By JEFF MACKLER
William H. Yohn Jr., the federal district court judge assigned to preside over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his 1982 Pennsylvania state court frame-up murder conviction, has rejected four important amicus curiae briefs submitted to his court.
On death row for over 18 years, Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and author- and an innocent man-has won broad national and international support for his demand for justice and a new trial.
Amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” briefs, are legal arguments submitted to the court by organizations or individuals who are not a direct party to the case but who assert an interest in its outcome.
They are commonly filed in important cases in which critical civil and human rights issues are in dispute. Given their advisory nature, amicus briefs are rarely refused consideration.
In rejecting the briefs, and thereby calling public attention to what otherwise would have been a routine matter, Judge Yohn signaled a bias against Jamal’s case that has stirred national and international indignation. Yohn stated, “I find that additional filings by amici in this matter are not necessary because the petitioner [Jamal] is adequately represented.” He argued that the briefs were “unhelpful.”
But Judge Yohn nevertheless curiously wrote, “I do not question the professional skill possessed by counsel for all amici groups. Nothing in this memorandum or the attached order reflect on the merits of the proposed amici filings or of petitioner’s underlying claims.”
It is this refusal to examine the briefs, “on their merits” that is being appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The attorneys who prepared the briefs consider Yohn’s action to be an abuse of discretion and a break with clear legal precedent. They have provided ample legal citations to back up their position.
The first amicus brief, filed by the Philadelphia branches of the NAACP and ACLU, argue that the state court’s use of political statements made by Mumia years before his trial as arguments for imposing the death penalty was unconstitutional and chilled the free expression of ideas by others.
The notorious Pennsylvania “hanging judge,” Albert Sabo, allowed the use of statements by Mumia when he was a youthful member of the Black Panther Party 13 years earlier to be introduced during the penalty phase of Mumia’s trial.
The second brief, submitted by six legal organizations-including the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the National Lawyers Guild, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers-dealt with the history and legal interpretations of constitutionally protected rights to federal review of state court decisions. The 1996 Clinton-signed Effective Death Penalty Act placed severe and unconstitutional restrictions on this right.
The third brief was submitted by 22 members of the British Parliament. It challenged Judge Sabo’s decision to refuse Jamal’s request to have a lay advisor, John Africa, sit at the defense table to assist him during the trial. This right, fundamental to English law, the brief argues, is firmly established in U.S. law as well.
The brief cites extensive portions of the trial transcript, where Mumia, invoking his rights under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution (the right to a fair trial and to representation) and the Fourteenth Amendment (the right to due process), was repeatedly denied his request that John Africa sit at the defense table.
Mumia’s right to choose his own counsel
The fourth brief, submitted by the Los Angeles-based Chicana/Chicano Studies Foundation, also deals with Mumia’s right to choose his own counsel. It also challenges an improper and conspiratorial-like private (“in camera”) conference between Mumia’s initial court-appointed lawyer (Anthony Jackson), presiding Judge Sabo, and the state prosecutor.
The brief also includes the prejudicial removal of a juror selected by Mumia (before Mumia was removed from court by Sabo) and her subsequent replacement by an alternate who had stated that he could not be unbiased.
In a section of the brief titled, “The Unwanted Lawyer that the Court Imposed on Mr. Jamal ‘Contrived’ Against Him With the Active Connivance of Judge Sabo and the Prosecutor,” there is extensive material from in camera meetings (where the jury and Mumia were not present) that convincingly demonstrates that attorney Jackson acted not only against the interests of his client but in collusion with prosecutor Joseph McGill and Judge Sabo. (The complete amicus brief can be found at the website of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal:www.freemumia.org.)
This brief states: “It should be quite obvious why Mr. Jamal was excluded from these in camera proceedings-it is inconceivable that Mr. Jackson would have so shamelessly contrived against his client before the client’s very eyes as he so readily did behind the client’s back.
“It is in part because an attorney, as an officer of the court, always has a potential conflict between their duty to their client and their duty to the court that the Sixth Amendment protects one’s right to represent oneself and, as will be argued below, one’s right to be assisted in that representation by a lay person who is not an attorney….”
The amicus brief proceeds to quote Mumia in this matter: “It’s my life at stake and John Africa is the only representative I would have faith in and trust; not paid by the court, not paid out of the same pocket as the D.A., not court-appointed. I want John Africa in this trial as backup counsel for me, and I will defend myself.
“I do not want to be backed up or represented by Anthony Jackson or any other lawyer of the ABA anywhere in America….
“This is my only trial. I have no criminal record. … I have never been before the bar of this court. … So what’s important to me to have is a representative that I have faith in, that I can trust; it’s not Anthony Jackson. … It’s John Africa.”
John Africa was quite well known in Philadelphia at that time. He was both the founder of the MOVE organization and an individual who, as a lay legal expert, had successfully defeated city prosecutors in a highly publicized trial.
Judge Yohn’s rejection of the amicus briefs has caused considerable alarm among Mumia’s supporters, especially in light of the fact that NAACP and ACLU briefs had been previously accepted by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court when Mumia appealed his state court conviction.
Mumia: “Learn as I did”
Mumia himself has sounded the alarm in regard to these briefs. He states: “They are history lessons about fundamental human rights that were violated by the state with impunity.
“I invite you to read and learn what it means to have a court-appointed lawyer who seems like a prosecutor and a judge who is one. … Learn as I did what happened in back rooms when I wasn’t there and no one cared …
“Learn how jurors are really chosen; how they are moved, replaced and imposed as foreman of a hanging jury.
“Without a doubt this happens every day in America, but you will rarely have a better opportunity to read a record such as this.”
Mumia’s legal team has gone to great lengths to put forward the fundamental legal and factual arguments demonstrating that Mumia was framed for murder and that his constitutional rights were violated.
The 29 constitutional points raised by Leonard Weinglass, Mumia’s chief defense counsel, constitute an indictment of state court judicial abuse and disregard for the law that fully exposes the sham of Mumia’s conviction.
But the defense team and the attorneys who drafted the amicus briefs are fully aware that justice for Mumia will not be the product of legal arguments alone, no matter how telling.
The growing movement for a new trial for Mumia-including unprecedented mass marches and rallies the world over, teach-ins, petitions, resolutions of support representing institutions and governments of hundreds of millions of people-constitute the only power that can compel a corrupt criminal “justice” system to retreat.
For information about how to assist in fighting Judge Yohn’s rejection of the amicus briefs contact: International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal: (215) 476-8812; Fax: (215) 476-7551;firstname.lastname@example.org; www.mumia.org.