Free Mumia Abu-Jamal: Update on Mumia’s Case

By Larry Hales

NYC FIST

On April 6, 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the appeal of the conviction of Mumia Abu Jamal.  The appeal was based on the exclusion of Black jurors by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.

In rejecting the appeal, the court refused to uphold a decision it made regarding Batson v. Kentucky (1986).  In that case the court found that any exclusion of a juror based on race is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Before Batson, there was no effective way to challenge prosecutorial discrimination during jury selection.  Batson paved the way for defendants to make a case for jury selection discrimination by showing that the prosecution struck a single juror because of race.

There exists ample evidence to show that not only were Black jurors excluded from Mumia’s trial, but Black jurors were excluded systematically and peremptorily.

Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Jack Mcmahon, in a training video for new prosecutors made in the mid-80s states, “The only way you are going to do your best is to get jurors that are as unfair and more likely to convict than anybody else in that room.  Lets face it again, there are the Blacks from the Northside, low income areas are less likely to convict and as a result you don’t want those people on your jury.”

According to an amicus brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Joseph McGill—the prosecuting attorney during Mumia’s trial—was 8.47 times more likely to exclude potential Black jurors than non-Black jurors.  McGill used 11 peremptory challenges against Black jurors during the jury selection period for Mumia’s trial.

The loss of the appeal, after a decision by the Third Circuit in March of 2008 upholding Judge William Yohn’s order to vacate Mumia’s death penalty in 2001, presents a real danger to the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Life in prison is not acceptable to an innocent man, or to his family, friends and supporters.

However, even more of a concern than the threat of life in prison is the current appeal that the prosecution has before the Supreme Court.  The Third Circuit decided that in order for the death penalty to be reinstated, there would have to be a new sentencing hearing, otherwise the sentence of life would be automatic.

By appealing the Third Circuit decision, the prosecution has demonstrated again that it is out for blood.  This appeal comes as the pro-cop, anti-Mumia film “The Barrel of a Gun” makes its rounds and Philadelphia District Attorney-elect Seth Williams vows to seek the death penalty for Mumia.

The prosecution’s appeal is on hold as the Supreme Court deliberates on the case of neo-nazi Frank Spisak.  Spisak confessed to killing three people in Ohio and was initially sentenced to death.  The sentence was vacated by the Sixth Circuit because of faulty jury instructions given by the original trial judge.

The jury instructions given during the sentencing phase of Mumia’s trial were similar to those given to Spisak’s jurors.  Both juries were incorrectly led to believe that they had to reach a unanimous decision on the question of whether there were any mitigating circumstances that would warrant a lesser sentence of life in prison instead of execution.

The Supreme Court ruled in Mills v. Maryland (1988) that when a jury in a capital case is led to believe that it needs to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstances, a new sentencing phase is warranted.  Judge Yohn’s decision to vacate Mumia’s death sentence was largely based on Mills.

The decision of the Court regarding Frank Spisak, a confessed neo-Nazi and murderer with profound hatred for people of color, will affect Mumia’s case greatly.

It is clear that for the Spisak case to weigh on Mumia’s is a further miscarriage of justice, as Mumia is an innocent man and a hero to millions around the world—a man who gave his life from the age of 15 to fight against oppression and repression.

This is perhaps the most precarious time for Mumia, and the struggle to not only prevent the state of Pennsylvania from killing him, but to free him from prison must become even more vigilant and mount its most diligent campaign yet.

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