Justice for Mumia!

We Demand A New Trial Now

Mumia's supporters marched in Philadelphia on October 11.
By: Lucy Herschel and Marlene Martin

The struggle to save Mumia Abu-Jamal is facing a new challenge.

On October 13, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge signed a death warrant for Mumia -- the best known and most outspoken death row prisoner in the country -- for the second time in five years.

Ridge knew full well that Mumia still had the right to federal appeals -- and that his execution would be automatically stayed. But he signed the order anyway, which put Mumia on what Pennsylvania prison officials call "death watch."

For 13 days until the stay came through, Mumia was kept in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day. He was subject to strip searches and denied contact with anyone except his lawyers.

Federal Judge William Yohn finally issued a stay of execution on October 26. But in the weeks that followed the signing of the death warrant, demonstrators leaped into action. Within the days following Ridge's action, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of major cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

Of the 171 death warrants Ridge has signed, 99 percent have come before prisoners exhausted their appeals. This has the effect of forcing defense attorneys to file appeals before they're prepared to -- and to hit them with extra legal work that can distract them from their main focus.

Mumia's lawyers filed their 160-page appeal to the federal court asking for a new trial. The appeal goes through each of the constitutional violations suffered by Mumia since he was wrongly accused of murdering Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Among the key issues are:

  • Police threatened several people with arrest and jail time if they didn't give supposed "eyewitness" testimony against Mumia. Several witnesses have since told the truth and signed affidavits explaining how the cops coerced them.
  • Ballistics experts never matched any of the bullets found in Faulkner's body or at the scene of the killing to the gun belonging to Mumia.
  • In the latest piece of evidence uncovered by Mumia's lawyers, Faulkner apparently was found holding an application for a driver's license belonging to someone other than the people previously thought to have been on the scene.
  • During the trial, Mumia's prosecutors unfairly kept African Americans off the jury.
  • After Mumia was found guilty, Judge Albert Sabo allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence of Mumia's affiliation with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense during sentencing hearings. In a 1990 appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn Mumia's death sentence because of this. Yet 17 months later, the justices overturned the death sentence of a Delaware man because prosecutors told jurors that he was a member of the fascist Aryan Brotherhood.

This first appeal to the federal courts is crucial. Dan Williams, one of Mumia's lawyers, says that "a death-row petitioner has only one meaningful opportunity to have a federal court review his case": in the first round of appeals at the federal district level.

Among other things, Mumia's lawyers are asking federal judges to hold a hearing to review the evidence in Mumia's case. But because of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, federal judges are strictly limited in reevaluating evidence accepted by state courts.

Mumia's lawyer Leonard Weinglass says this restriction "elevates the importance of the trial court's fact-finding, which in our case is very detrimental considering the trial judge was Judge Sabo." In other words, the findings of fact made by Judge Sabo -- the "hanging judge" who railroaded Mumia in the first place -- are given, in Weinglass's words, "increased credibility and the assumption of correctness."

As Weinglass has said in the past, the key to winning this fight will come not in the courts but in the streets. We need to put as much pressure as possible on the courts to grant Mumia a fair trial. The demonstrations that took place in September for Mumia Awareness Week and in mid-October when the death warrant was signed were good first steps. Now we have to broaden the struggle -- to involve as many people as possible in making their voices heard for Mumia.

In addition, Mumia's supporters are planning for regional demonstrations in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago on December 11.

Our movement for Mumia must be built broader and louder if we are going to save the life of Mumia -- and strike a blow against the politics of death in this country.