We Have To Keep Fighting For Mumia

Judge Yohn Allows New Arguments By Mumia's Lawyers

By: Lee Wengraf

Since the spring, supporters of Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal have been anticipating a date when he is to appear in court. Lawyers for Mumia - who was framed for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sent to death row - hope to convince Judge William Yohn to grant a new hearing into evidence of Mumia's innocence as well as violations of his constitutional rights.

In a piece of encouraging news in late spring, Judge Yohn agreed to postpone issuing a date for Mumia's court appearance to give attorneys Leonard Weinglass and Dan Williams the opportunity to file new briefs regarding the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The lawyers submitted a brief in May describing the impact on Mumia's case of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions about the act.

As his court date approaches - whenever that may be - activism around Mumia's case has never been more critical.

Pennsylvania authorities who have worked for close to 20 years to bring Mumia closer to the execution chamber now want to push back this tide of momentum. On July 26, Federal District Judge Bruce Kauffman refused to overturn highly restrictive probation and heavy fines for activists Frances Goldin (Mumia's literary agent), Clark Kissinger and six other defendants arrested at the Liberty Bell demonstration for Mumia in July of last year.

And on August 9, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that Judge Yohn has officially refused to accept any "friend-of-the-court" briefs filed by organizations supporting a new trial for Mumia. Judge Yohn called them "unnecessary and unhelpful." Yet they illustrate the broad support Mumia has. Among the organizations and individuals who wanted to contribute briefs were the Philadelphia NAACP, the Pennsylvania ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the Southern Poverty Law Center and a group of 22 members of the British Parliament.

We must continue to build our emergency response networks and mobilize supporters. We demand a new trial for Mumia now!

"It's important to stay tuned"
We asked one of Mumia's lawyers, Dan Williams, about the case.

When do you expect to be called into court by Judge Yohn?

We don't expect any real action to be taken by Judge Yohn until after Labor Day 2000. In all likelihood, we'll be called into court sometime in October.

What is the impact of the latest Supreme Court rulings on Mumia's case?

On the one hand, the rulings reaffirmed Congress' attempt to clamp down on habeas corpus [appeals for death row prisoners]. The state court must be found to have been "unreasonably wrong." This is a very tough standard.

On the other hand, one of the decisions marked the first time since 1984 that the Supreme Court reversed a death penalty case because of ineffective assistance of counsel. This sets a new standard, so we are very hopeful.

Under a best-case scenario, we would see Yohn allowing us to introduce witnesses on jury selection, ineffective assistance of counsel and what capital defenders should be expected to be trained to do. Also, we would be able to introduce witnesses regarding the nature of Mumia's "confession" [in the hospital the night of the shooting, when he was critically injured by a bullet] and experts on the prosecution's use of Mumia's FBI files [which documented his past membership in the Black Panther Party].

It's unlikely that eyewitness testimony and ballistics evidence would be allowed into a new hearing by Yohn.

How do you see the new criticism of the death penalty impacting on Mumia's case?

Because of the groundswell of opposition to the death penalty, we have a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the power structure in Philadelphia will feel the pressure to reach for that safety latch - to take Mumia off of death row. At the same time, they may feel that they can give him a life sentence without parole - out of the focus of the anti-death penalty movement.

What kind of message would you like to send to Mumia's supporters?

For activists and supporters watching this case, it may seem like this is a lull period. We're concerned that there's a false sense of safety. Judge Yohn could call us into court with a few days' notice - perhaps to undermine any demonstrations that might get organized.

It's important for everyone to stay tuned - stay in contact with what's developing with the case, because it could all happen very fast.