By JOHN LESLIE
On March 31, Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia Judge Lucretia Clemons disallowed motions for relief filed by Mumia Abu-Jamal’s defense team. Mumia, a political activist and journalist, has been in state prison for over 41 years on false charges of having killed a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, in 1981.
At issue in the appeal were six previously “misplaced” boxes of evidence found in storage in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in late December 2018 while DA Larry Krasner and some staff were looking for furniture in a storage area. Among the items in this evidence was a note sent after the trial by one alleged witness, Robert Chobert, asking Assistant District Attorney McGill, “Where is the money that is owed to me?” Also at issue was a defense claim that a second alleged witness, Cynthia White, a sex worker, had received preferential treatment from the prosecution, including the dropping of outstanding charges against her, in exchange for her testimony.
Defense filings asserted that Mumia’s rights were violated under Batson v. Kentucky, which held that prosecutors’ peremptory challenges in a criminal case (the dismissal of jurors without stating a valid cause for doing so) may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race, and Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to disclose material, exculpatory information in the government’s possession to the defense.
Mumia’s jury in the original criminal trial had two Blacks and 14 whites, including four alternate jurors. In 2009, during a previous round of court cases, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filed a friend of the court brief in support of Mumia’s claim of racial discrimination in the selection of the jury for his 1982 death penalty trial. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office is notorious for racist exclusion of Black jurors in criminal trials. A leaked 1986 video featured Assistant DA Jack McMahon instructing young prosecutors on the importance of avoiding some Black jurors, particularly “intelligent” Black jurors and Black women. In the video, McMahon exhorts the prosecutors to seek jurors who are “unfair and more likely to convict.”
Clemons ruled that Mumia’s claim under Batson was “time-barred and waived” and not in the court’s jurisdiction. Further, she ruled that Mumia’s Brady claims regarding Chobert and White “lack merit.” Clemons had indicated her intent to dismiss Mumia’s latest appeal in December 2022.
On April 1, dozens of activists rallied outside of the courthouse in Philadelphia to denounce Clemons’ decision. Speakers highlighted the injustices in Mumia’s case and the overall racism of the criminal injustice system. After a rally, protesters marched to the district attorney’s office to put the so-called progressive DA on notice that this fight isn’t over. Krasner established the Conviction Integrity Unit when he took office, and so far the CIU has exonerated more than 30 people who have been released from prison. Day-after protests were also held in cities including Newark, N.J.; New York City; Detroit; Los Angeles; and in the Bay Area.
The recently formed Mumia United Nations Liaison Group organized a series of protests worldwide over the past months—from France to South Africa to Mexico and the U.S. On March 11, the Liaison Group, in conjunction with Love Not Phear, Mobilization for Mumia, and The Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, organized a live-streamed public meeting, “Bearing Witness in the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The meeting featured Mumia supporters including the Rev. Judge Wendell Griffen, a retired Arkansas State Court Trial Judge; Dr. Cornel West, philosopher and theologian, Union Theological Seminary; Dr. Johanna Fernandez, historian and movement liaison to the Abu-Jamal legal team; Gabriel Bryant, a Philadelphia area activist; and Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an author, television personality, and Temple University professor. Long time-journalist and Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington Jr. chaired the event.
Washington opened the meeting by calling attention to the racist nature of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and calling Mumia’s case an “iconic injustice.” Washington highlighted Mumia’s career as a journalist and commentator who “has written over 3000 articles and commentaries, many of which were written on death row with a pen.” Mumia has also authored or co-authored more than a dozen books. Well known in Philadelphia as a journalist and advocate for the oppressed, Mumia was known as “the voice of the voiceless.”
Judge Wendell Griffen spoke about “basic fairness” or what is called due process. Basic fairness is “what everybody is supposed to have … whenever they’re dealing with the government. … If any of us is accused of a crime, the government has an obligation to produce and deliver to us all the evidence it has for our innocence … the government cannot hide stuff that clears us.” Calling trials based on withheld evidence a “sham” and a “fraud,” Griffen continued by explaining the 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision. Pointing out that Brady was decided decades before Mumia’s trial, he noted that it was only when the liberal DA Larry Krasner took office that “six boxes of information that pointed towards Mumia’s innocence” came to light.
