A new phase in Mumia’s case

Oct. 2019 Judith Ritter (cherri-gregg KCBS)
Judith Ritter, Mumia’s chief attorney, speaks to the press. (Cherri Gregg / KCBS)

By JOHN LESLIE

At a meeting in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, organizers discussed the opening of a new phase in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the noted journalist and political prisoner who was convicted on false charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Last year, in a series of court appearances, Mumia’s lawyers challenged Mumia’s conviction and argued for a new appeals process under the Williams v. Pennsylvania decision.

Terrance Williams had been convicted and sentenced to death for robbery and murder. Ron Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had been the district attorney of Philadelphia when Williams was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. When Williams appealed, his attorneys asked that Justice Castille recuse himself from the case given his previous role as prosecutor. Castille refused. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor who later becomes a judge should recuse himself or herself if asked to hear an appeal in a case they had prosecuted.

Mumia’s attorneys sought to prove Castille’s involvement in his prosecution, since Castille had refused to recuse himself from Mumia’s appeal. They also argued on the basis of bias. On Dec. 27, 2018, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker ruled in favor of Mumia Abu-Jamal, holding that the actions of former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Ronald Castille had demonstrated a “lack of impartiality” and “the appearance of bias.”

Attorney Judith Ritter explained to the Sept. 28 meeting that this was based on the discovery of a 1990 letter from DA Castille to Governor Bob Casey urging him to sign death warrants for death row inmates “to send a clear and dramatic message to all police killers that the death penalty in Pennsylvania actually means something.”

Initially, the current Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner, had indicated that he planned to appeal Tucker’s decision. Krasner reversed course on April 17, withdrawing his appeal. This represents a major victory in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

What was in the boxes?

On Dec. 28, 2018, employees of the district attorney’s office announced that while searching for office furniture they had found six previously “unknown” boxes labeled with Mumia’s name. Activists immediately questioned the circumstances under which these boxes were “misplaced,” In these boxes, Mumia’s attorney, Judith Ritter, discovered new information that points to prosecutorial misconduct in Mumia’s original trial.

For example, the notes of prosecutor Joe McGill from 1982 indicate the race of potential jurors in Mumia’s case, a potential violation of the Batson decision, which states that a juror may not be dismissed through a prosecutor’s peremptory challenge on the basis of race and that the prosecutor must provide a valid reason for doing so.

With the agreement of Judge Sabo, the DA’s office failed to notify the defense that a supposed eyewitness, Robert Chobert, a cab driver, had a suspended driver’s license and at the time of the trial was on probation for an arson-for-hire crime in which he threw a Molotov cocktail at a school. Also in the newly-discovered information was the fact that Chobert had written a letter to McGill demanding to know, “Where’s my money?” During the 1995 appeal, it was revealed that Chobert believed that the DA’s office would help him get his license back.

Another witness, Cynthia White, had pending prosecutions for prostitution and was brought to testify against Mumia from jail in Massachusetts. Prosecutors offered to help White out with her cases in exchange for her testimony. Defense lawyers were not notified. In a memo from after Mumia’s trial, assistant DAs were told to “talk to Joe McGill” before proceeding with charges against White. It’s unusual that a homicide prosecutor would take an interest in minor cases.

Another recent development is that Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Officer Faulkner has filed a motion pro se alleging that District Attorney Krasner and others in his offices have conflicts of interest in Mumia’s case and asking that the case be taken from the jurisdiction of the DA and placed under the aegis of the state attorney general, who has been hiring former ADAs fired by Krasner.

The frame-up and mass struggle 

Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was convicted of the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner in a frame-up trial featuring unreliable witnesses and little physical evidence. The district attorney’s office used Mumia’s former membership in the BPP to argue for the death penalty. At the time of the trial, Judge Albert Sabo, also a member of the FOP, was overheard by a white court stenographer, saying that he was going to “help them [prosecutors] fry that n****r.”

The Philadelphia DA’s office is well known for biased prosecutions and suppression of evidence in both death penalty and other cases. The DA’s office was exposed for a 1986 training video that taught assistant DAs how to keep Blacks off juries. In Mumia’s case, crime scene photos taken by photojournalist Pedro Polokoff showed cops holding guns taken in evidence with their bare hands, and showed the hat of deceased Officer Daniel Faulkner placed on top of Mumia’s brother Billy Cook’s VW, though it appears on the sidewalk in the official police photos. The ballistics evidence was questionable. The Polokoff photos also don’t show the cab allegedly driven by Chobert at the scene.

An international mass movement grew in response to Mumia’s case. The movement’s steadfast determination to save Mumia’s life helped win a reversal of the death sentence, which was commuted to a life sentence.

Mumia’s health problems in prison

Although Mumia’s death sentence was overturned, he was later struck by a series of potentially life-threatening illnesses. It became clear that the Department of Corrections was neglecting symptoms of diabetes. He experienced chronic fatigue, painful itching, and eczema, which worsened when doctors prescribed a topical ointment. In 2015, Mumia was hospitalized for diabetes and in the same year initiated legal action to receive treatment for Hepatitis C. It took a two-year struggle to get life-saving medication for Mumia‘s Hepatitis C.

More recently, Mumia’s supporters have successfully fought to make sure that he received cataract surgery to stave off the threat of blindness. The left eye was successfully corrected on Aug. 29, and the next surgery is to be this month. At every turn, Mumia and his supporters have struggled to make sure that he received proper treatment in the face of death by medical neglect.

The success of the next phase of the legal case depends on our ability to build a mass mobilization of all supporters of human rights and justice around the demand, Free Mumia! It wasn’t legal arguments alone that beat back the threat of execution. Working people and the oppressed can’t rely on the courts, cops and capitalist politicians to protect us. Now is the time to intensify the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

On Oct. 4, a march for Mumia and all victims of police  violence took place in Philadelphia. Activists assembled at the statue to former mayor Frank Rizzo, notorious for his racist and brutal methods when he was chief of police, and marched to the Locust St. site where Mumia was wounded in 1981 and arrested for allegedly killing Officer Faulkner.

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