by J. Patrick O’Connor
Since his conviction in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, through his numerous books, essays and radio commentaries, has become the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States and an international cause célèbre. Paris, for example, made him an honorary citizen in 2003, bestowing the honor for the first time since Pablo Picasso received it in 1971. The “Free Mumia” slogan is seen and heard around the world. Over the last 27 years he has become the most visible of the invisible 3,600 Death Row inmates in the United States.
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal cries out for justice not because he is famous but because he is innocent. Kenneth Freeman, the street-vendor partner of Abu-Jamal’s younger brother, Billy Cook, killed Officer Faulkner moments after Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the chest as he approached the scene where Faulkner had pulled over the car Cook was driving. When Faulkner began beating Cook with an 18-inch long flashlight, Abu-Jamal ran from his nearby taxi to come to his brother’s aid. After Abu-Jamal was shot and collapsed to the street, Freeman emerged from Cook’s car, wrestled Faulkner to the sidewalk and then shot him to death. Freeman fled the scene on foot. Numerous witnesses told police they saw one or more black men fleeing right after the officer was shot. A driver’s license application found in Faulkner’s shirt pocket led the police directly to Freeman’s home within hours of the shooting.
But the police did not want Freeman for this killing, releasing him without him even having to call his attorney. The police, led by the corrupt Inspector Alfonzo Giordano who took charge of the crime scene within minutes of the shooting, wanted to pin Faulkner’s death on the blacked-out, police-bashing radio reporter at the scene. Freeman they would deal with later, meting out their own brand of street justice in the dead of night.
Five days after Faulkner’s death, the Center City newsstand where Freeman and Billy Cook operated a vending stand burned to the ground at about 3 a.m. Freeman told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter hours after the arson that “there was no question in my mind that the police are behind this.” The Inquirer also quoted a Center City police officer who was on patrol in the area that morning as saying, “It’s entirely possible” that “certain sick members” of his department were responsible. “All I know is when I got to the station to start my shift at 7:30 this morning, the station house was filled with Cheshire grins.” Although the “unsolved” arson bankrupted Freeman and Cook, a worse fate awaited Freeman.
On the night in 1985 when the police infamously firebombed the MOVE home and burned down 60 other row houses in the process, incinerating 11 MOVE members including five children, Freeman’s dead body would be found nude and gagged in an empty lot, his hands handcuffed behind his back. There would be no police investigation into this obvious murder: the coroner listed his cause of death as a heart attack. Freeman was 31.
Abu-Jamal had been well known to local police since he joined the Philly chapter of the Black Panther Party at age 15. The next year he was named “lieutenant of information,” an appointment the Inquirer ran on its front page, picturing the young radical at Panther headquarters. Even though the chapter would soon dissolve, both the police and the FBI continued to monitor Abu-Jamal when he left Philadelphia to attend Goddard College in Vermont and on his return to Philadelphia to take up his radio career. As his career took wing, landing him a high-profile job at Philadelphia’s public radio station, that scrutiny intensified due to his overtly sympathetic coverage of the radical counter-culture group MOVE. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, police confrontations with MOVE were brutal displays of civic discord and police abuse that culminated in the 1985 firebombing.
Abu-Jamal’s case has been politically charged from the beginning. By the time he was arrested for the murder of Officer Faulkner, he was a marked man to the police for his Black Panther Party association and his favorable reporting of MOVE. Inspector Giordano, who detested both Abu-Jamal and MOVE, would set the framing of Abu-Jamal in motion by falsely claiming that Abu-Jamal had told him in the paddy wagon that he had killed Faulkner. (Giordano would not be called by the prosecution to reiterate his fabrication at Abu-Jamal’s trial. Instead, on the first business day following Abu-Jamal’s sentencing, Giordano would be “relieved” of his duties by the police department on what would prove to be well-founded “suspicions of corruption.” An FBI probe of rank corruption within the Philadelphia Police Department – the largest ever conducted by the U.S. Justice Department of a police force – would lead to Giordano’s conviction four years later. The FBI investigation would ensnare numerous other high-ranking Philadelphia police officials and officers, many of them involved in Abu-Jamal’s arrest and trial. Deputy Police Commissioner James Martin, who was in charge of all major investigations, including Faulkner’s death, was the ringleader of a vast extortion enterprise operating in City Center.)
