Mumia Abu-Jamal Prepares to Take His Case to the Supreme Court

Human Rights

BOSTON, Sep 3 (IPS) -- Mumia Abu-Jamal rallied thousands of protesters in the U.S. city of Denver last week who were calling for the release of U.S. political prisoners.

In a recorded message for the crowds protesting outside the Democratic National Convention, journalist Abu-Jamal attacked U.S. foreign policy, the protection of "foreign despots" and war for "foreign pipelines".

Abu-Jamal made the recording from his death row prison cell at a time when his 26-year battle for freedom has reached a critical point.

He and his lawyer are preparing to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to ask it to rule on whether the lower courts have denied him justice because of racial bias.

The decision to go to the Supreme Court was taken after a federal appeals court in Philadelphia in July refused to reconsider an application for a new trial about his guilt or innocence, Robert R. Bryan, the head of Abu-Jamal's legal team, told IPS.

The application was first turned down by the appeals court last March.

Abu-Jamal, a journalist and political activist, was sentenced to death 26 years ago after being convicted of shooting dead a white Philadelphia police officer in 1981.

His case has been taken up by rights activists in the U.S. and abroad who have contested much of the evidence that was presented to secure his conviction. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence.

"Racism continues to raise its ugly head in this country, and should have no place in our legal system," Bryan said after the appeal court's decision.

"Bigotry lingers [on] today in Philadelphia. It would be naive not to realize that this case continues to reek of politics and injustice."

"In America … people often go to the death chamber because of the incompetence of their lawyers," Bryan said.

"The indisputable facts are that the prosecutor [in the 1982 trial] engaged in racism in selecting the jury in this case," Bryan said. "We will not rest until Mumia is free."

Abu Jamal's Supreme Court petition will focus on a number of issues, including that black jurors were intentionally excluded from his [1982] trial. Studies have shown that white jurors are more ready to pass death sentences than jurors of color.

It is uncertain whether the court will agree to hear the case, since only between 1 and 2 percent of petitions are heard each year.

But because the three appeal court judges were split two to one on the issue of racism in the jury selection, the Supreme Court might be more likely to hear the case to resolve the differences of opinion.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Abu-Jamal would mean that the appeals court would have to reconsider his request for a new trial about his guilt or innocence.

At the same time that the appeals court turned down Abu-Jamals's request for a new trial, it ruled that he deserved a trial limited to determining whether his sentence should be changed from death to life without the possibility of parole.

This appeals court ruling removed the immediate threat that Abu-Jamal will be executed, but it could be overturned.

Bryan is not satisfied with the narrow ruling of the appeals court. He wants a re-trial to prove Abu-Jamal's innocence.

The prosecution is also unhappy and is likely to file its own petition to the Supreme Court, asking it to overturn the appeals court ruling and order Abu-Jamal's sentence remains as death.

In an interview with IPS, Philadelphia district attorney Hugh Burns, the chief prosecutor, said he had not yet made a decision whether to petition the Supreme Court to send Abu-Jamal back to death row to await execution.

Burns said he was confident that racial bias had not influenced Abu-Jamal's original trial. He said it was "not possible" that significant errors had occurred during the trial.

If the Supreme Court refused to hear Abu-Jamal's appeal and agreed to the prosecution's request to reinstate the death penalty, the execution clock would start ticking again, Bryan said.

"Mumia remains very much on death row because this is still under review."

Mark Taylor, a coordinator of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal and professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Institute, said the Abu-Jamal case was a potential embarrassment to important state officials.

The Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, who would order the death warrant for Abu Jamal's execution, was a former chief prosecutor on the case. Ronald Castille, chief justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is a former prosecutor who worked to keep Abu-Jamal in prison. He did not remove himself when the state Supreme Court ruled on Abu-Jamal's case in February.

Taylor said his organization would continue to hold workshops and teach-ins to keep the public informed and rally support for Abu-Jamal's release.

"We have to continue doing what we have been doing, educating the public about the details of the case and its significance to issues like the death penalty in America, and racism and police brutality and prisons," he said.

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