Federal court denies new trial for Mumia

By Elizabeth Schulte

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL suffered a setback in his struggle for justice when the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled March 27 to uphold his murder conviction and refuse him a new trial.

With this ruling, which took place almost a year after the court held hearings on the appeal, the circuit court endorsed a 2001 decision that reversed Mumia's death sentence. But that decision upheld Mumia's conviction for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, a crime for which Mumia has always maintained his innocence.

In 2001, U.S. District Judge William Yohn Jr. threw out the death sentence imposed on Mumia two decades before, ruling that jurors were incorrectly led to believe that they had to agree unanimously on any "mitigating" circumstances in sentencing--factors that might convince them to choose life in prison instead of the death penalty.

The next step for Mumia in court is either a new sentencing hearing, in which the death penalty could be reinstated, or a life in prison sentence.

What you can do

For more details about Mumia's case and how to get involved in the struggle to free him, see the Mumia Abu-Jamal's Freedom Journal Web site. For a complete archive of Mumia's essays, go to Prison Radio Web site.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site contains information on Mumia's fight for justice and on the struggle to stop capital punishment throughout the U.S.

While prosecutors did not win reinstatement of the death sentences, as they wanted, this is bad news for supporters of Mumia, who have been fighting to win his freedom. A protest is planned for April 19 in Philadelphia.

Mumia earned the title "Voice of the Voiceless" for his scathing reports on the criminal justice system and its victims, which includes radio broadcasts of his taped commentary and the books Live from Death Row and All Things Censored.

But a politically connected and determined group has steadily built on its effort to silence Mumia. It includes the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and get-tough-on-crime judges and politicians like Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was district attorney in Philadelphia at the time of Mumia's conviction.

During the original trial, prosecutors used every trick in the book to guarantee a conviction and death sentence for Mumia, including coerced testimony and notoriously racist practices during jury selection.

One witness who originally testified that Mumia had confessed to him later admitted to committing to the crime himself. Meanwhile, prosecutors used 11 of their 15 peremptory challenges to keep African Americans off the jury in a case involving a Black defendant accused of shooting a white police officer.

But this was standard operating procedure for the Philadelphia DA's office, which was taken to task for producing an instructional video in 1987 showing how to keep African Americans out of the jury box. In the end, the jury that convicted Mumia and sentenced him to death was made up of 10 whites and two Blacks.

Then there was the judge who presided over the case, Albert Sabo. He was overheard to say of his role, "Yeah, and I'm going to help 'em fry the nigger."

This racism should be enough to get Mumia a new trial. However, only one of the three justices ruling on March 27, Thomas Ambro, argued that he would have granted a new hearing on the basis of Blacks being excluded from the jury.

As Mumia's lead defense attorney Robert Bryan, said, "I've never seen a case as permeated and riddled with racism as this one. I want a new trial, and I want him free. His conviction was a travesty of justice."

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AS A teenager, Mumia was a member of the Black Panther Party. Later, as a radical journalist, he exposed misconduct on the part of law enforcement in the case of the militant Black separatist organization MOVE. In 1985, 11 MOVE members died after Philadelphia police droped a bomb on the group's residence. Mumia told their story--which made him the target of Philadelphia police and prosecutors.

Since his incarceration, Mumia has continued to speak out against injustice, from the crimes of the U.S. justice system to the atrocities of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. When he faced an execution date in 1995, the campaign to save his life won the support of tens of thousands around the world. Their protests and the solidarity of well-known figures tipped the balance and saved Mumia from the death chamber.

Since then, however, those who would like to see Mumia put to death have organized a campaign of their own. A leading figure in their disinformation campaign is Maureen Faulker, the widow of the slain police officer, who has written a book titled Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain and Injustice. These opponents of justice say they won't stop until Mumia is executed.

Whether prosecutors will seek a new hearing to reinstate the death penalty is unclear. Mumia's lead defense attorney Robert Bryan says his team will appeal the decision to the full circuit court. It can also take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, though neither is obligated to hear the appeal.

Bryan saw the court's reversal of the death sentence and Ambro's dissent as important victories in what he called a "mixed-bag" decision, but longtime Mumia campaigner Pam Africa was more critical of the outcome. She argued in a statement, "While we obviously prefer to have Mumia alive, instead of executed, life in prison without parole is an unacceptable sentence for an innocent man that was convicted with a blatantly unfair trial."

She added, "We know that if Mumia gets justice, it will not come from the courts, but only from the pressure generated by the people."