The trial of Abu-Jamal was a monumental miscarriage of justice from beginning to end, representing an extreme case of prosecutorial abuse and judicial bias. A pamphlet published by Amnesty International in 2000 stated it had “determined that numerous aspects of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case clearly failed to meet minimum standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.”
The trial judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo, presided at more trials that resulted in the defendants receiving the death penalty than any judge in the nation. Of the 31 so sentenced, five won reversals on appeal, an indication of extreme judicial bias. The Inquirer called him “a defendant’s worst nightmare,” a prominent defense attorney referred to him as “a prosecutor in robes.” A former court stenographer said in an affidavit in 2001 that during Abu-Jamal’s trial she overheard Sabo tell someone at the courthouse, “Yeah, and I am going to help them fry the nigger.”
During the third day of jury selection, Sabo stripped Abu-Jamal of his right to represent himself and interview potential jurors despite the fact that the Inquirer reported Abu-Jamal was “intent and business like” in his questioning. On the second day of the trial, Sabo removed Abu-Jamal from the courtroom for insisting that MOVE founder John Africa replace his court appointed backup counsel, Anthony Jackson. In turn, Sabo appointed Jackson to represent Abu-Jamal. This would put to rout the possibility of a fair trial.
Abu-Jamal’s first major appeal issue developed during jury selection when the prosecutor, Assistant D.A. Joseph McGill, used 10 or 11 of the 15 peremptory challenges he exercised to keep otherwise qualified blacks from sitting on this death-penalty-vetted jury. In a city with more than a 40 percent black population at the time, Abu-Jamal’s jury ended up with only two blacks. In 1986 – four years after Abu-Jamal’s trial – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that it was unconstitutional for a prosecutor to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race. The ruling was retroactive.
The second major constitutional claim that would arise occurred at the end of the guilt phase of the trial when the prosecutor referenced the appeal process in his summation to the jury. He told the jury that if they found Abu-Jamal guilty of murder in the first degree that “there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final.”
Although Officer Faulkner had been killed by Kenneth Freeman, the prosecution mounted its evidentiary case against Abu-Jamal on the perjured testimony of a prostitute informant and a cab driver with a suspended license for two DUIs who was on probation for throwing a Molotov cocktail into a school yard during a school day. Both of these witnesses had been handpicked by Giordano at the crime scene.
“The Mumia Exception”
As Amnesty International established in its 2000 pamphlet entitled “The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance,” his tortuous appeal process has been fraught with “judicial machinations.” Claims that won the day in other cases were repeatedly denied him.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turned down his first appeal even though one of his claims was almost identical to one that had persuaded the same court to grant Lawrence Baker a new trial in 1986. In that case, Commonwealth v. Baker, the court overturned Baker’s death sentence for first-degree murder on the grounds that the prosecutor improperly referenced the lengthy appeal process afforded those sentenced to death. That prosecutor – Joseph McGill – was the same prosecutor who used similar – almost verbatim – language in his summation during both the guilt and sentencing phases of Mumia’s trial. The judge who failed to strike the language in the Baker case was the same judge who presided at Mumia’s trial, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo.
The State Supreme Court ruled in Baker that the use of such language “minimize[ed] the jury’s sense of responsibility for a verdict of death.” When Abu-Jamal’s appeal included the very same issue, the court reversed its own precedent in the matter, denying the claim in a shocking unanimous decision.
A year later, in Commonwealth v. Beasley, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Leslie Beasley, but exerted its supervisory power to adopt a “per se rule precluding all remarks about the appellate process in all future trials.” This rule not only reinstated the Baker precedent but it ordered all prosecutors in the state to refrain once and for all from referencing the appellate process in summations to the jury. The court could have made this new rule retroactive to Mumia’s case, but did not.
