Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS-US: Court Rules No Death Row for Mumia Abu Jamal

Adrianne Appel

BOSTON, Mar 27 2008 (IPS) - A federal court has ruled that Mumia Abu Jamal, known the world over in the fight against the death penalty, be taken off death row for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.

Mumia Abu Jamal Credit:

Mumia Abu Jamal Credit:

The three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia, said Abu Jamal should be given life without parole, or a new trial about whether he should be on death row.

The panel ruled that Abu Jamal’s death row conviction is not valid because it appears that the 1982 jury, whose job it was to sentence Abu Jamal, may not have understood important aspects of the sentencing as it relates to death row. The judge in the 1982 trial gave the jury confusing information, the panel concluded. Its decision overturns that of a lower court, and may be appealed by the prosecution.

However, the judges, with one strongly dissenting in Abu Jamal’s favour, turned down his request for an entirely new trial to prove innocence or guilt in the crime, finding that Abu Jamal’s complaint about racial bias in jury selection was not filed in a timely fashion. Such bias is considered unconstitutional.

Historically, white jurors are more likely to give the death penalty, so excluding black jurors is also a method to push someone on trial toward death row.

Abu Jamal will appeal the court’s decision and seek a re-hearing, his lawyer said.

“We are grateful, but the decision does not go far enough,” Robert R. Bryan, Abu Jamal’s lead lawyer, told IPS. Abu Jamal is innocent, he said. “This is not a victory, not from my viewpoint.”

Bryan said Abu Jamal’s original trial was tainted by unfairness and fraud, and that his client deserves a fair hearing.

“This case was just reeking with racism. I want a new jury trial. I want him acquitted so he can go home to his family,” Bryan said.

Protests of any unfavourable court decision have been planned for months by Abu Jamal supporters in U.S. cities and around the world, and are expected to be held on Friday. Another large protest is planned for Apr. 26 in Philadelphia.

As many as 10 African American potential jurors may have been excluded during the original trial, said attorney Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defence and Education Fund, and a member of Abu Jamal’s legal team.

In an earlier interview with IPS, Abu Jamal was circumspect about the possibility that the appeals court panel would grant him a new trial.

“We’re certainly working toward that end and I’m certainly hopeful. But I’m not in the prediction game,” he said.

Abu Jamal was working as a journalist in Philadelphia and reporting about police corruption and racism, when he was charged with the murder of Faulkner, a white policeman. He was convicted at a time when the city, still the poorest big city in the U.S., was convulsing with racial tension, and evidence of gross police brutality. Abu Jamal was sentenced by an almost all-white jury on circumstantial, rather than forensic evidence.

“The true facts of this case have never come out,” Bryan has said.

Abu Jamal said of his days as a reporter in Philadelphia: “It wasn’t popular to certain segments of the local community. To be perfectly honest it wasn’t terribly popular with many of my bosses. I was criticised constantly for some of the work I did. It may have been excellent and good quality work but it stepped on toes,” Abu Jamal told IPS.

“Because I had come from the Black Panther party I still knew people around the country so I would do stories not just dealing with that but a wide range of political and related stories. I believed it was my duty and my job to do those stories so I tried to do the job as well as I could. I’m sure it got me into a whole lot of hot water,” he told IPS.

Today, Abu Jamal produces broadcasts and writes books from prison and 23-hour-a-day isolation.

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police, which wields considerable power in Pennsylvania, has lobbied continuously for Abu Jamal’s execution. Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain policeman, also has maintained a bitter fight for Abu Jamal’s death. She recently co-wrote a book with right-wing talk show host Michael Smerconish, in which she argues for Abu Jamal’s execution.

The federal appeals judge panel has been deliberating since May 17, 2007.

The federal judge who dissented, Thomas Ambro, said Abu Jamal deserves a hearing about whether black jurors were excluded from the original jury, even if Abu Jamal’s original complaint was not filed in timely fashion.

“Excluding even a single person from a jury because of race violates the Equal Protection Clause of our Constitution,” Ambro wrote in the 118-page decision.

And it could be argued that Abu Jamal had indeed objected in a timely fashion because he attempted to survey his potential jurors about any possible bias, and his lawyer raised the issue, Ambro says.

Ambro quotes the Mar. 18, 1982 trial transcript to prove his point. According to the transcript, Abu Jamal’s lawyer spoke before the judge and raised his concern that black jurors may be excluded, as he had seen happen in other cases: “It has been the custom and the tradition of the District Attorney’s Office to strike each and every black juror that comes up peremptorily. It has been my experience since I have been practicing law, as well as the experience of the defence bar… that that occurs.”

“I am not saying, Your Honor, that that questionnaire or any other procedure that Your Honour might approve would in fact ensure any black representation on the jury. What I am saying is that even if it’s an all-white jury, Your Honour, I want to be certain that it’s a fair and impartial jury,” the lawyer said.

In the end, all but one black juror was removed on the panel that sentenced Abu Jamal to death row.

The strong dissent is enough to seek a re-hearing before the full court, Bryan said.

“It is a guide, a light in the darkness,” Bryan said.

Bryan said timeliness of the objection is not a good reason for the court to turn down his client’s appeal. It was a big mistake made by Abu Jamal’s previous lawyers, Bryan said. Bryan took over the case five years ago.

“The case had not been handled well. It was a disaster. It’s in pieces. It’s like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.

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