FILM: The Devils Backbone of the Spanish Civil War.
December 22, 2001
Reversal of Fortune?
Mumias death sentence is overturned, for now
by Dave Lindorff
Police beat protesters at a legally permitted Free Mumia march in Philadelphia on December 8. Four protesters were hospitalized; 6 face felony charges.
PhiladelphiaAfter surviving two decades on Pennsylvanias Death Row, journalist and former Black Panther activist Mumia Abu-Jamal had his death sentence voided on December 19. The ruling was based on a narrow issue involving faulty instructions to the jury by the judge and in the jury verdict form at Abu-Jamals 1982 trial, which federal Judge William Yohn said might have incorrectly misled the panel. Judge Yohn rejected all arguments to overturn Abu-Jamals first-degree murder conviction. Prosecutors have 180 days to file a motion for a new sentencing hearing before a new jury, which could reimpose a death sentence. If no such hearing is held, he will automatically be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. With the death sentence lifted, the man who was convicted in the 1981 slaying of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner will be moved from the super-max prison where he has spent the bulk of his adult life in near solitary confinement into a regular prison. Both Abu-Jamals attorneys and Lynne Abraham, Philadelphias District Attorney, say they will appeal the decision. Hugh Burns, the prosecutor handling the case, argues that the jury instruction issue cited by Yohn should have been raised by Abu-Jamal in his first appeal to the states high court in 1989, and that in raising it later, in 1995, he was too late. Abu-Jamal, meanwhile, will ask the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Yohns rejection of the 19 constitutional complaints his lawyers raised concerning his conviction. He is also asking the Appeals Court to order Yohn to consider new evidence and witnesses discovered by his attorneys, Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish. Those witnesses include a controversial figure, Arnold Beverly, who claims it was he, and not Abu-Jamal, who killed Faulkner. No date has been set for the federal appeals court to consider the case, and it could take some time before it is heard. If there were a new sentencing trial, one hope for Abu-Jamalwho continues to maintain his innocenceis that he could, at the discretion of the judge, introduce new evidence to raise residual doubt in the minds of jurors concerning his actual guilt. Leonard Weinglass and Daniel Williams (both dumped by Abu-Jamal last spring after Williams published a book about the case) say it was always their hope that, if they failed to overturn his conviction, a new sentencing hearing might enable them at least to introduce new evidence of their clients innocence. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals could reverse Judge Yohn or send the case back to him on the issue of whether the prosecution improperly excused jurors in 1982 on grounds of their race. While Yohn denied that claim, it is the one issue he certified to the appeals court, meaning that he felt there were grounds to reconsider it.
The most likely outcome for Abu-Jamal at this point, though, is that he will never get out of prison. This grim prospect angers those who have been demanding his freedom. But given Abu-Jamals charisma and journalistic gifts, the much greater access to the outside world he will gain as an ordinary prisoner in the state system is sure to infuriate those othersincluding the police and most of the states legal and political establishmentwho have been trying to silence him.
The ruling is being seen as a mixed blessing by Abu-Jamal supporters. Says Pam Africa, a leader of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Trading Mumia from Death Row to life in prison is not acceptable.