After Miller-El, Mumia Abu-Jamal May Appeal

Dave Lindorff

The Supreme Court’s Miller-El ruling could be a big break for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black Philadelphia journalist on Pennsylvania’s Death Row since 1982.

The jury issues in the two murder cases are strikingly similar. In Miller-El, the Dallas district attorney used peremptory challenges to eliminate 10 of 11 qualified black jurors. The high court said this was evidence of possible racism on the part of the district attorney—something that has long been unconstitutional, but difficult to prove. In reaching its decision, the court’s majority cited a Dallas newspaper’s study of the district attorney’s use of peremptory challenges between 1981 and 1986, which both the newspaper and the court said suggested a “culture” of racism in jury selection. Lower state and federal appeals courts had consistently—and, in the view of the Supreme Court, improperly—barred this evidence from consideration.

Abu-Jamal prosecutor Joseph McGill similarly used peremptory challenges to eliminate 11 of 15 possible black jurors, resulting in a jury of nine whites and three blacks. Just over a year ago, a federal judge refused to consider several academic studies submitted by Abu-Jamal’s defense documenting a history of race-based jury selection by McGill and by the district attorney’s office as a whole during the 1978 to 1986 tenure of then District Attorney Ed Rendell.

A prominent Philadelphia public defender who did not wish to be identified says the Miller-El decision will give the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals no choice but to send the case back to a lower court, should Abu-Jamal’s attorneys appeal. Adds Robert Bryan, the San Francisco death penalty expert recently hired by Abu-Jamal: “Miller-El is of great significance in what I will be eventually presenting federally on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal.”

Dave Lindorff, an In These Times contributing editor, is the author of This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy. His work can be found at This Can’t Be Happening.
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