Revolutionary Worker #890, January 19, 1997
"We've been telling people since Mumia was arrested on December 9, 1981 that our brother is innocent, that he's not in prison for the accusation of murder, that he is in prison because he dared to stand up to this system and since that time, evidence has consistently been demonstrated to prove that the system, through the courts, through Judge Albert Sabo, through the courts and the district attorney's office, back as far as Rendell on up to the current district attorney, Lynn Abraham, have openly, arrogantly defied the truth, ignored the truth and been determined to murder an innocent man. We don't intend to let that happen."
December 27, 1996 at Philadelphia press conference
On December 27, 1996 attorneys for revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal filed legal papers in Philadelphia asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to dismiss the charges which led to Mumia's 1982 death sentence or grant him a new trial. After the papers were filed, Mumia's lead attorney Leonard Weinglass, co-counsel Rachel Wolkenstein, Ramona Africa and other supporters of Mumia held a press conference to explain these developments. Attorney Weinglass told the press:
"We have this morning filed papers in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania asking that Mumia Abu-Jamal be released and that all the charges against him be dropped. We're doing this on the basis of first, a decision that was entered in a civil suit which Mumia brought against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and it was decided in the city of Pittsburgh by a federal judge, Judge Ambrose. She decided that agents of the Commonwealth systematically violated Mumia's sixth amendment rights to effective assistance of counsel when they improperly and illegally opened mail between Mumia and his attorneys just prior, months prior to the time that we filed the petition for post-conviction relief last summer.
"Judge Ambrose found that these violations of Mumia's sixth amendment rights caused actual harm to Mumia in that process. Because of this violation, found now by a federal judge, we have asked the Court to consider that together with all of the other allegations of due process violations and finally to dismiss the charges in their entirety against Mumia.
"Up to this point in time, we have alleged that during the investigation and during the trial, there were systematic due process violations of Mumia's rights. We believe we've proven those allegations, in the hearing last summer and since and in the hearing with Veronica Jones. However, up to this point in time, no court has found that these violations occurred. We think the record supports it. But now, for the first time, we have a federal judge in the Federal District Court of Pittsburgh making a judicial finding that, indeed, violations of Mumia's rights did occur, a very fundamental violation of his right to correspond with his attorney. And so now, with the judicial finding of a violation, we've asked the court to accept that and to look at all of the other violations which have occurred right from the beginning of this case and to dismiss the charges....
"Not only did the correction authorities of the Commonwealth open the critical mail that was corresponded between Mumia and his attorneys, specifically, mail from myself and mail from Rachel Wolkenstein. They copied the letters that were opened and they forwarded those copies to the general counsel of the governor of Pennsylvania at a time when the governor was considering whether or not to sign a warrant for Mumia's execution. I can tell you that these actions are unprecedented. To our knowledge and in our research, such actions have never before occurred in any prison in the United States and so this is more than just an opening of the mail. This is an extreme case of a violation of sixth amendment rights and it was found by a judge. This is not an allegation.
"And so we've given to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania the finding of Judge Ambrose and we've attached a brief in which we cite all of the other violations that have occurred, which we feel we've proven, and ask the Supreme Court now for the first time to just dismiss this case in its entirety because the waters are too polluted for this case to carry on.
"Has the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania done this before? They have. In the case of The Commonwealth v. Smith, the Supreme Court found that the prosecutorial misconduct, which is what we are claiming, that this conduct by agents of the Commonwealth was so extreme that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania said no court should countenance this case, irrespective of what the other evidence is of guilt or innocence. And we have reached that point now in Mumia's case, that this case is so tainted with extreme violations of prosecutorial misconduct, that it should not be allowed to go forward in any court in this state. And so we're asking for a dismissal of all the charges...
"We've asked the Supreme Court first to dismiss all of the charges and we think there's a basis for that. If the Supreme Court does not wish to do that, then we ask in the alternative for the Supreme Court to immediately grant a new trial and if the court does not see fit to do that, then we ask the Court to grant us a new post-conviction hearing and to set last summer's hearing aside. And if the Court doesn't see fit to do that, then lastly we ask the court to set aside all of Judge Sabo's findings and to make new and independent findings of fact. So we are really asking for four forms of relief in the alternative, but we think this mandates a dismissal."
Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested on December 9, 1981 for the murder of Philadelphia cop Daniel Faulkner. At the time, Mumia was a radio journalist in Philadelphia. He was known as the "voice of the voiceless" for his powerful commentaries that exposed the outrages of this system against the poor, particularly the oppression of Black people. Mumia was tried in June of 1982 with Judge Albert Sabo presiding over the trial.
Sabo is known as "the hanging judge" because he has sent more people to death row than any other judge in the country. For most of the "trial," Sabo banned Mumia from the courtroom and ordered a court-appointed attorney to represent him, despite protests from Mumia and his attorney. Sabo refused to grant sufficient funds for investigators and ballistics experts. He allowed the prosecution to withhold names of witnesses from the defense and refused defense requests for discovery of documents in the district attorney's possession. As a result, Mumia was railroaded for a murder he did not commit. He was found guilty and sentenced to death on July 3, 1982.
Mumia appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1989. His appeal was denied. And the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. In 1994 a team of attorneys led by Leonard Weinglass began preparing the only legal remedy still available to Mumia, called a Post-Conviction Relief Appeal (PCRA). At the same time, authorities in states across the country had stepped up the rate of executions of prisoners on death row. And Mumia was preparing a series of commentaries that would be published in the now famous book, Live From Death Row.
Aware that Mumia and his lawyers were preparing to file the PCRA, the authorities seized on the publication of Live From Death Row to try and obstruct the ability of defense to bring to light evidence that Mumia had been unjustly convicted. Attorney Weinglass said at the December 27 press conference, "They knew they had a problem going into this hearing last summer and then they took steps to make it impossible for us to expose the errors that occurred, made it difficult for us to expose it and rushed the hearing in a way that we couldn't bring out everything that we had..."
Under cover of an alleged investigation into whether Mumia was, by writing a book, "conducting a business" from prison, the Department of Corrections seized, read, copied and distributed Mumia's confidential correspondence with his attorneys. The Corrections Commissioner opened mail that had nothing whatsoever to do with the publication of Mumia's book, but did contain vital information about Mumia's legal strategy for his upcoming PCRA appeal.
At the press conference, Attorneys Weinglass and Wolkenstein emphasized that these were not just allegations made by Mumia's legal team. They explained that state officials had testified under oath during the hearings in the federal court that they had, indeed, read, copied and distributed Mumia's confidential legal correspondence. According to excerpts from the civil suit prepared by Mumia's Attorney Jere Krakoff: "Sometime prior to August 17, 1994, the Commissioner's Office--through its legal counsel--directed Huntingdon officials to open letters between Jamal and Jamal's criminal defense counsel outside of Jamal's presence, to photocopy the mail, and to forward copies of the letters to attorney David Horwitz at the Department's Office of Chief Counsel Harrisburg." On August 16, 1994, prison authorities seized a letter written to Mumia by his lawyer Attorney Weinglass despite the fact that the envelope was stamped "legal" and "confidential."
Krakoff describes the contents of the letter as follows: "The three-page-letter, with attachments, addressed highly confidential matters associated with legal efforts to overturn Jamal's conviction and death sentence. Among other things, it discussed strategies related to the issue of whether Jamal's trial counsel had been ineffective, contained a frank assessment of the merits of that possible claim, and detailed Weinglass' efforts to locate defense witnesses. It was accompanied by a list of the names and functions of Jamal's defense team, including principal attorneys, assisting and consulting attorneys, legal assistants, investigators, experts and technical assistants."
Prison authorities made copies of this confidential correspondence and sent them to David Horwitz. Horwitz admitted this under oath during the civil trial. Krakoff notes, "In addition, he [Horwitz] kept the documents in an unlocked cabinet in his desk, took no measures to assure that the documents would not be seen or copied by others, and forwarded copies of the materials to Brian Gottlieb (who worked in the Governor's office), and to Cheryl Young (the Chief Counsel to the Commissioner)."
At the press conference, Attorney Weinglass said that another critical letter outlining legal strategy was seized in February of 1995 when they were in the final stages of their preparation of Mumia's PCRA appeal. The same month, the Corrections Department refused to allow Mumia's paralegals access to him. This created a situation in which Mumia was cut off from the ability to communicate with his lawyers in the crucial months before the filing of his PCRA appeal.
