"Your Support and Activism Are Badly Needed"

Mumia Wins an Important Ruling

By: Liliana Segura

In early December, as abolitionists across the country raised the cry in defense of the life of Stan Tookie Williams, an unexpected breakthrough came in the case of the country’s best-known death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

After sluggish progress since his death sentence was thrown out by a federal judge four years back, on December 6, 2005, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear three important appeal claims by Mumia’s defense, a significant though dicey development. Not all of the potential results are good--even a new trial could conceivably land Mumia back on death row--but after years of wavering momentum around his case, this could be more than a legal opening for Mumia. It could be the jumpstart his supporters need to put it back in the spotlight of the fight for abolition.

It’s been almost 25 years since Mumia was arrested for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The details of the case are familiar by now: the bullets that didn’t match the gun; the dubious claim of Mumia’s hospital bed “confession” (which appeared two months after the fact, contradicting the original police report that “the negro male made no comment”); a jury stacked with whites; and, of course, the racism of the trial judge, death penalty enthusiast Judge Albert Sabo, who before banning Mumia from the courtroom during his own trial, was heard to say he was going to help the prosecution “fry the n--gger.”

The whole thing was so outrageous to so many people that the fight for Mumia’s life took on global proportions, gaining at its peak the support of legions of activists, religious leaders and celebrities. Recently, however, the movement for Mumia has sputtered while appeals went forward with new lawyers, sketchy new evidence and plenty of spurious claims by his detractors. The throwing out of the death sentence in 2001 was only a partial victory for Mumia; the judge’s refusal to grant a new trial left him in legal limbo.

Now, the case is set to move again. The three claims the Third Circuit has agreed to hear go to the heart of the racism and misconduct that made Mumia’s trial such a farce. They are: 1) racial bias in jury selection; 2) closing remarks by the prosecution that undermined the jury’s responsibility to base its decision on guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt;” and 3) the racial bias of Judge Sabo, who, incredibly, presided over Mumia’s 1995 appeal. If any of these are upheld, Mumia could be granted a new trial.

The first claim may well be the most important. In 1986, four years after Mumia was sentenced to death, the Supreme Court handed down a historic decision in Batson v. Kentucky that sought to curb the racist abuse of “peremptory challenges”--basically, the ability of either side in a trial to strike potential jurors without stating a reason. Black defendants, the Court declared, were being denied their constitutional rights under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Thurgood Marshall called the decision “a historic step toward eliminating the shameful practice of racial discrimination in the selection of juries.”

By then, of course, Mumia had already been sent to death row by a disproportionately white jury; prosecutor Joseph McGill had used 11 of his 15 peremptory challenges to strike Black jurors from the bench (A subsequent examination of his record showed that McGill had a habit of doing this in capital cases). Now the defense has a chance to call him on it. Unsurprisingly, McGill’s crooked courtroom tactics are behind another of the three appeal claims. In his closing statement, McGill sought to temper jurors’ potential unease at having a man’s life in their hand by advising them that a guilty verdict was not that big a deal.

If they found Mumia guilty, McGill said, “there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever.” This attempt to lighten the burden of jurors was blatant and coercive. The prosecution got away with it then, but it may not now.

Of course, it would be naïve to think these three appeal claims, damning as they are, are enough to win justice. This is still the same system that railroaded Mumia and failed him again and again. As activists, it is important to take this opportunity to reawaken ourselves to the importance of the fight outside the courtroom. We must educate those who are new to the struggle about why Mumia is such an enduring symbol of the injustice of the criminal justice system.

And we must move fast. Currently, the prosecution team, through an appeal of its own, is trying to get Mumia’s death sentence reinstated. As his defense attorney Robert Bryan wrote in an open letter to activists following the Third Circuit Court decision on December 6, “your support, and activism, are badly needed and appreciated.”

The killing of Stan Tookie Williams showed us that we should never underestimate the willingness of the state to silence a powerful voice. Mumia’s voice may be the most powerful one we have.