A victory for Mumia

A court rules that Mumia Abu-Jamal can appeal his murder conviction on three separate grounds.

Topics:

A victory for Mumia

In a major development in the 24-year-old death penalty case of Philadelphia journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, a panel of three judges of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling Tuesday that Abu-Jamal can appeal his murder conviction on three separate grounds.

The court put the case, which has been in legal limbo for several years, on a “fast track,” with the defense brief on the three claims scheduled to be filed Jan. 17.

The decision caught both the defense and the Philadelphia district attorney’s office by surprise, because the appellate court had been compelled to consider only one possible avenue of appeal by Abu-Jamal. Pending before the same court is the district attorney’s appeal of the 2001 lifting of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.

“Today we achieved a great victory in the campaign to win a new trial and the eventual freedom of Mumia,” said a jubilant Robert Bryan, of San Francisco, who took over as lead attorney in Abu-Jamal’s case in 2004.

Bryan said all three claims accepted for argument by the 3rd Circuit panel “are of enormous constitutional significance and go to the very essence of Mumia’s right to a fair trial, due process of law, and equal protection of the law under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.”

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia district attorney Lynn Abraham said her office had no comment on the court’s announcement.

Back in December 2001, U.S. District Judge William Yohn overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, saying that the jury verdict form used in Abu-Jamal’s trial had been flawed and that the judge’s instructions to the jury had been confusing. That decision was immediately appealed by the district attorney’s office. At the same time, Yohn had rejected all 20 of Abu-Jamal’s claims concerning constitutional errors in his trial and state appeal process, certifying only one of those claims for appeal to the 3rd Circuit.

Under federal court rules, an appeals court is not required to consider any appeal from a defendant in a capital, or death penalty, case unless that appeal has been certified by a lower court judge.

The only appeal certified by Yohn for appeal was a claim by Abu-Jamal that the jury selection in his case had been racially biased because the prosecutor rejected 10 or 11 of 15 qualified black jurors, using peremptory challenges, for which no reason had to be given. The jury that ultimately convicted Abu-Jamal had only two black members, in a city that is 44 percent black.



The appellate court has agreed to hear defense arguments on the jury bias issue, which is known as a Batson claim.

But the 3rd Circuit also agreed to consider appeals on two other grounds. The first is a claim, rejected by Yohn and not certified for appeal, that the prosecutor in the case, Joseph McGill, had improperly attempted to reduce jurors’ sense of responsibility during the so-called guilt phase of the trial, by telling them that any guilty verdict would be vetted later. As McGill put it in his trial summation, “If you find the defendant guilty, of course there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final.” In other Pennsylvania cases, including one prosecuted by McGill, the 3rd Circuit has overturned capital-case convictions on the basis of the same wording used in trial summations.

The other uncertified defense appeal accepted for argument by the 3rd Circuit was a claim that the trial judge, the late Albert Sabo, was biased during the Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing. That hearing, which was held in 1995-96 to consider the validity of the facts presented at trial, as well as new evidence brought in by the defense, was controversial. At the time, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated in an editorial that the judge was displaying overt bias against Abu-Jamal.

Any one of the three claims, if upheld by the 3rd Circuit next year, could lead to a new trial for Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of the 1981 slaying of white police officer Daniel Faulkner. The most likely first action on upholding an appeal claim, however, would be an order sending the issue back to Judge Yohn for reconsideration, not an order for a new trial. A finding of bias on the part of Sabo could also lead to a reopening of the post-conviction hearing in a state court, legal experts say.

For Abu-Jamal, who has been in jail since December 9, 1981, and on Pennsylvania’s death row since July 1982, the latest turn of events represents a major breakthrough. Up to now, no court at any level has accepted his arguments that his conviction was flawed. Judge Yohn’s rejection of all the claims regarding the guilt phase of the 1982 trial had appeared to limit Abu-Jamal’s options considerably.

Now Abu-Jamal has three avenues to challenge that conviction, two of which could lead directly to a new trial, and a third that could lead to a reconsideration of evidence or presentation of new evidence.

Meanwhile, the district attorney’s appeal of the lifting of Abu-Jamal’s death penalty is also moving forward, with a brief on that appeal scheduled to be filed with the 3rd Circuit panel on Feb. 16. If the lifting of his death sentence is upheld by the 3rd Circuit, and there is no order for a new trial, the district attorney will have 180 days to decide whether to leave Abu-Jamal sentenced to life without parole or to request a new trial on just the sentencing issue, in an effort to get a jury to impose a new death sentence. The appeals court could also overturn Yohn and order the death penalty reinstated.

None of that is likely to happen, however, while the court is hearing and ruling on appeals of the conviction itself.

There has been considerable turmoil in Abu-Jamal’s case in recent years. In 1999, as his appeal was being considered by Judge Yohn, Abu-Jamal fired his attorneys, Leonard Weinglass and Daniel Williams. The cause of the dispute was a book, “Executing Justice,” written by Williams, which was critical of both his client and of some of his supporters.

Abu-Jamal then hired two attorneys, Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish, neither of whom had any appellate experience in death penalty cases. They drove away many of his supporters with demands that they support Abu-Jamal’s claim of absolute innocence, and their efforts to introduce into the case a man, Arnold Beverly, who claimed to be the “real killer” of Faulkner.

Abu-Jamal eventually dropped Grossman and Kamish from his case, the Beverly claim was abandoned, and Bryan was hired.

With the latest decision, a case that during the late 1990s aroused passions across the nation and around the globe, both among Abu-Jamal supporters and among police organizations and their supporters, is likely to be back in the headlines.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>