and oppression. And he and his supporters have waged a hard-fought struggle against the government's moves to execute him and silence his voice.
Over the years, Mumia has become the most well-know prisoner on death row USA, and many people around the world have come to learn about his case. The unprecedented news coverage of the December 18 ruling brought Mumia's case to public attention in a new and even broader way.
When the news came down, the reactionaries began to howl. Maureen Faulkner--widow of the cop Mumia is accused of killing and spokesperson for pro-death penalty forces -- called the federal judge "a sick and twisted person." Rich Costello, head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), denounced the ruling as an "abortion of justice." And District Attorney Lynn Abraham said she would appeal the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. These forces are intending to marshal everything they can to put Mumia back on the railroad to the death chamber.
At the same time, there was a sense among the people that a crack had opened in the solid wall of injustice that has kept the revolutionary brother on death row for two decades.
The overturning of Mumia's death sentence was big news across the country, including on the front page of the New York Times. The decision was covered by all the TV networks and was discussed on the Today show the next morning. New York's well-known Black weekly Amsterdam News called the ruling "the first crack in the 20-year case" while warning that the decision might be "a maneuver to dilute the explosive and growing national and international support that hovers over Abu-Jamal."
Internationally, the ruling was covered by BBC and other news organizations. Reuters news agency reported on widespread commentary on the ruling in France, where Mumia was recently made an "honorary citizen" of Paris.
This focus on Mumia's case takes place in America 2002, when major moves toward world domination by the U.S. are being backed by an extraordinary repressive juggernaut at home. Basic rights of the people are being gutted by legislation and presidential order. A "with us or against us" atmosphere threatens dissent. Racial profiling is legitimized in the name of "security measures." Immigrants are being held in indefinite detention, and the president has set up military tribunals by executive order. All in the name of "justice."
In the midst of all this, the overturning of Mumia's death sentence and the heavy news coverage brought this case to many more people -- raising interest and questions about who Mumia is and about the background of the case.
Anyone with a sense of justice would be filled with outrage on hearing that Mumia spent 20 years on death row before a judge finally ruled that he was wrongfully sentenced. And if the death sentence is wrong, then what else is wrong about the case?
For those with eyes to see, what is revealed is a deeply unjust and racist frame-up of a revolutionary Black journalist.
What comes into view is the truth about the many outrages in this case: The police and FBI persecution that dates back to Mumia's teen years, when he was a leader of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. Persecution that continued as Mumia became a radical journalist known among the people as the "voice of the voiceless." The fact that the brutal and corrupt Philly police hated and targeted Mumia for his stand against injustice and police brutality. A farce of a trial where the notorious "hanging judge" Sabo, the DA, and the police colluded in suppression of evidence, threats against witnesses, and other dirty deeds in order to carry out a shameful railroad. A sentencing hearing where the DA's arguments for the death sentence included citing of political statements Mumia made as a young Panther.
The more closely people look into the Mumia case, the more it becomes clear that the system has carried out a profound injustice. As the spotlight shines on Mumia's case now, this truth can be brought home to many more people. At the same time, the possibility that the death sentence on Mumia might be restored or that he may be locked up for life poses great dangers--especially given the current climate of repression and intimidation in this country. This situation makes it all the more important for people to fight through and build the kind of movement that can win complete justice for Mumia.
Judge Yohn's Decision
In his ruling, Yohn ordered the state of Pennsylvania to either vacate the death sentence or to hold a new sentencing hearing within 180 days. Right-wing talk-show hosts and FOP spokesmen claim that Mumia has been spared execution (at least for now) on the basis of a "technicality." In fact, the "technicality" cited by Judge Yohn in throwing out Mumia's death sentence is the right of due process supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Yohn ruled that Judge Sabo had flouted guidelines clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court for a judge's instructions to the jury in the penalty phase of trials such as Mumia's where there is the possibility of a death penalty. In particular, Sabo's jury form--on which the jurors were instructed to record their decision on the sentence on Mumia--made it sound as if the jurors could only consider mitigating factors (factors against imposing a death penalty) that they had agreed on unanimously. But the law does not require unanimous agreement by the jury before mitigating factors can be considered.
So Yohn's ruling was not based on a minor technicality but cited a clear violation of law. At the same time, this ruling was quite narrowly focused. In picking on the point about the jury form, Yohn ignored even more blatant violations that warranted the overturning of Mumia's sentence--such as the prosecution's use of Mumia's political beliefs to argue for the death sentence.
Furthermore, while pointing to one narrow aspect of the sentencing, Yohn rejected all 20 issues raised by Mumia challenging the verdict of guilt itself. One of the outrages of Mumia's long battle in the courts is that the very judge who originally railroaded him--Judge Sabo--also ruled over his 1995 appeal hearing. Sabo threw out all of the new evidence brought out in that hearing--evidence that revealed possible coercion or bribery of prosecution witnesses and evidence showing that Mumia's lawyer in the 1981 trial was poorly prepared and incompetent. (In the appeal hearing, Mumia's original lawyer admitted that these charges were true.)
It would have been basic justice for Yohn to overturn the verdict and call for a new trial. Failing that, Yohn at the very least should have held an evidentiary hearing on the new evidence. But basic justice has never entered into the court's consideration when Mumia is concerned. Yohn put a stamp of approval on a verdict that has been called grossly biased by Amnesty International and others -- a trial in which, according to a commentator for The American Lawyer, Mumia was "framed."
