Photo: Lou Jones

The case of revolutionary African American journalist and death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal demonstrates the lengths to which the ruling class will go to silence its most effective critics. After years of legal battles, a Pennsylvania state court wants to shut the door on Abu-Jamal’s ability to introduce evidence of his innocence once and for all.

On May 27, the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania delivered the latest legal setback in the struggle to free Abu-Jamal. The decision, authored by Judge Pamela Dembe, declared that it would not grant him an evidentiary hearing as requested. Such a hearing would allow a court to hear long-suppressed testimony that could prove Abu-Jamal’s innocence.

Unfair trial, racist judge

Abu-Jamal was arrested and charged with murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. After a sham trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1982.

The prosecutor and state judge violated dozens of Abu-Jamal’s constitutional rights during the trial: witnesses were intimidated; the prosecutor deliberately kept Blacks off the jury; and evidence was fabricated, among other things. The judge, Albert Sabo, was also an unrepentant racist. Known as a “hanging judge,” Sabo was overheard saying, “I’m gonna help ‘em fry the n—-r.”

Abu-Jamal has been on death row ever since, always maintaining his innocence. Over the years, he has endured endless appeals before judges who refused to allow evidence that may prove him innocent. Many also have ignored evidence that discredits the testimony of key prosecution witnesses.

Movement to ‘Free Mumia’

In the mid-1990s, a progressive mass movement emerged demanding freedom for Abu-Jamal. Tens of thousands protested around the nation to support Abu-Jamal and denounce racism inherent in the U.S. courts. Even liberal human rights groups like Amnesty International supported the call for a new trial. Abu-Jamal became known throughout the world. He also continued to write from prison, penning weekly political columns and several books on racism and social justice. The movement helped reverse two death warrants condemning Abu-Jamal.

In the face of a radical international movement, Abu-Jamal’s case could no longer be easily ignored by the judges.

In 2001, Judge William Yohn overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. However, Yohn refused to admit any evidence that pointed to his innocence, or to prior prosecutorial or judicial misconduct. It was another smoke screen to prevent consideration of the evidence that implicates the racism and political motivations behind Abu-Jamal’s prosecution. It also meant he had to file yet another appeal.

Additionally, prison officials never moved him off death row. Abu-Jamal sits in the same cell today, although he is no longer slated to be executed.

New legal developments

Judge Dembe’s May 27 ruling was premised on a legal technicality. She apparently denied the request for a hearing because it was untimely. The ruling, however, is not yet final. If the appeal is denied, Dembe will have shut down Abu-Jamal’s last opportunity to introduce evidence of his innocence in state court.

Los Angeles, August 13, 2000.

Photo: Sinartus Sosrodjojo

Abu-Jamal’s new legal team, headed by San Francisco attorney Robert Bryan, is pressing ahead. On June 16, Bryan filed documents to persuade the court not to make final its May 27 decision: “We seek a full hearing with Mumia present, in which testimony can be presented on the unfairness and fraudulent nature of the trial and his innocence. With my client’s life in the balance, at the very least the court should permit us to present oral arguments on the pending issues.”

Bryan also recently filed a motion in federal court to expand the issues the Third Circuit Court of Appeals will hear on a separate appeal.

What next?

It is unclear what will happen with Abu-Jamal’s legal case in the coming months, but the movement to free Mumia can help tip the scales of justice and continue to register its impact.

“In the court of public opinion, the ‘Free Mumia’ campaign is still getting massive support,” said Pam Africa, member of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal. Africa told SL that the best thing for the movement to do right now is to “get in the streets and act as if the death warrant was signed today. The death penalty may still be imposed again, or they may keep Mumia in prison for life. Either way is unacceptable. The movement can still make a difference. It’s not a done deal yet.”

The ICFFMAJ organized a press conference to denounce the ruling and held an emergency protest on June 16 outside Philadelphia’s city hall. They are also asking people to keep the heat on the system by contacting Judge Dembe’s supervisor, Judge Fredericka A. Messiah-Jackson, at 215-676-1776 to express outrage at Dembe’s decision and demand that the hearing be allowed.

Over the years, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has been mired in legal technicalities designed to prevent the truth about the case from surfacing. This is no mistake. His case is a primary example of what the racist capitalist state does to protect itself.

Despite the difficult legal landscape ahead, Robert Bryan is optimistic that Abu-Jamal will one day be freed: “The struggle to overturn the murder conviction, secure a new trial and win Mumia’s freedom has been long and difficult. I recall when Mumia and I first corresponded nearly two decades ago, and then met. What was true then remains true today: It is an outrage that Mumia remains in prison.

“Even though Mumia is in the worst of all places, death row, his spirits have not dampened. I have faith that we will succeed in righting this terrible wrong. We can win.”