As Amnesty International declared in its pamphlet about the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s judicial scheming leave “the disturbing impression that the court invented a new standard of procedure to apply to one case only: that of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington aptly dubs this and subsequent court decisions denying Mumia a new trial “the Mumia exception.”
Abu-Jamal’s Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing in 1995 was doomed from the beginning when Judge Sabo – the original trial judge – would not recuse himself from the case and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would not remove him for bias.
Abu-Jamal’s federal habeas corpus appeal – decided by Federal District Judge William Yohn in 2001 – should have resulted in at least an evidentiary hearing on Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim that the prosecutor unconstitutionally purged blacks from the jury by using peremptory strikes to exclude 10 or 11 otherwise qualified black jurors from being empanelled. Abu-Jamal’s attorneys had included a study conducted by Professor David Baldus that documented the systematic use of peremptory challenges to exclude blacks by Prosecutor McGill in the six death-penalty cases he prosecuted in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia. Abu-Jamal’s trial was one of the six trials studied by Baldus. Judge Yohn barred the study on the erroneous grounds that the study was not from a relevant time period when, in fact, it was completely relevant. Judge Yohn’s error was egregious and could have been easily avoided if he had held one evidentiary hearing on that defense claim. But during the two years that Judge Yohn considered Abu-Jamal’s habeas appeal, he held no hearings.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit should have corrected that district court mistake by remanding Abu-Jamal’s case back to Judge Yohn to hold the evidentiary hearing on the Batson claim, but in another example of the “Mumia exception,” the court instead continued the long and tortured denial of Mumia’s right to a fair trial. In a 2 to 1 decision released on March 27, 2008 that reeked of politics and racism, the court ruled that Abu-Jamal had failed to meet his burden in providing a prima facie case. He failed, the majority wrote, because his attorneys were unable to establish the racial composition of the entire jury pool.
In the decision written by Chief Judge Anthony Scirica, the court stated that “Abu-Jamal had the opportunity to develop this evidence at the PCRA evidentiary hearing, but failed to do so. There may be instances where a prima facie case can be made without evidence of the strike rate and exclusion rate. But, in this case [i.e., “the Mumia exception” is in play], we cannot find the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling [denying the Batson claim] unreasonable based on this incomplete record.”
In a nutshell, the majority denied Mumia’s Batson claim on a technicality of its own invention, not on its merits. It also broke with the sacrosanct stare decisis doctrine – the principle that the precedent decisions are to be followed by the courts – by ignoring its own previous opposite ruling in the Holloway v. Horn case of 2004 and the Brinson v. Vaughn case of 2005. It is a general maxim that when a point has been settled by decision, it forms a precedent which is not afterwards to be departed from. In a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 1989 in a case entitled United States v. Washington, the decision stated that an appeal court’s panel is “bound by decisions of prior panels unless an en banc decision, Supreme Court decision, or subsequent legislation undermines those decisions.” None of those variables were in play when the Third Circuit Court majority ruled against Mumia’s Batson claim.
Judge Thomas Ambro’s dissent was sharp: “…I do not agree with them [the majority] that Mumia Abu-Jamal fails to meet the low bar for making a prima facie case under Batson. In holding otherwise, they raise the standard necessary to make out a prima facie case beyond what Batson calls for.”
In other words, the majority, in this case alone, has upped the ante required for making a Batson claim beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court stipulated. When ruling in Batson in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court did not require that the racial composition of the entire jury pool be known before a Batson claim may be raised. The high court ruled that a defendant must show only “an inference” of prosecutorial discrimination in purging potential jurors. Prosecutor McGill’s using 10 or 11 of the 15 peremptory strikes he deployed is just such an inference – and an extremely strong one. McGill’s strike rate of over 66 percent against potential black jurors is in itself prima facie evidence of race discrimination. Prima facie is a Latin term meaning “at first view,” meaning the evidence being presented is presumed to be true unless disproved.
