By JOHN LESLIE
Attorneys for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal appeared in court for a short hearing on Wednesday, June 29. On June 28, lawyers for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania electronically filed a response to a petition previously submitted by Mumia’s attorneys, Judith Ritter and Sam Spital. Ritter asked for a 45-day extension to allow time to prepare a response to the Commonwealth’s document. The judge set a date for another hearing on Oct. 19. The judge stated that she would rule on that date whether Mumia’s case would be returned to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
Activists and supporters of Mumia’s freedom struggle gathered outside of the courtroom afterwards to discuss the next steps. It was agreed that supporters should mobilize for the October court date. We were also reminded that there is a rally to commemorate Mumia’s 40th year of incarceration on July 3, 2022, at the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building, from 1 to 5 in the afternoon.
In a previous round of court proceedings, considerable progress had been made towards a new round of appeals. In December 2018, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office announced that while employees had been searching for office furniture in a storage space, they had found six previously “unknown” boxes labeled with Mumia’s name. Activists immediately questioned the circumstances under which these boxes were “misplaced.” In these boxes, Mumia’s attorney, Judith Ritter, discovered new information that points to prosecutorial misconduct in Mumia’s original trial.
For example, the notes of prosecutor Joe McGill from 1982 indicate the race of potential jurors in Mumia’s case, a potential violation of the Batson decision, which states that a juror may not be dismissed through a prosecutor’s peremptory challenge on the basis of race and that the prosecutor must provide a valid reason for a challenge.
With the agreement of Judge Sabo, the DA’s office also failed to notify the defense that a supposed eyewitness, Robert Chobert, a cab driver, had a suspended driver’s license and at the time of the trial was on probation for an arson-for-hire crime in which he threw a Molotov cocktail at a school. Also, the newly discovered information revealed that Chobert had written a letter to McGill demanding to know, “Where’s my money?” During the 1995 appeal, it was discovered that Chobert believed that the DA’s office would help him get his driver’s license back.
On Dec. 27, 2018, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker ruled in favor of Mumia Abu-Jamal, holding that the actions of former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Ronald Castille had demonstrated a “lack of impartiality” and “the appearance of bias.” Mumia’s attorneys had tried to prove Castille’s involvement in his prosecution, since Castille had refused to recuse himself from Mumia’s appeal. They also presented arguments based on bias.
Mumia’s lawyers sought a new appeals process under the Williams v. Pennsylvania decision. Ron Castille, the retired chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was formerly district attorney of Philadelphia when Terrence Williams was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. During Williams’ appeal, his attorneys asked that Castille recuse himself from the case, given his previous role as prosecutor. Castille refused. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors who later become judges should recuse themselves if asked to hear an appeal in a case they had prosecuted.
There are more than 24 constitutional violations in Mumia’s case, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has so far refused to hear any of them. Castille, the Philadelphia district attorney during Mumia’s prosecution, also refused to recuse himself during Mumia’s appeals process. Mumia’s legal team sought to prove that Castille’s involvement in the appeal constituted a violation of the Williams decision.
Attorney Judith Ritter explained to a Sept. 28, 2019 meeting in Philadelphia that this victory was based on the discovery of a 1990 letter from DA Castille to Governor Bob Casey urging him to sign death warrants for death row inmates “to send a clear and dramatic message to all police killers that the death penalty in Pennsylvania actually means something.”
In the midst of the 2018-19 hearings, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Officer Daniel Faulkner—whom Mumia was accused of killing—filed a King’s Bench motion pro se alleging that District Attorney Krasner and others in his offices have conflicts of interest in Mumia’s case and asking that the case be taken from the jurisdiction of the DA and placed under the aegis of the state attorney general, who has been hiring former ADAs fired by Krasner. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Faulkner’s petition in December 2020. Currently, Krasner faces an attempt to impeach him mounted by reactionary state legislators from western Pennsylvania.
The frame-up and mass struggle
Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was convicted of the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner in a frame-up trial featuring unreliable witnesses and little physical evidence. The district attorney’s office used Mumia’s former membership in the BPP to argue for the death penalty. At the time of the trial, Judge Albert Sabo, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, was overheard by a white court stenographer, saying that he was going to “help them [prosecutors] fry that n****r.”
The Philadelphia DA’s office is well known for biased prosecutions and suppression of evidence in both death penalty and other cases. The DA’s office was exposed for a 1986 training video that taught assistant DAs how to keep Blacks off juries. In Mumia’s case, crime scene photos taken by photojournalist Pedro Polokoff showed cops holding guns taken in evidence with their bare hands and showed the hat of deceased Officer Daniel Faulkner placed on top of Mumia’s brother Billy Cook’s VW, though it appears on the sidewalk in the official police photos. The ballistics evidence was questionable. The Polokoff photos also don’t show the cab allegedly driven by Chobert at the scene.
An international mass movement grew in response to Mumia’s case. The movement’s steadfast determination to save Mumia’s life helped win a reversal of the death sentence, which was commuted to a life sentence.
Mumia’s health problems in prison
Although Mumia’s death sentence was overturned, he was later struck by a series of potentially life-threatening illnesses. It became clear that the Department of Corrections was neglecting symptoms of diabetes. He experienced chronic fatigue, painful itching, and eczema, which worsened when doctors prescribed a topical ointment. In 2015, Mumia was hospitalized for diabetes and in the same year initiated legal action to receive treatment for Hepatitis C. It took a two-year struggle to get life-saving medication for Mumia‘s Hepatitis C.
More recently, Mumia’s supporters successfully fought to make sure that he received cataract surgery to stave off the threat of blindness. Mumia contracted COVID-19 in 2021 as well. At every turn, Mumia and his supporters have struggled to make sure that he received proper treatment in the face of death by medical neglect.
Mobilize to free Mumia and all political prisoners!
While some former political prisoners have been freed, they are too often close to death when the state releases them. Such was the case of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army prisoner of war, who passed away a short time after release. Jalil Muntaqim, imprisoned since the late 1960s, was paroled in October 2020, just before his 69th birthday.
Sundiata Acoli, 85, a BLA P.O.W., spent almost 50 years in prison for the killing of a New Jersey state trooper and was finally released in May of 2022. Sundiata was in a car with Assata Shakur and Zayd Shakur on the New Jersey turnpike when they were attacked by police. Zayd Shakur allegedly killed the police officer and was then killed by cops. Assata and Sundiata were wounded, captured, and sentenced to life in prison. Assata later escaped and fled to Cuba,43 where she successfully sought political asylum.
The state, at the federal and state level, has kept these former Black liberation fighters in prison as a message to others who would fight back against this racist system. Police unions have played an insidious role in this by lobbying to keep these prisoners in lockup. Cops and the state would rather these fighters die in prison than enjoy even one minute of freedom. Native American activist Leonard Peltier remains in prison and in failing health. Dr. Mutulu Shakur is battling bone cancer and remains in prison despite becoming eligible for parole in 2016.
It’s time to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. Freedom will not come easy. We must continue to fight in the streets for the return of these fighters. The fight to free political prisoners is linked to the larger struggle to abolish the regime of mass incarceration. Capitalist courts and politicians will not help us. Only the power of the working class and oppressed can ultimately end this injustice.