Death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been battling the court system since his controversial conviction of the 1981 killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia, received some welcome news recently. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from prosecutors who want to re-impose a death sentence on former Black Panther and journalist Abu-Jamal.
The racially charged case was rejected by the justices. Now a federal appeals court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal after finding that the death penalty instructions given to the jury at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial were potentially misleading. The new sentencing trial is being ordered after it was found for a second time that the death penalty instructions given to the jury at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial were confusing.
The Abu-Jamal case has been widely debated for years, with countless celebrities backing his cause. Since his conviction, his case has become an international cause. Debates swirl around the appropriateness of the death penalty, whether Abu-Jamal is guilty, or whether he received a fair trial.
On December 9, 1981, Philadelphia Police Department officer Faulkner conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle belonging to William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s younger brother. Abu-Jamal ran across the street towards the traffic stop. At the traffic stop, there was an exchange of fire. Both Officer Faulkner and Abu-Jamal were wounded. Faulkner died. Abu-Jamal was found in possession of a shoulder holster and a revolver, which had five spent cartridges. Abu-Jamal was charged with the first-degree murder of Faulkner. The case went to trial in June 1982.
The case is still being battled in the courts. “The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the prosecutor’s appeal of a Third Circuit ruling rejecting the manner in which a death sentence was given to Mumia decades ago. Philadelphia’s prosecutors could spend a great deal of time, money, and personnel conducting a re-hearing of the sentence phase of the trial in an attempt to get another death sentence. Or, prosecutors can accept a life sentence for Mumia and end the decades- long attempt to execute him,” says Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, J.D./M.A., associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the CUNY. “Even Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain officer, Daniel Faulkner, believes it is nearly impossible to gain another death sentence from a re-hearing.”
Adds Michael Schiffmann, co-founder of Journalists for Mumia, “The recent Supreme Court decision basically brings the efforts of the prosecution to have a December 18, 2001 decision by the 3rd Federal District Court reversed. In that decision, Judge William Yohn, Jr. threw out Mumia’s death sentence due to erroneous jury instructions on the question of mitigating circumstances both on the forms handed out to the jury and by the trial judge. At the same time, the judge upheld Mumia’s conviction for murder in the first degree. The prosecution has used all possibilities within its reach to have the death sentence reinstated; these possibilities are now exhausted. They may ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to let the 2001 decision by Yohn stand, but the chances of such a move to be successful are basically nil.”
There will be some immediate changes for Mumia. Says Browne-Marshall, author of ‘Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present’, “Mumia will be moved from death row. The Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania will have to determine the level of security needed, the facility best suited for him, and whether he will be placed in the general prison population. The prosecutor’s office will surely provide input in this decision. Barring any other turn of events, Mumia will live the rest of his life incarcerated with relatively more freedom than death row. The manner in which Mumia utilizes this new situation is up to him.” Schiffmann agrees. He explains, “As soon as the recent (October 11) decision by the Supreme Court has become legally binding, Mumia must be transferred from death row to the general population. After almost 30 years of solitary confinement, this will be a substantial improvement in the conditions he lives under.”
The legal fight is sure to continue. But adds Browne-Marshall, “Mumia’s legal options are limited. Witnesses are dead. Full exoneration is improbable. The Troy Davis execution shows that justice is rarely the objective of America’s criminal justice system. Perhaps Mumia could bring a civil suit seeking damages for the years of deprivation and hardship on death row,” she says.
However, Schiffmann adds, there are other avenues. “Actually, there are two: A) Once the 2011 Supreme Court decision corroborating the 2001 lifting of the death sentence has become legally binding, the prosecution has 180 days to again empanel a jury that would deliberate, not on the question of Mumia’s guilt, but only on whether he is again sentenced to death or gets life without the possibility of parole. B) The defense can go back to the original trial court with evidence that Mumia is actually innocent and demand a new trial under the so-called Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). The burden of proof for such a petition is very high as the defendant is no longer presumed innocent but must provide very strong evidence of his actual innocence. How high that burden is was shown by the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia who had substantial evidence that he did not do what he was convicted for, but wasn’t able to satisfy the courts,” says Schiffmann, who feels Mumia should be free.
“After 12 years of investigating the case and having written a book and dozens of articles about the case, I think Mumia actually has enough proof of his innocence. For this very reason, I think that option A) mentioned above is very unlikely. Even in a mini-trial, which would be “only” about his sentence, Mumia would be entitled to bring everything that counters the prosecution’s claim that the killing he was convicted for was so cruel and heinous that he deserved a death sentence. But if he did so, he could pose questions that would also destroy the credibility of the testimony on which the conviction itself was based. Physical evidence proves that the three witnesses who claimed to have seen Mumia killing the already defenseless victim at point blank range, i.e., in a particularly brutal fashion, cannot have told the truth, and that, of course, indicates that they did not watch the killing at all. Another point that helped the prosecution to both get Mumia convicted and to get a death sentence at the trial was the claim from police officers and hospital guards that Mumia, who was himself severely wounded during the events, arrogantly boasted about having killed his victim. This, too, is demonstrably a lie which would simply collapse even during a mini-trial only about the sentence, leaving the prosecution in an awkward position where it would be bound to lose, not only in its quest for Mumia’s execution but where the total weakness of its case for Mumia’s guilt would also be exposed. So my guess is that the defense will do its very best to file another PCRA petition demanding a totally new trial for Mumia all by itself.”
Before his arrest, Mumia was an activist and radio journalist who became president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He was a member of the Black Panther Party until October 1970.
People are still intrigued by the decades old case. Says Schiffmann, “It certainly should not lose interest. A much maligned, innocent man must be freed. The 29-plus years Mumia has spent in jail, most of them under absolutely hellish conditions, are a shame and a disgrace not only for the U.S. but for the whole civilized world. An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”
Hans Bennett, co-founder of Journalists for Mumia, agrees. “Because of the evidence of Mumia’s innocence that Michael has cited, I do think that the DA calling for a new sentencing-phase jury trial is unlikely, however we should not underestimate the racist lynch-mob style fanaticism that has driven the fraternal order of police-led campaigns to have Mumia executed without the benefit of a fair trial. While D.A. Seth Williams may recognize the importance of not giving Mumia a sentence trial where evidence of innocence can be presented, the more fanatical and bloodthirsty elements of the anti-Mumia campaign may not want to settle for a sentence of life in prison,” he offers. “While working with the movement to free Mumia while living in Philadelphia for seven years, I personally witnessed the most overt and extreme racism that you can imagine.” ###