Weinglass described their situation in the spring of 1995: "They had our inner strategy, they had our state of our investigation and they knew that we were being delayed in preparing our case. But they knew when we would be filing and so the governor rushed to sign a warrant for execution against Mumia just prior to our filing and the federal judge in Pittsburgh found that this was an actual crime to Mumia and that it infected the entire proceeding before Judge Sabo. Those of you who were present know that there was an extraordinary thing that happened in this [PCRA] hearing. The Commonwealth's attorneys, the prosecutors from the D.A.'s office in Philadelphia rushed this hearing, refused to give us any time to prepare our witnesses, our evidence, our documents and of course Judge Sabo complied and agreed with that strategy and schedule. We were denied a full hearing and a fair hearing because of that. So you can see how this process of opening Mumia's mail gave them an enormous strategic advantage, put us at a great disadvantage, inhibited our ability to prepare our case and infected the entire process...."
A few days after Pennsylvania Governor Ridge signed Mumia's death warrant, state prison authorities once again directed that Mumia's mail be intercepted. Krakoff writes that, "Nearly a year after the original opening, photocopying, retention and distribution of Jamal's legal mail, a second wave of seizures was authorized by the Commissioner's office on June 5, 1995. The authorization came three days after Jamal's death warrant was signed by the Governor, and two days after disciplinary charges were finally filed against Jamal for his alleged violation of the Business or Profession Rule." Attorney Wolkenstein explained at the press conference that Mumia's legal team did not know that "this information was copied and in the office of the governor's counsel until we were well into the PCRA hearing."
After Mumia's PCRA petition was filed, a court date was set and the same hanging Judge Sabo who had presided over the original railroad was assigned to preside over the PCRA hearings--which began just a month after the execution warrant was signed. At the press conference, Mumia's attorneys said there is no proof yet that the Philadelphia district attorney's office had read Mumia's legal mail. But Weinglass said, "But why were our letters forwarded to the governor's office? And if they forwarded it to the governor's office, why wouldn't they forward it to the district attorney's office who's handling the case? We don't know because Judge Sabo cut us off in our ability to present evidence of this at the [PCRA] hearing. So you can draw your own conclusions. What we found out in Mumia's case right from the beginning is all of our suspicions, if anything, were understated. They went way beyond anything that we even suspected in terms of dealing with his case. And so you can draw your own conclusions from what this record now shows. But I think it's important for you to know that these officials admitted what we are saying in these papers."
In the federal case, Judge Ambrose found that, "The reading of Plaintiff's attorney-client mail by state officials interfered entirely with counsel's ability to represent Plaintiff during his collateral appeal" and that Mumia's PCRA petition was filed a few days after Governor Ridge signed his death warrant in part because of "the unwillingness of counsel and of Plaintiff to communicate freely by mail after having been informed that legal mail had been opened by prison officials."
During the PCRA hearing, the district attorney used the fact that an execution warrant had been signed before Mumia filed his PCRA petition to pursue a strategy of rushing the hearings, which Sabo readily agreed to. Sabo prevented crucial evidence from being presented, quashed over 25 witness subpoenas, interfered with the questioning of witnesses that were called, arrested one of Mumia's attorneys and fined another. In spite of all these attempts to sabotage Mumia's PCRA hearing, important evidence was brought to the light of day that proves that the authorities framed Mumia for a murder he did not commit.
Attorney Weinglass said at the press conference: "So you can see from top to bottom, all these things were to come to light. The fact that the investigation was biased, was incomplete, was bogus, was all going to come out and then they started a process of interfering with our ability to bring these facts out. And that's why this case has to be dismissed."
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to meet in Philadelphia on January 27. After that, they don't meet again in the Philadelphia area until April. They could decide on Mumia's case this month or wait until April or after that. This court has already turned down Mumia's original appeal. During the PCRA hearings in the summer of 1995, they refused to order Judge Sabo to step down. One of the justices named Castille was the district attorney who argued against Mumia in his original appeal before the same court and who refused to indict any city authorities for crimes in connection with the bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985.
What stopped the authorities from executing Mumia during the summer of 1995 was the growth of a broad, diverse and determined movement to stop the execution. Only the power of the people can save Mumia and at this crucial juncture the movement for Mumia needs to seize on this favorable new development to grow much stronger. The people must force the authorities to back down and either dismiss the charges altogether or grant Mumia a new trial.
International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal have called for a major all-day demonstration in Philadelphia on January 27, the day the Pennsylvania Supreme Court goes into session. Be there at 9:00 A.M. at City Hall to demand: Dismiss the Charges or Grant Mumia A New Trial!