By JEFF MACKLER
On Oct. 13, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge set Dec. 2 as the date of execution by lethal injection of African American political prisoner and award-winning journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was falsely convicted of the 1981 shooting murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
On death row for the past 18 years, Abu-Jamal was the 176th person sentenced to death by Ridge in the last five years, a record that is five times greater than the governor’s predecessors over the past 25 years.
Within days of the signing of the death warrant Abu-Jamal supporters across the globe mobilized in protest. In San Francisco’s downtown Union Square area 4000 protested, while 2000 marched and rallied in Philadelphia. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Portland, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and many other U.S. cities. Four thousand marched in Paris, France.
Organizers reported that protests in several cities were marred by unprovoked police violence. The 240,000-member Fraternal Order of Police has been in the forefront of the ruling-class campaign for Abu-Jamal’s execution.
Thirteen agonizing days after the signing of the death warrant, with the clock ticking on Mumia’s life, Federal District Court Judge William H. Yohn Jr. finally stayed Mumia’s execution. Mumia was removed from Phase II or “suicide” status, in which he had been placed in a special cell, lit and guarded around the clock, and denied virtually all contact with friends and family.
This marked the second time the 45-year-old Abu-Jamal had been isolated and prepared for execution while awaiting what almost all legal observers considered an inevitable, but temporary, postponement. A similar stay stopped the state of Pennsylvania from murdering him just 10 days before he was due to die on Aug. 17, 1995.
The most recent stay of execution was granted to allow a review of the habeas corpus petition (appeal) filed by Mumia’s attorneys on Oct. 15. This 160-page brief includes some 600 instances of police coercion of witnesses, suppression and fabrication of evidence, racial bias, and 29 specific constitutional violations. It also cites the evidence demonstrating Abu-Jamal’s innocence that was banned from the state court record by “hanging” Judge Albert Sabo.
A meeting in Judge Yohn’s courtroom at the end of October set the schedule for the initial written and oral presentations to the federal court.
The defense team was given until Dec. 7 to present a memorandum of law to argue why the court should review Abu-Jamal’s case. The state of Pennsylvania was allotted 60 days to reply. And finally, the defense was given an additional 20 days, until March 2, to respond to the state’s brief.
Upon receipt of the above, Judge Yohn will set a date for the first oral arguments. Abu-Jamal will be present at this time and at all subsequent hearings when his case is argued.
During the defense team’s first appearance before Judge Yohn, Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Leonard Weinglass, raised the issues of discovery (an order from the court to the state to produce key documents) and an evidentiary hearing.
The judge indicated that the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act made an evidentiary hearing unlikely, but he instructed Weinglass to put his arguments for such a hearing in his Dec. 7 memorandum of law.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of the Effective Death Penalty Act, a law signed by President Clinton that requires federal courts to presume the correctness of the facts found by state courts.
Prior to this anti-democratic law, federal courts, which had overturned some 40 percent of state court execution orders, routinely reviewed the factual findings of lower courts. In doing so, the federal courts operated on the traditional legal principle, “innocent until proven guilty,” a presumption that has now been excluded by the Effective Death Penalty Act.
The outcome of the Supreme Court’s review of President Clinton’s rush-to-death legislation may have an impact on Abu-Jamal’s case somewhere down the line.
In the meantime, the defense request for an evidentiary hearing is critical. It would allow Abu-Jamal for the first time to present witnesses and information that were banned from the state court proceedings. If Judge Yohn denies an evidentiary hearing, he will in effect condemn Mumia Abu-Jamal to be judged by the frame-up trial findings of Judge Sabo’s court.
Leonard Weinglass indicated that a ruling could be expected from Judge Yohn in March, or perhaps several months later, depending on the judge’s schedule. The options open to the judge range from ruling in favor of Mumia and granting a new trial immediately, to granting an evidentiary hearing, to rejecting all defense motions and thereby compelling an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Support for Abu-Jamal’s fight for a new trial has taken a giant leap forward in the past year. “The only thing we know for sure is that Abu-Jamal has not been given due process and that alone is reason for a new trial,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who represents Abu-Jamal’s congressional district.
Amnesty International announced in late October that a new pamphlet on Mumia’s case was scheduled for publication. Statements of support for a new trial have issued from groups ranging from the European Parliament, the Japanese Diet, French President Jacques Chirac, to novelist E.L. Doctorow and the Beastie Boys rock-rap group.
Personal appeals on Mumia’s behalf were made by former South African President Nelson Mandela, and France’s former First Lady Danielle Mitterrand. Nobel Laureates Bishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel have also joined the effort for a new trial.
Mumia Abu-Jamal and his legal team agree that the outcome of the legal battle is inseparable from the political fight to qualitatively broaden the mass support for Mumia’s case. The National Coordinators of Abu-Jamal’s defense have announced that regional mass demonstrations are called for Dec. 11 in Philadelphia, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The demonstrations will be followed by a January national conference of Mumia supporters, where plans will be formulated to take Abu-Jamal’s case to additional millions of Americans who support democratic and human rights.
These include several full-page ads in nationally prominent newspapers, nationally coordinated mass demonstrations, and special campaigns to deepen the support for a new trial among U.S. and international trade unions, educators, faith-based organizations, and students.