Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal will get to plead his
case in a federal appeals court early next year. In a surprise decision earlier
this month, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear arguments
on three important points where his Constitutional rights were violated.
The three claims are among many that Mumia’s legal team has pursued.
One concerns the prosecutors’ use of peremptory challenges to keep qualified
African Americans off the jury. Another deals with the bias displayed by the
late Judge Albert Sabo, who presided over Mumia’s trial and post-conviction
appeals. The third concerns the prosecutor’s statement during closing
arguments that Mumia would get “appeal after appeal”--implying that
jurors needn’t feel too responsible if they voted to convict.
Any one of these claims, if upheld by the three-judge panel, could lead to
a new trial.
Mumia is a journalist and former Black Panther who was convicted and sent to
death row for the 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer. After more
than two decades on death row, he remains one of the most powerful voices against
the death penalty and the U.S. injustice system as a whole.
Much of this latest appeal revolves around the factor that has plagued Mumia’s
case from the beginning--racism.
Mumia’s lawyers have shown that the Philadelphia district attorney’s
office rejected roughly three out of four qualified Black jurors in murder trials--three
times the rate for white jurors. As Dave Lindorff, author of a recent book exposing
the flaws in Mumia’s case, wrote on the CounterPunch Web site: “[T]he
judges would be hard-pressed to find it fair in a city 44 percent Black that
the jury selection process in Abu-Jamal’s trial resulted in his having
just two Black jurors ruling on his guilt and sentence.”
Presiding over the racist circus that passed for Mumia’s trial was Albert
Sabo. “Despite having been retired for over 10 years and dead for four,”
the New York City Free Mumia Coalition has noted, “Sabo still holds the
dubious distinction of having sentenced more people to death than any other
judge in modern times.” Of the 31 people Sabo sent to death row during
his career, only two were white.
In Mumia’s case, Sabo openly vowed outside the courtroom during the trial
that he was going to help prosecutors “fry the nigger,” according
to an affidavit from a longtime court reporter.
Mumia’s appeal is on a “fast track”--the first deadline for
the defense to file its legal brief is in mid-January. Since 2001, when his
death sentence was overturned, Mumia’s case has been at a seeming standstill.
The new year could change that in a hurry.