Mumia: Life and Death

Governor Signs Death Warrant
Legal Team Files New Federal Appeal

Revolutionary Worker #1027, October 24, 1999

The fight for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal is now at a new level of urgency and high stakes. On October 13 Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge signed a death warrant for "the execution by lethal injection of Mumia Abu-Jamal of Philadelphia." Ridge set the execution date for December 2.

Mumia was immediately placed in what is known as Phase 2 "death watch"--which puts even more rigid restrictions on Mumia, including further limitations on access to visitors, phone calls and reading materials. Amnesty International's General Secretary Pierre Sané said that this "unnecessary infliction of suffering upon a prisoner by a government official constitutes torture."

Mumia's initial response to the death warrant was typical of the courage, determination and optimism he has shown throughout his 17 years as a political prisoner on death row: "This is just the next stage of the fight. We will continue to fight. We will win!"

The signing of the death warrant was a highly vengeful and political act. Ridge knew full well that within days Mumia was filing his federal legal appeal--a writ of habeas corpus--which documents a massive body of evidence showing that Mumia was unjustly tried and sentenced by the Pennsylvania courts. Yet Ridge chose to go ahead and assign an execution date less than two months away.

People who have followed Mumia's case remember that Ridge pulled the same stunt in 1995 when Mumia was scheduled to file a petition for a new trial in the state court on a Monday morning. Ridge rushed to sign a death warrant on the Friday afternoon before the filing. Judge Sabo then used the warrant as justification to rush the proceedings, while Mumia was put on "death watch."

By signing the new death warrant, Ridge also went against the recent calls by the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Bar Associations for a moratorium on all executions because of injustices in the death penalty system. The warrant for Mumia was the 171st signed by Ridge since 1994--five times the number signed by his predecessors over a 25-year period. While Black people make up 9 percent of Pennsylvania's total population, the percentage of Black prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania is seven times greater (62 percent).

Mumia's Writ of Habeas Corpus--
Record of a Political Railroad

Two days after Ridge signed the death warrant, Mumia's legal team filed the habeas corpus petition with the federal district court in Philadelphia. Habeas corpus is a legal term meaning a request for the federal courts to review a conviction and sentencing by a state court. The lawyers also filed an application for a stay of execution.

Right after the filing, Mumia's legal team and supporters held a press conference at the national headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee. Although reporters from several wire services attended, many of the major establishment media were absent. Where was ABC, whose 20/20 program had so viciously attacked Mumia and his supporters? Where was Vanity Fair magazine, which had recently printed an article filled with malicious lies about Mumia and his case?

Speaking at the press conference, Leonard Weinglass, Mumia's lead attorney, described the habeas document: "The petition is over 160 plus pages long. It has over 600 paragraphs of allegations of wrongdoing in the state process. And we particularize 29 separate violations of federal constitutional law, any one of which would qualify Mumia for a new trial. So this is a mammoth record which could not conceivably justify an execution of anyone, at this or at any other time."

Attorney Dan Williams said: "Our petition is a testament to a profound injustice--and it is an invitation to the court to correct that injustice. It is a testament to the powerful evidence of Mumia's innocence. It is a profound and thorough rebuttal of what the prosecution claims is an open and shut case. What our petition, in fact, shows is that their case was built upon fabricated evidence. So compelling is our case...that even the magazine American Lawyer concurs that Mr. Jamal's conviction was secured through fabricated evidence.

"Our petition shows that this so-called open-and-shut case was secured through manipulation of eyewitnesses, witnesses who saw a shooter flee to a nearby alleyway. This petition is a testament to a case where the prosecution's evidence, its so-called evidence of an open-and-shut case, was never actually challenged in a trial--because Mumia's lawyer first of all did not even want to be there to represent him, and was thoroughly and completely unprepared and unwilling to mount a defense.... This is a case where the trial judge kept out evidence of Mumia's innocence. This is a case where the death sentence was secured by the prosecutor's caricature of Mumia, and the true essence of who he is as a human being was never presented to the jury. This is a case of racism of the highest order in the selection of the jury. In short, what our petition shows is that this is a case of injustice to the highest degree."

Critical Moment in the Struggle

The habeas corpus filing is a key juncture in the battle for Mumia's life. The habeas petition asks the federal district judge assigned to the case, William Yohn, to hold a hearing where Mumia's legal team can present important evidence and witness testimony that were suppressed by the Pennsylvania courts. Up until this point, all hearings in the Pennsylvania system have been presided over by Judge Sabo. And these hearings were full of constitutional violations, as Mumia's habeas petition points out. Sabo's actions were then approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices, many of whom have close ties with the Fraternal Order of Police. So a hearing in the federal district court will be Mumia's first real opportunity to have the evidence and witnesses for his case heard and reviewed.

At the same time, a hearing at the federal district level is Mumia's last chance to bring up such evidence and witnesses in court. New federal guidelines severely limit the review of death penalty cases at the federal level. And after the federal district court, higher appeals courts will only review transcripts of Mumia's case from the state courts--they will not hear new evidence and witnesses.

The federal judge handling Mumia's case is not legally required to grant a hearing. He can review the brief and make a ruling without actually holding a hearing in court. That is why it is crucial that the power structure be confronted with loud and widespread support for Mumia's federal appeal and demand for a new hearing.

Death Warrant Danger

As we go to press, the federal judge has not issued a stay of execution, and Mumia remains on Phase 2. This is a very dangerous situation. The judge is not legally required to lift the death warrant. It is legally possible for the judge to take the position that he could review Mumia's habeas petition and make a decision before December 2--and therefore a stay of execution is "unnecessary."

Mumia's legal team is demanding an indefinite stay, until the judge comes down with a decision. But even if the judge issues a stay, it is not the end of the death warrant. A stay is only a postponement to allow time for the judge to review Mumia's petition. Mumia remains under order of death--and the stay will be lifted after the federal district court finishes considering the case.

It is crucial for all those who want justice to make this case such a dividing line throughout society that the enemy is compelled to back off their plans to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal and the truth can be heard.

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