March 2020 Mumia rally
Mumia’s supporters rallied in Philadelphia on Feb. 28. (John Leslie / Socialist Resurgence)

By JOHN LESLIE

“They have struck a match with a fire that they can’t put out.

PHILADELPHIA — The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and its allies have launched a new attack on Mumia Abu-Jamal and democratic rights. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted a petition of Maureen Faulkner Popovich, the widow of Officer Daniel Faulkner, asking for a “King’s Bench” intervention in Mumia’s case. This action cuts across all activity in Mumia’s court case by appointing a Special Master to oversee an investigation into “obvious conflicts of interest” in District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office. Representatives of Faulkner, who has been a perennial tool of the FOP in proceedings against Mumia, allege that Krasner’s office ignored “conflicted representation and the numerous appearances of impropriety.”

The King’s Bench, an extraordinary power granted in only seven U.S. states, allows a state’s highest court to intervene and exert jurisdiction over a lower level of the judicial system.

Linn Washington, a journalist and professor at Temple University, wrote that “this grant of King’s Bench once again displays the readiness of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to wallow in misconduct specifically to pervert the justice so long overdue for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Washington also noted that the “King’s Bench is not appropriate for an individual or group simply displeased with a governmental action,” which is exactly the circumstance in the current case. In previous decisions the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected relief on these grounds.

Speaking at a Feb. 28 rally in Philadelphia (see video below), Pam Africa, a long-time leader in the fight for Mumia’s freedom, said, “What we want to point out is that the FOP, who misuses Maureen Faulkner, went and did an illegal act bringing in the King’s bench decision … they have struck a match with a fire that they can’t put out. It’s evident that Mumia is innocent. It’s evident that this system is using every ploy to kill Mumia.”

Supporters rally

Supporters of Mumia rallied outside of the DA’s office on Feb. 28 before marching to the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It should be noted that Shapiro, a Democrat, hired prosecutors that Krasner had fired in an attempt to clean up the DA’s office. Last year, the state legislature passed a measure that stripped some of the power from Krasner’s office and gave it to Shapiro.

At the rally, Johanna Fernandez, a Baruch University history professor and filmmaker who works with Mumia’s attorneys, said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest in this town that imprisons the largest number of Black and Latino youth in the country. The district that imprisons the largest number Black and Latino youth does so because it is rotten to the core, and the reason why we are here really is because approximately one year ago there was a great discovery in this case. And what is that discovery? That the key witness in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Robert Chobert, … sent a note to the then prosecutor in this case, Joe McGill, asking ‘where is my money?’ That means that there is new exculpatory evidence in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal that says and suggests clearly that the main witness was bought off by the cops and by the prosecutor to finger Mumia. If that evidence sees the light of day, Mumia will walk amongst us in the city of Philadelphia like the MOVE 9, who are now free.”

Supporters of justice for Mumia have been quick to point out the criticisms that they leveled at Krasner since taking office. Despite his “progressive” credentials as a former defense attorney, Krasner has been hesitant to take on the FOP in Mumia’s case. However, Krasner has taken steps to clean up some of the worst aspects of the DA’s office, which is infamous for prosecutorial misconduct and racism. It’s this modest effort that has drawn the ire of the cop union and its reactionary allies.

The FOP has been a consistent defender of police violence against Black and Latinx people. The cop “union” is a reactionary formation that has consistently taken actions and positions counter to the interests of working people. When workers go on strike to defend their rights, it’s the cops, acting as the armed agents of the capitalist state, who enforce injunctions and, at times, take violent action against picket lines.

Socialists understand that the cops, courts, and the rest of the criminal injustice system are not neutral but stand in defense of the capitalist class. This includes district attorneys, who act as part of the law enforcement infrastructure. Therefore there can be no endorsement or political support for district attorneys—no matter how progressive they purport to be.

The framing of Mumia

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 DA’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 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.

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. 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.

 Legal challenge

In a series of court appearances over the past couple of years, 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 later 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 Judge Castille had demonstrated a “lack of impartiality” and “the appearance of bias.”

Attorney Judith Ritter explained at a Sept. 28, 2019, public meeting that the ruling referred to the discovery of a 1990 letter from Castille, when he was the Philadelphia DA, 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.”

In December 2018, DA’s office employees “found” six boxes of evidence in Mumia’s case that had been “misplaced” years before. It was in these boxes that the Chobert letter to McGill demanding payment was found. Krasner only released the evidence under order from Judge Tucker. Krasner hesitantly decided not to oppose a new hearing for Mumia. Mumia’s supporters anticipated a response by Krasner to the defense petition for Post Conviction Relief Hearings and remanding the case back to the Court of Common Pleas. It was fear of the outcome of such a hearing that drove the FOP and Faulkner to intervene.

The MOVE 9 are free, now free Mumia!

Fighting to free Mumia Abu-Jamal is an urgent task. We can’t wait passively for the legal process to play out. Mass pressure and mobilization is still our best way to keep pressure on the system. Activist groups, unions, and student organizations should educate and mobilize their members to fight for freedom for Mumia.

We know that freedom for Mumia will be a victory for everyone. Overturning Mumia’s conviction will be another death blow to the regime of mass incarceration as he joins the movement to swing the prison doors wide open and release all the unjustly incarcerated Black and Brown people in America’s gulags. On the weekend of April 24, Mumia’s 66th birthday, in Philadelphia, there will be film showings, and house meetings, culminating in a march on April 25.

All out on April 25! Free Mumia and all political prisoners! An injury to one is an injury to all!