Mumia Abu-Jamal:
Crucial Battle Ahead

Legal team prepares to file federal habeas corpus appeal

Revolutionary Worker #1026, October 17, 1999

The fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal is now entering a new and crucial phase. Mumia's legal team is preparing to file their federal legal appeal--a writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court in Philadelphia. "Habeas corpus" is a legal term meaning a demand for the federal courts to review Mumia's case on the basis that he was unjustly tried and sentenced by the Pennsylvania state court. The habeas petition will detail dozens of constitutional violations in Mumia's case--making clear that a profound injustice took place when this Black revolutionary was convicted and sentenced to death.

The filing of the writ of habeas corpus is a critical moment in the whole legal battle. A federal district judge in Philadelphia will be asked to hold a hearing on Mumia's petition. If a hearing is granted, this will be Mumia's last opportunity to present the important evidence and witness testimony that were suppressed by the Pennsylvania courts. After the federal district court, according to new federal guidelines on the review of death penalty cases, higher appeals courts will only review transcripts of Mumia's case from the state courts--they will not hear new evidence.

The federal district judge who gets Mumia's case is not required to grant a hearing. The judge could decide to simply read the existing trial transcripts and issue a ruling. And the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act, signed into law by Clinton, is specifically designed to discourage federal courts from reviewing and overturning death sentences handed down in the state courts. This is why the power structure must be confronted with loud and widespread calls for justice for Mumia in support of the filing of the federal appeal--and with an increasingly powerful movement to demand justice in the coming period.

The stakes are very high. And everything the people do now to demand a new trial for Mumia will make a difference in the outcome of this battle.

The Supreme Court and the Writ of Certiorari

The opening shot in the fight in the federal courts was the writ of certiorari which Mumia's legal team had filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. The "cert" petition was a request for the Supreme Court to consider Mumia's case before it works its way up through the normal federal appeals process. The Supreme Court will sometimes do this when important legal questions are involved.

The issues raised in Mumia's writ of certiorari had to do with Mumia's Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial. These rights were violated by the Pennsylvania court--when Judge Albert Sabo refused to let Mumia act as his own attorney, when Sabo held a meeting in his chambers to remove a juror without Mumia's presence, and when Mumia was removed from the courtroom without provisions for him to follow the trial proceedings.

On October 4, the Supreme Court declined to consider Mumia's writ of certiorari. The denial of the "cert" does not mean that the Supreme Court ruled against Mumia on the legal issues raised in the petition. But it was a highly political move for the Justices not to hear the writ at this time.

The Supreme Court decision on the writ of certiorari received focused coverage in the major media--including the Associated Press news wire, CNN and the New York Times. This attention by the establishment media reflects the growing impact of the people's movement to demand justice for Mumia. April 24 brought more than 35,000 people into the streets in Philadelphia and San Francisco. In September, "Mumia 911: National Day of Art to Stop the Execution" mobilized artists in what some have called the "hottest movement" in the arts since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. And during the "Mumia Awareness Week," thousands of people stepped out for Mumia across the U.S. and the world--and their energetic and creative efforts reached hundreds of thousands of others.

The October 4 decision also shed more light on the unjust nature of the whole legal system. Mumia's writ of certiorari was among many other cases that the Supreme Court declined to consider--including seven "cert" petitions from death row prisoners in Pennsylvania alone. As Mumia said after the denial of his petition: "The Supreme Court hears only a tiny percent of the cases that are brought before it, roughly 75 out of 7,000 in one semester or a term of the court.... Even the most charitable observer must agree that by virtue of the court taking such a small fraction of the important cases that are filed before it, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many grave injustices are going unresolved."

The Supreme Court justices actually don't read the legal documents for most of the cases that come before the court. Law clerks play a major role in deciding which cases the court even hears. And these law clerks are overwhelmingly white and male. A press release protesting this situation from the NAACP revealed that out of the 462 law clerks working in the current Supreme Court, only nine (less than 2%) are Black, five (1.1%) are Latino, 18 (4.5%) are Asian American and 105 (25%) are women. In other words, life-and-death decisions are being made by a legal body deeply marked with inequality.

Death Warrant Alert

Another effect of the Supreme Court's denial of Mumia's "cert" petition was that it opened up the possibility of Pennsylvania Governor Ridge signing a death warrant on Mumia. On October 6, Ridge signed death warrants--setting execution dates--on three of the seven death row prisoners whose "cert" petitions were denied two days earlier.

Mumia was not one of those three. As we go to press, Ridge has not yet signed a death warrant on Mumia. The movement to defend Mumia has issued a call for emergency protests if a death warrant is signed (see box).

If Ridge does sign a death warrant, Mumia's lawyers will immediately file the writ of habeas corpus and ask the federal district court to issue a stay of execution. The legal team expects that a stay will be granted. So Mumia would not face an immediate threat of execution. Even if a death warrant is not signed, the habeas petition will be filed before the end of October.

If the federal district judge agrees to hold a hearing on Mumia's petition, the state of Pennsylvania is certain to appeal this decision to the circuit court of appeals. If the judge rules against Mumia, then he will appeal. So there will be at least two rounds of federal court action over the next year. Mumia's lawyers have pointed out that action in the federal courts will go much faster than in the state courts. As we enter this new and crucial phase in the battle to save Mumia's life, the people must proceed with an increased sense of urgency and determination.

Powerful elements in the power structure have made clear their desire to take Mumia's life away from the people. To stop these deadly plans, the people need to make clear that this system would suffer a very high political price if the government carries through with this execution.

As Carl Dix, RCP National Spokesperson, has said: "If we don't step up our efforts to do what's needed to beat back their murderous move on our brother Mumia, we'll lose a very precious life and a very powerful voice against injustice. Think of what a heavy blow that would be--how it would weigh on the many people who've drawn hope from Mumia's words and his example of uncompromising resistance. Think of how that would impact the youth, the new generation of fighters, many of whom were inspired to join the struggle by Mumia. We've got to escalate the struggle to stop their attempt to execute Mumia."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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