By JEFF MACKLER
On Mumia Abu-Jamal’s birthday, April 24, about 125 demonstrators mobilized outside Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas in solidarity with Mumia’s effort to reverse his 1982 frame-up murder conviction and win a new trial that could lead to his freedom.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the world’s best known political prisoner. He has been imprisoned for 36 years, and was on death row for 30 of those years. His fight for a new trial and freedom has been supported by organizations ranging from Amnesty International and the NAACP to the European Parliament and scores of national and local trade unions and city governments in the U.S. and abroad.
Represented by Judy Ritter, Mumia’s Philadelphia-based attorney, and Christina Swarms, of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, Mumia petitioned the court for a new Post Conviction Relief Act hearing based on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Williams v. Pennsylvania.
The Williams decision reversed a death-penalty conviction on the grounds that “it is a violation of the due process right to an impartial tribunal free of judicial bias if a judge participating in a criminal appeal had a significant personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in a defendant’s case.”
In Mumia’s case, Philadelphia’s Senior Assistant District Attorney, Ronald Castille, served as a prosecutor in Mumia’s 1982 trial. Castille, who in the name of the state of Pennsylvania authorized a racist video instructing state prosecutors how to exclude Blacks from juries, later refused to recuse (remove) himself from adjudication of Mumia’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court appeals between 1995 and 2008, when he was a member of that court.
Ritter and Swarms, according to virtually all Mumia supporters present in the courtroom, presented a clear case for the applicability of Williams to Mumia’s conviction and demanded the reversal of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s findings and a new trial.
Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg, who had unsuccessfully argued the Williams case before the U.S. Supreme Court, represented the DA’s office at the April 24 hearing. His central argument to reject Mumia’s new PCRA petition was that, although Castille had officially signed off on all of the state’s briefs in Mumia’s case, there was no evidence of his direct involvement.
Mumia’s team refuted this specious argument and requested full discovery of Castille’s papers to prove otherwise. Eisenberg also argued that the 2016 Williams case was not retroactive—that is, it did apply to Mumia’s prior conviction.
Presiding Judge Leon W. Tucker made no rulings on any of the above contested issues but indicated that he would render a decision soon. Indeed, he did so just a few days later—and in a dramatic fashion that represented a first and major legal victory for Mumia in his renewed fight for freedom.
Tucker ordered the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to turn over to Mumia’s attorneys within 30 days all records and memos regarding Castille’s involvement in Mumia’s case; pre-trial, trial, post-trial and direct appeal proceedings; communications between Castille and his staff; and any public statements Castille made about Mumia’s case during or after his tenure as District Attorney of Philadelphia.
Mumia was given 15 days to file amendments to his post-conviction petition. The clear implication of Tucker’s granting of discovery is that he is favorably inclined to apply the Williams decision if Castillo’s direct involvement in Mumia’s case can be established.
A multitude of possible legal outcomes appears likely in the months, if not years, ahead.
Activists and legal observers present at the April 24 hearing believed that Tucker seemed to be sympathetic to the key arguments presented by Mumia’s attorneys. But they remain skeptical, if for no other reason that Mumia’s appeals, always in accord with established court decisions and legislation, have been repeatedly denied—so much so that the term “Mumia exception” has become commonplace with regard to the basic operations of the U.S. criminal injustice system.
Contrary to the requirements of U.S. “law,” Mumia was convicted by a mainly white jury, from which Blacks had been systematically excluded. He was physically banned from the courtroom during much of his trial. Eyewitnesses to his innocence were intimidated to alter their testimony or otherwise prevented from testifying at his trial, and “evidence” was manufactured by corrupt police, state investigators, and prosecutors.
In another landmark case, last month Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials unsuccessfully sought to avoid a court order instructing prison authorities to administer Mumia’s long-sought anti-viral medication—with a 95 percent cure rate of Hepatitis C. Mumia is now receiving this life-saving medication, but only after a two-year delay, during which time his Hepatitis C disease, contracted through a 1981 blood transfusion after a police officer shot him, had developed into cirrhosis of the liver, the extent of which is still unknown.
Mumia has become a stunning symbol of the brutal racist and class-biased system of injustice that permeates U.S. society today—a gulag system, in which nearly 7 million human beings are incarcerated or subjected to “criminal” oversight jurisdictions, the largest number and percentage of a population of any country in the world.
Were it not for 36 years of national and international mobilizations to save Mumia from the executioners’ grasp, he would have been “legally” murdered long ago. Indeed, the latter end was sought by prosecutors and the Fraternal Order of Police for three decades, and only ended when a critical court victory ruled that a state prosecutor’s closing remarks at Mumia’s trial were fundamentally flawed.
Given the choice of granting Mumia a new trial, in which evidence of innocence could be presented for the first time—thereby exposing the monstrous police/prosecutor frame-up of Mumia—or agreeing to a new sentence of life imprisonment, Pennsylvania officials opted to forego efforts to kill Mumia, who is now serving a life term at SCI Mahoney in Frackville, Pa.
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! End the Death Penalty! For a New Trial Now!
Photos by Marty Goodman / Socialist Action (Top) Pam Africa of the International Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks at April 24 rally outside the courthouse in Philadelphia. (Below) April 24 march in Philadelphia.