Critical Year For Mumia

Keep Up The Pressure During Federal Appeals

By: Lee Wengraf

The year 2000 will be the most critical year ever faced by Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Convicted in a sham trial of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, Mumia was sent to death row in 1982. After nearly two decades, Mumia's attorneys now have the opportunity for a hearing in federal district court on crucial evidence that would demonstrate his innocence -- evidence never before heard in any court. But a rejection of this appeal means that Pennsylvania could set an execution date in the coming months.

As early as March 2000, Federal District Judge William Yohn will decide on whether to grant Mumia an evidentiary hearing -- a hearing that would introduce new evidence and possibly compel Yohn to order a new trial or even throw out Mumia's conviction altogether.

Mumia's lawyers have documented 29 violations in Mumia's case -- both violations of his constitutional rights as well as suppression of vital evidence in his original trial.

Among the points are evidence of bias on the part of the prosecutor, who was allowed to claim that Mumia's membership in the Black Panther Party was grounds for sentencing him to death and who removed 11 qualified Black jurors. But the prosecution went further, obstructing Mumia's lawyer's access to witnesses and ballistics evidence that would have presented a compelling argument against the prosecution's case. Key witnesses have come forward and told how they were coerced into testifying against Mumia about events the night of the murder.

The largest obstacle in Mumia's trial, however, was Judge Albert Sabo, "the hanging judge." Sabo has sent more people to death row than any judge on the bench today. A former member of the Fraternal Order of Police, Sabo was responsible for denying Mumia the right to represent himself and for suppressing crucial pieces of evidence from the trial record. Unbelievably, he emerged from retirement to preside over Mumia's state court appeal, where he persisted in denying Mumia's appeal for a new trial. If Yohn doesn't grant Mumia a chance to introduce new evidence in a hearing this spring, the record remains as it was when in Sabo's courtroom.

There's a major roadblock in the way of Yohn ruling in Mumia's favor -- the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, this act imposes significant limitations on the ability of a federal judge to review evidence beyond what was accepted into the record at the state level. Nonetheless, Yohn still has the right to fully review Mumia's case and findings. If he decides to hear any evidence, his final ruling would be handed down in late summer or early fall.

Mumia also faces a racist governor in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Ridge signed a death warrant (now lifted) for Mumia on October 13, 1999. That was one of 179 warrants he has signed. More than 100 have been for Black prisoners -- even though Pennsylvania is only 10 percent Black.

Mumia's case is well known worldwide, and his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, has received more than 15,000 letters addressed to Yohn expressing their support for Mumia. Activism has had an impact in the past. In 1995, with Mumia literally 10 days from execution, thousands took to the streets in Philadelphia and around the world to protest. The execution was stayed.

On February 19, activists will hold a one-day national conference in New York City to draw attention to Mumia's case. Among the several keynote speakers are Pam Africa, Robert Meeropol (the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and Rev. Al Sharpton. There will also be numerous workshops throughout the day. The Campaign is sponsoring three workshops, including a "Live from Death Row" event and meetings on "Racism and the Death Penalty" and "Which Way Forward to Build the Movement for Mumia."

The injustices that run through Mumia's case are only the most well-known examples of the racism and bias faced by all death row inmates. Experts estimate that there could be as many as 4,000 inmates on death row in the U.S. by the end of 2000, and a rapid jump in executions in 2001 as the Effective Death Penalty Act begins to have an impact.

Winning Mumia's freedom means freeing an innocent man and advancing the struggle to abolish the death penalty.