An opening to win justice for Mumia

January 4, 2019

brian bean reports on a new ruling that opens the door to an appeal in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal — and the role that Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner might play.

IN LATE December, a Philadelphia judge’s ruling created new hope in the long fight to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Mumia — a former Black Panther and radical journalist — has now served over three-and-a-half decades for a crime he did not commit. For 29 years of that time, he was on Pennsylvania’s death row, until prosecutors finally dropped their demand for the death penalty in 2011.

This was the result of a politically motivated attack spearheaded by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Mumia has been confined to solitary confinement for long spans of his time in prison and currently faces life with no possibility of parole.

The December decision by U.S. District Court Judge Leon Tucker overturned as unconstitutional a previous 2012 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that blocked Mumia’s attempt to appeal his case. Now, the possibility of a new appeal is an opportunity to rebuild the long fight for justice for Mumia.

Anti-racist activists rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia
Anti-racist activists rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia (Joe Piette | flickr)

In that struggle, much focus will be on new Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Krasner — who was voted into office last year as a reformer with progressive activist credentials and grassroots support — will face intense pressure from police and other forces to challenge Judge Tucker’s ruling allowing Mumia to proceed with an appeal.

This will test the limits of progressive change that district attorneys like Krasner can affect, and it presents a test of Krasner himself. The consequences for Mumia loom large, and mounting a renewed public campaign for Mumia’s freedom will be critical.

THE EGREGIOUS miscarriage of justice that resulted in Mumia’s initial false conviction for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner has been well-documented by the ACLU and other organizations.

Material evidence in the case was flimsy, and ballistic evidence was either untested, tainted by police mishandling of evidence or flat-out impossible — the bullets found to have killed Faulkner didn’t match the caliber of the alleged murder weapon, for example.

Eyewitness testimony was scant, contradictory and confusing, with glaring inconsistencies in the accounts of what took place. After the trial, multiple witnesses came forward to testify — despite the threat of perjury charges — that they were pressured, threatened or coerced by police to lie.

The idea that police would manufacture a case against Mumia in order to falsely pin the murder on him isn’t a fantastic allegation. Officer Tom Ryan, who has been named specifically as one of the officers responsible for framing Mumia, actually went to prison with five other cops in 1996 for other incidents of planting evidence and making false reports — the very thing he and others are alleged to have done in Mumia’s case.

In multiple instances, the police campaign against Mumia — who had become a thorn in the side of police and city officials by documenting police misconduct and covering the city’s repression against the MOVE activist group — was aided by the courts and various judges involved.

During his initial trial, presided over by Judge Albert Sabo, numerous improper and unconstitutional legal maneuvers were used against Mumia, who was denied the right to appoint his own counsel, refused funds to mount an appropriate defense and forced to have an attorney to whom he objected.

The racist jury selection process resulted in an overwhelmingly white jury in Philadelphia, where some 40 percent of the population was Black. Due to Judge Sabo’s rulings, Mumia was essentially tried in absentia.

Sabo, a former sheriff and a member of the FOP, was overheard by the court stenographer stating that he was going to “help fry this nigger.”

During the sentencing, purposefully confusing instructions were given to the jury and statements about Mumia’s past were inappropriately introduced to obtain the death penalty. This was admitted by the courts when an appeal in 2011 vacated the death sentence because of these errors.

MUMIA WAS well-known at the time of the murder as a former Black Panther Party spokesperson, an activist and journalist, and a vocal critic of the openly racist police force then run by Frank Rizzo, who was known as “super cop.”

Mumia was a supporter and sympathizer with Philadelphia’s MOVE organization, which faced immense repression for their vocal criticism of Philly police terror. Multiple MOVE members were imprisoned, and their commune was raided by heavily armed police multiple times.

In 1985, police dropped an incendiary bomb on the MOVE house, and the city’s African American Mayor Wilson Goode infamously decided to let the house — and the surrounding neighborhood — burn to the ground. Eleven people were killed, including five children.

If the leaders of Philadelphia were willing to drop ordnance designed for use in war on a residential neighborhood, it is more than conceivable that they would frame a vocal critic of police and city officials.

And behind it all is the thoroughly racist FOP, which has led an unrelenting campaign to see Mumia executed, or at least jailed for the rest of his life. The FOP, which claims to be a police “union,” is a reactionary cabal that is the toxic distillation of the racism endemic to the police and the courts.

Though Mumia has spent decades in prison, the movement to stop his execution and win his freedom — which spread internationally and garnered attention from prominent politicians and human rights advocates — has kept the fight alive and made sure his plight hasn’t faded into anonymity like so many other political prisoners walled up inside American prisons.

Mumia himself has been an outspoken voice for justice, speaking and writing from death row and prison about his own case, as well as the racist institution of the police, mass incarceration and the capitalist system.

The rushed nature of the initial trial has meant that exposing the flaws and frame-up that took place has had to proceed through the appeals process — but that process has been stymied as well. What seemed like Mumia’s last chance at appeal was blocked in 2012.

But the recent ruling reopened this potential path by determining that one of the judges in the 2012 decision — Judge Ronald Castille — should have recused himself from the decision to block appeal because he himself had been an assistant district attorney who helped to convict Mumia.

It is shocking that until this ruling, judges like Castille were allowed to hear and decide appeals on cases in which they were involved. This isn’t an “oversight,” but a mechanism to ensure that false convictions are maintained and the the legitimacy of the courts protected.

Additionally, Castille’s connection to the FOP is blatant. In 1986, he was the “man of the year” of Lodge Number 5 of the Philadelphia FOP, and the FOP has given the avid pro-death penalty Castille — who campaigned on keeping Mumia in jail — much vocal support.

THE NEW ruling opens the way for Mumia to receive a new appeal — and also raises the question of how DA Larry Krasner will respond.

Krasner’s work in the District Attorney’s office has been contradictory. He has carried out an impressive array of reforms, with a variety of policy changes and memo instructions to prosecutors that have resulted in a decline in the jail population and a reduction in use of the cash bail, which often keeps the economically vulnerable behind bars for minor infractions. Krasner also has pledged to investigate wrongful convictions with his Conviction Integrity Unit.

But the Mumia case — especially because of the investment in it by the FOP — will profoundly test the limits of Krasner’s reformism.

Even before the recent ruling, Krasner stated that he opposes Mumia’s petition for a new trial, and he even appointed Castille as part of his “transition team — the very person who was the assistant DA at the time of Mumia’s conviction, who fought to uphold the death penalty when he was lead DA, and who blocked appeals in his role as a judge.

The fact that Krasner would include Castille on his team — a sign of support for the actions of a key individual responsible for keeping Mumia behind bars — is damning. Even with his movement credentials and his election mandate as a reformer against mass incarceration, Krasner is facing the contradictions of his job as the city’s lead prosecutor.

Krasner has yet to comment on how he will respond to the new ruling or the possibility of a new appeal from Mumia. Now is the time to hold Krasner’s feet to the fire and renew the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Putting activist pressure on Krasner and the Philadelphia courts by many different means will be essential in building a movement capable of tearing down the bars that have imprisoned Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners for far too long.

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