BY JEFF MACKLER
Organizers across the country and worldwide will mobilize on May 13 for the largest demonstrations in support of a U.S. political prisoner in perhaps the past half century. They will focus on two central demands: “Stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal!” and “For a new trial now!” In the United States, major demonstrations are slated for San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
These coordinated protests and a mass rally on May 7 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden Theater are being organized on the eve of Jamal’s expected court appearance in Philadelphia in late May or in June. At that time, Jamal’s legal team will present oral arguments before Federal District Court Judge William H. Yohn that will support his demand for a full evidentiary hearing and a new trial.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and America’s most well known political prisoner, was framed up and falsely convicted in 1982 of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has been on Pennsylvania’s death row for 18 years.
Jamal’s case has focused national and international attention on the racist and corrupt nature of the U.S. criminal “justice” system and its associated prison-industrial complex.
Court decisions may affect case
On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions in relation to the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act, a law that all but eliminates the right of death row inmates to habeas corpus, or federal court review.
According to Leonard Weinglass, chief legal counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal, these decisions may effect the outcome of Jamal’s federal appeal. Weinglass told Socialist Action that the Court’s rulings directly relate to the arguments contained in the legal briefs submitted on Mumia’s behalf to the federal district a few weeks ago.
Jamal’s attorneys had asked Judge Yohn to postpone scheduling oral arguments until the Supreme Court had ruled in these separate cases, both coincidentally called Williams v. Taylor. In both instances, the Court overturned state court murder convictions based on rigid federal court interpretations of the1996 Clinton-signed law, officially called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Prior to 1996, 40 percent of state court convictions in death penalty cases were overturned in the federal courts. The new law was designed by the U.S. ruling class to make state court decisions to impose the death penalty “effective,” that is, to execute the defendants before they could gather additional evidence proving their innocence.
The law requires that a “presumption of correctness” be accorded to the facts found by state courts. Prior to this racist and anti-democratic legislation, federal courts routinely reviewed state court findings of every sort. The historic presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” was the operative principle, with federal judges free to challenge any factual or legal findings of state courts.
In part, federal review was a product of the mass civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s that demanded federal legislation and intervention when racist courts routinely enforced racial segregation and failed to convict white racist killers who engaged in Klan-style bombings and murder of African Americans. The Clinton-signed law returns federal courts to the pre-civil rights era of “states rights,” a euphemism for the federal government turning a blind eye to racist practices.
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the Williams cases, while modifying in part an extremely rigid federal court interpretation of the Effective Death Penalty Act, were far from an affirmation of fundamental democratic rights.
To win a new trial, Mumia is still legally restricted to the language of the Effective Death Penalty Act. That is, he must still demonstrate not only that the state court’s judges were legally “incorrect” in regard to either the facts of the case or the law itself, but that their action was “unreasonable.”
Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the provisions of the Effective Death Penalty Act that federal courts must defer to a state court decision that they believe to be “incorrect” or wrong-as long as the decision is not “unreasonable.”
A minority of the Court rejected this absurd view and held that when state courts act incorrectly, federal courts should have the full right to review and reverse their decisions.
The Supreme Court majority did not bother to state when it considered an “incorrect” decision to be “unreasonable.” Nor did it provide a definition of the term “unreasonable.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that while it was “no doubt difficult to define,” it was “a common term in the legal world and, accordingly, federal judges are familiar with its meaning.” O’Connor neglected to explain why the federal judges in the cases under review arrived at “unreasonable” decisions that would have sent two inmates to their death.
Despite the legal maneuvers, however, the first Williams case under review was reversed because the performance of Williams’s lawyer was considered to have fallen below constitutionally minimum standards of competence.
In Mumia’s case, the issue of the competence of his original counsel is an important part of the defense arguments. Mumia’s original trial court lawyer admitted that he did no investigation and talked to none of the more than 100 potential witnesses available prior to Jamal’s trial.
The second Supreme Court decision (also titled Williams v. Taylor) upheld the right to an evidentiary hearing for a petitioner, who, like Mumia, was precluded from introducing evidence by actions of the state court.
In this case as well, there was no fundamental break with the restrictive provisions of the Effective Death Penalty Act. But there are direct parallels to Mumia’s case, in which Judge Sabo’s rulings precluded the introduction of critical evidence and the hearing of critical eyewitness testimony that pointed to Mumia’s innocence.
Need for mass action
Neither Mumia, his legal team, nor the growing mass movement that has mobilized in the tens and hundreds of thousands worldwide have illusions that Mumia’s fate will be determined by legal technicalities or juridical interpretations of the “law.” To the contrary, it is obvious to virtually everyone familiar with the facts of the case that any of the scores of illegal actions taken to deny Jamal his democratic rights could be used to grant a new trial, not to mention his outright freedom.
The case will in truth be decided in the streets, in the fight to make the price of Mumia’s “legal” murder too high to pay in regard to a loss of credibility in the criminal “justice” system itself.
The mass actions set for May 13 in cities worldwide -including San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia-will weigh in heavily on Mumia’s behalf. They will register the growing understanding in the United States that the criminal justice system is designed to punish the poor and oppressed while the real perpetrators of injustice, murder, poverty, war-the tiny few who rule in the name of profit-are left to plunder and kill with the blessings of the “legal” system.
Jamal, who has already beaten back two lower court orders for his execution, has gained support from groups as diverse as the European Parliament, the Japanese Diet, the presidents of France and South Africa, Amnesty International, hundreds of U.S. trade unions, and labor groups, religious organizations, elected officials and city governments.
The NAACP and the ACLU branches in Philadelphia recently submitted amicus briefs in support of Jamal’s demand for a new trial.
In recent weeks six of the seven San Francisco Bay Area AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils have declared their support for the May 13 mass actions and have joined to endorse a May 12 day-long conference on Mumia’s case set for Oakland, Calif. Resolutions of support for this event have been approved by Teamster Local 315; Plumbers Union 393; ILWU Locals 6 and 10; United Farmworkers Union; HERE Local 2850; California Nurses Association; UTU Local 1741; CWA Locals 9415, 9423, and 9586; UE; Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and many others..
The 35,000-member Chicago Federation of Teachers has endorsed the May 13 actions, as have the 50,000-member California Federation of Teachers.
Some 750 educators across the country have signed a full-page ad and raised $35,000 for its publication in The New York Times in early May.
Jamal’s supporters will assemble in Philadelphia from every corner of the globe on the first day of the federal court hearings, expected in late May or in June. Philadelphia’s Federal Court House at Market and 6th Streets, as well as the surrounding streets, will be filled with thousands of human and democratic rights activists who will “stand with Mumia” on this critical day.