Yohn's court was also Mumia's last remaining chance to introduce new evidence. Yohn not only refused to hear any new evidence but did not even allow oral arguments--despite the emergence of affidavits by Mumia and his brother, describing the events of the night in 1981 when Faulkner was killed. There have been other new affidavits, including by Arnold Beverly, who has stated that he was the one who killed Faulkner, and by a Philadelphia court employee who overheard Sabo, in a conversation about Mumia, vow to "kill that n*gger." (In his ruling Yohn did not specifically address these affidavits, but he had earlier declared that he did not want state court judge Dembe to hold hearings on them.)
The upholding of the conviction means that any further appeals of Mumia's case will be based on a trial record established by Judge Sabo, blessed by the FOP-dominated state supreme court, and now accepted as fact by a federal district judge.
The Next Steps in the Courts
With his death sentence overturned, Mumia should have been returned to the general population in the Pennsylvania prison system. This would allow him to be with other prisoners and to have contact visits with his family and friends for the first time in almost 20 years. But the state of Pennsylvania filed notice of appeal immediately in order to get a stay of Judge Yohn's decision and keep Mumia on death row.
Mumia's lawyers also announced that they would appeal Yohn's outrageous upholding of the Sabo court's guilty verdict of Mumia.
With both sides appealing Yohn's decision, the case will now go to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where it will be heard by a panel of three federal judges. This court will decide whether to uphold or reject Yohn's decision to set aside Mumia's death sentence.
But it is important to understand that there is a legal possibility of overturning Mumia's conviction itself. This is because Yohn left the door open to appeal on one of the basic issues of Mumia's trial: the racially biased selection of the jury. During the jury selection in the original trial, 11 qualified African Americans were removed by peremptory challenges from the prosecution. The jury in Mumia's trial ended up with only one Black person.
As Mumia's case moves to the Circuit Court of Appeals, that court is also taking up the case of Donald Hardcastle, who recently had his conviction overturned on grounds similar to those raised in Mumia's case. In Hardcastle's case, the prosecutor also went out of his way to knock Black people off the jury. Moreover, the prosecutor in the Hardcastle trial was the same as in Mumia's trial, the judge was the same, and the trials took place in the same period.
The fact that Hardcastle's conviction was overturned while Mumia's was upheld shows how little Yohn actually gave in the way of justice and how much more struggle must be built. Philadelphia is a city where a major scandal revealed that the police framed and sent many people to jail on false charges--a city where prosecutors were shown a training video in how to strike down Black jurors. Yohn by all rights should have pointed to the evidence in Mumia's case, noted the sorry racist history of the Philadelphia courts and police, and overturned the verdict. But he did not. This shows, once again, the exceptional treatment afforded Mumia by this system's courts--and the reality that every ounce of justice that people win in this case will only come from struggle.
Further, there is uncertainty at this time as to whether the Circuit Court can overturn the conviction on the basis of upholding any of the other claims in Mumia's habeas petition that Yohn refused. This is because the 1996 AEDPA (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) is still somewhat new and untested.
Mumia and his lawyers are vowing to push ahead and fight to get the whole verdict overturned. And exactly how laws get interpreted by the courts is itself profoundly political and can be affected by the struggle of the people.
Build the Movement for Mumia's Freedom
With the Yohn ruling, Mumia's case has moved to a new, critical phase. And this is taking place in a new context--one of war and unprecedented repression, rife with fascist-style legislation and edicts, suppression of dissent, and super-glorification of the police. The American empire is tramping around the world, bombing and threatening people in the name of "justice." They are calling on people in this country to make great sacrifices to defend the American "way of life" and "civilization."
In important ways, the case of Mumia calls into question what this American "way of life" is really about and reveals some hard truths behind the claims of American "justice." What kind of a system would hound, frame, and threaten to execute someone like Mumia, who has dedicated his life to the people and served as a positive beacon for millions, especially the new generation of youth? It's a system that is deeply rooted in injustice and oppression.
Behind Mumia's story is the whole "Philadelphia story"--which includes the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house that took 11 lives; one of the highest percentages of Black people on death row in the U.S., and a police force that has engaged in systematic corruption and brutality against African Americans.
The 20-year railroad of Mumia points to the profound injustice of death row and the whole prison system in the U.S.--which is filled with people whose only crime is being poor, young, Black, or Latino.
The frame-up of Mumia concentrates the way Black people are routinely mistreated by the police, the courts, the prisons, and the media.
The railroad of Mumia reveals how the U.S. government deals with political opponents--especially revolutionaries whose voices connect with the people at the bottom of society.
And this whole case is vivid proof of why this government and its political police must not be allowed to seize even greater powers to spy on, arrest, detain, and execute people.
The fight for Mumia has shown that the people must struggle to win any justice under this system--and this is all the more true at this moment. Yohn's ruling has brought new attention to Mumia's case. This opening needs to be seized on to build the struggle to stop the government from executing Mumia and to overturn Mumia's conviction so that he may be free. The crack in the case must be forced open wide so that millions more can see the great injustice of the railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Overturn the Conviction!