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

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.

More Uninsured Means More Healthcare Corporate Profits

Drug prices, health insurance, doctor visits and hospital stays are too expensive for many people to afford, while insurance and drug company profits continue to climb.

The nation is entering a healthcare crisis, many leaders and experts say. An estimated 46 million people do not have health insurance because they cannot afford it, and the United States has one of the poorest health profiles of the developed world.

Meanwhile, in 2005, pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson earned profits of $10 billion, and Pfizer had profits of $8 billion, according to Fortune magazine.

Healthcare is bankrupting even well-to-do U.S. citizens, especially people who have the misfortune of becoming seriously ill.

"The reason our health system is so crazy is we treat healthcare as a commodity. That really doesn't work. Most countries see it as part of their job to take care of their people," Meizhu Lui, executive director of United for a Fair Economy, told IPS.

The U.S. system is mostly privatized, which means that individuals alone or through their employers must buy their healthcare and health insurance on the open market. The government provides subsidized healthcare for the elderly and some of the poor and disabled.

Prices of many health services have soared in recent years, and today individuals and the government spend $2.3 trillion annually to purchase health insurance, doctor visits, medicines, hospital stays and special tests, according to Families USA, a health advocacy group.

"Our healthcare is in a car that is accelerating toward a cliff," Alan Sager, co-director of the Health Reform Project at Boston University, told IPS.

The United States has a high rate of untreated diabetes and high blood pressure, which fall disproportionately on African Americans, Lui said.

"Unless you're extremely wealthy, it's almost impossible to buy insurance. I'm in my 50s, and it would cost me $6,000 a year, and for a family it costs $12,000," Steffie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, told IPS.

The U.S. system today has created strange incentives, so that high-tech care is abundant for those who can pay for it, while preventive care, like annual checkups, is not encouraged, Woolhandler said.

"It is remarkable we spend so much and yet fail to cover so many people," Sager said.

Healthcare companies wield tremendous political power, Lui noted.

For years, health activists, organizations of the elderly and labor unions have tried to convince Congress to allow citizens and the government to negotiate bulk prices for drugs or to purchase them from Canada, rather than paying full price on the open U.S. market.

Congress has not budged on this or other healthcare reform issues.

Behind the scenes, drug companies, hospitals, insurance companies and doctor organizations spent $400 million in 2005 and 2006 lobbying Congress and federal candidates to enact policies the companies favor, according to Opensecrets, an organization that tracks the records.

"Our government, instead of helping people, is being held hostage by these profit-making companies," Lui told IPS.

According to the Centre for Public Integrity, drug companies recently lobbied against strong safety regulations, and successfully lobbied to include patent protection in trade negotiations with other nations.

Drug companies also benefit because they receive favorable tax treatment from the U.S. government, Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice, told IPS.

"They get to write off their purchases of equipment. They get a big break for anything considered research," McIntyre said.

All this adds up to big profits for the companies involved. In 2005, the drug companies Proctor and Gamble, Merck, Amgen and Abbot and insurer UnitedHealth Group were among the 50 most profitable Fortune 500 companies in the United States, according to Fortune.

Many large drug companies richly reward their chief executive officers with salaries and bonuses. Johnson and Johnson's CEO received salary and bonuses in 2006 of $28 million, according to Dow Jones. And Merck CEO Richard Clark received $10 million in compensation, according to AFL-CIO Corpwatch.

When former Pfizer CEO Henry McKinnell left the company in 2006, he was given pension, stock and other benefits worth $180 million, according to AFL-CIO Corpwatch.

But CEO William McGuire, of UnitedHealth Group, a health insurance company, stands alone. His annual salary in 2005 was $124 million, and he has been provided stock options worth more than $1.7 billion, according to Forbes.com. As part of his retirement package, he and his spouse will receive free healthcare for as long as they live, according to AFL-CIO Corpwatch.

This is not the case for the average U.S. family, Woolhandler said. If a parent becomes too ill to work, they may lose their salary and be unable to pay their health insurance.

"We found that three-quarters of people bankrupted by illness had insurance at the beginning," Woolhandler said.

People who have an existing illness, like asthma, are charged double the price for insurance or may be refused altogether, said Woolhandler, who founded Physicians for a National Health Program, which wants the United States to switch to a government-run healthcare system, as in Canada.

A number of companies made headlines recently by trying to boost their profits through illegal drug marketing schemes, cheating on their taxes or skimping on safety, according to Peter Rost, former vice president of marketing for Pfizer and author of the book "Whistleblower."

Pfizer was recently fined $430 million for attempting to defraud a government program. Schering Plough paid a $500 million fine for manufacturing violations and $345 million for improper marketing of Claritin, an allergy drug, Rost says.

The U.S. tax authority, the Internal Revenue Service, has demanded that drug company GlaxoSmithKline pay $7.8 billion in back taxes, while Merck may be facing $2 billion in back tax payments.

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