In commenting on Holloway v. Horn, a Batson-type case with striking similarities to Abu-Jamal’s claim, Judge Ambro – the lone Democrat-appointed judge on the three judge panel – demonstrated just how disingenuous the panel’s ruling against Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim was. “In Holloway, Judge Ambro wrote in his 41-page dissent, “we emphasized that ‘requiring the presentation of [a record detailing the race of the venire] simply to move past the first state – the prima facie stage – in the Batson analysis places an undue burden upon the defendant.’ There we found the strike rate – 11 of 12 peremptory strikes against black persons – satisfied the prima facie burden.” In Holloway, the Third Circuit ruled that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision denying Holloway’s Batson claim was “contrary to” and an “unreasonable application” of the Batson standard.
In fact, in rendering both its Holloway and Brinson decision, the Third Circuit specifically rejected the requirement that a petitioner develop a complete record of the jury pool. In making its ruling in Abu-Jamal’s appeal, it reversed itself to make the pretext of an incomplete jury record his fatal misstep. Basing its ruling against Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim on this invented pretext demonstrated how desperate the majority was to block Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim. What the majority was implying was that Abu-Jamal’s jury pool may well have consisted of 60 or 70 percent black people and that therefore the prosecutor’s using 66 percent of his strikes to oust potential black jurors was statistically normal and did not create a prima facie case of discrimination. This hypothesis is, of course, absurd on its face. Blacks have been underrepresented on Philadelphia juries for years – and remain so today. What was likely was that the jury pool at Abu-Jamal’s trial was at least 70 percent white.
The Third Circuit – if it had followed its own precedent – would have found the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling denying Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim “contrary to” and an “unreasonable application” of the Batson standard and remanded the case back to Federal District Court Judge Yohn to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the prosecutor’s reasons for excluding the 10 potential black jurors he struck. If that hearing satisfied Judge Yohn that all of the prosecutor’s reasons for striking potential black jurors were race neutral, the Batson claim would fail. If, conversely, that hearing revealed racial discrimination on the part of the prosecutor during jury selection – even if only concerning one potential juror – Judge Yohn would have been compelled to order a new trial for Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal’s final opportunity for judicial relief was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in November of 2008 in the form of a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. On February 4, the high court docketed and accepted that filing. According to Abu-Jamal’s lead attorney, Robert Bryan of San Francisco, “The central issue in this case is racism in jury selection. The prosecution systematically removed people from sitting on the trial jury purely because of the color of their skin, that is, being black.”
For at least two compelling reasons, it appeared that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant Abu-Jamal’s petition. In its last term, the high court expanded its 1986 Batson ruling in its Synder v. Maryland decision to warrant a new trial if a minority defendant could show the inference of racial bias in the prosecutor’s peremptory exclusion of one juror. Under Batson, the defense needed to show an inference – i.e., a pattern – of racial bias in the overall jury selection process. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision strengthening and expanding Batson’s reach was written by Justice Samuel Alito, most recently of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The second reason was that the Third Circuit’s ruling denying Abu-Jamal’s Batson claim undermined both the Batson and Synder decisions by placing new restrictions on a defendant’s ability to file a Batson claim. The Third Circuit ruling against Abu-Jamal had the effect of creating new law by tampering with a long-established Supreme Court precedent.
As a result, there seemed to be something more than a remote possibility that the Supreme Court would agree to grant Abu-Jamal’s writ.
A Writ of Certiorari is a decision by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal from a lower court. Supreme Court justices rarely give a reason why they accept or deny Cert. Although all nine justices are involved in considering Cert Petitions, it takes only four justices to grant a Writ of Certiorari, even if five justices are against it. This is known as “the rule of four.”
Despite needing only four votes to have his Batson claim argued, the Supreme Court on April 6, 2009 tersely denied Abu-Jamal’s request for a writ. The so-called “liberal block” of Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, Souter, and Breyer disintegrated, yielding to the awesome political power of the “Mumia exception.”
Abu-Jamal – who turned 55 on April 24, 2009 – will, barring the most unlikely intervention by a future governor of Pennsylvania, spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.