The meeting also reviewed some of the evidence in the original case. This included a supposed spontaneous “confession” by Mumia in the hospital. Officer Gary Wakshul was assigned to guard Mumia in the hospital and filled out a report that “the Negro male made no comment.” But two months later, during a meeting with other police and the prosecutor, Wakshul suddenly “remembered” that Mumia had said, ”I shot the motherfucker! And I hope the motherfucker dies!”
Additionally, a video was presented that reviewed photos by Pedro Polakoff, the first photographer on the crime scene in 1981. Polakoff’s photos clearly show police holding the two pistols (Officer Faulkner’s and Mumia’s) with bare hands. Also, Faulkner’s hat is shown first on the passenger side roof of Mumia’s brother’s Volkswagen; later, the hat is on the ground near where Faulkner’s body had lain. Alleged “witness” Robert Chobert’s taxi, which was allegedly parked behind Faulkner’s patrol car, is nowhere to be seen.
Dr. Johanna Fernandez called attention to the role of the Philadelphia DA’s office. “When Larry Krasner was running for office (district attorney) in 2017, journalists called the DA’s office in Philadelphia the “deep state” of the country’s infamous criminal justice system. The office was responsible for disappearing 36,000 Black men from Philadelphia’s streets. That’s why it’s called the deep state. The office was responsible for making Philadelphia the draconian law and order capital of the country; the district with the highest rate of incarceration of Black and Brown people in the country. …. Krasner promised to change this and he put emphasis on the city’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which has exonerated 29 people falsely imprisoned through misconduct, lying and tampering with evidence on the part of police to obtain convictions.”
Fernandez pointed out a previous statement to the effect that Mumia’s case is “a microcosm” of all of these abuses. She continued by stating, “These violations were rampant in the Philadelphia of the 1970s and 1980s … because this was the high point of rogue white supremacy within the DA’s office and the police department of Philadelphia.”
It’s worth noting that 15 of the 33 officers involved in the Abu-Jamal case were later indicted and convicted of tampering with evidence to frame defendants in criminal cases unrelated to Mumia’s case as part of the 39th District corruption scandal of the 1990s. This scandal resulted in hundreds of convictions being overturned due to rampant police corruption.
Fernandez continued, “The Brady violation that hasn’t made it to any court hearing is the suppression of even clearer evidence of innocence; … that’s the evidence of the presence of a fourth person at the crime scene, a man by the name of Kenneth Freeman. … Kenneth Freeman was the business partner of Billy Cook. Both he and Billy Cook were stopped by Officer Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981. Billy Cook was driving his Volkswagen and Kenneth Freeman was in the passenger seat. Officer Faulkner asked Billy Cook to get out of his car, and Officer Faulkner started beating up Billy Cook, Mumia’s brother, with his walkie- talkie. Mumia happened to be dropping a passenger off nearby and he looked and saw that his own brother was being beaten by a cop. He approached the scene of the crime and was immediately shot by Officer Faulkner. It was at that point that Kenneth Freemen got out of the passenger seat and shot Officer Faulkner.”
A driver’s license application in Faulkner’s shirt pocket led police to Freeman, a Vietnam vet, who was picked up by police the next day and released. Freeman’s presence at the crime scene was acknowledged by DA McGill at Billy Cook’s trial for assault on a police officer but was concealed from Mumia’s defense.
Kenneth Freeman was murdered on May 13, 1985, the same night of the MOVE bombing. Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a home occupied by the MOVE organization in a working-class neighborhood. The resulting conflagration and police gunfire killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed 61 houses. The coroner ruled that Freeman’s death was the result of a heart attack, but his body was found in a vacant lot—handcuffed, gagged, and with a syringe in his arm.
The struggle continues
As one rally speaker said on April 1, “It ain’t over.” It is imperative to mobilize to free Mumia and all political prisoners!
While some former political prisoners have been freed, they are 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 Black Liberation Army P.O.W., spent almost 50 years in prison for the killing of a New Jersey state trooper and was finally released in May 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, where she successfully sought political asylum. Native American activist Leonard Peltier remains in prison and in failing health. Dr. Mutulu Shakur was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 2019 and released on parole in December 2022.
The capitalist state, at the federal and state level, has kept these Black liberation and Indigenous 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.
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 the oppressed can ultimately end this injustice.
Photo: Soon after Mumia was wounded and a police officer was killed, the Volkswagen belonging to Billy Cook (Mumia’s brother) is shown parked at the scene in Philadelphia. Taken in 1981 by Pedro Polakoff.