Supreme Court Decisions Signal Need to Intensify Struggle

Revolutionary Worker #1055, May 21, 2000

On April 18, the United States Supreme Court handed down two important decisions affecting the death penalty. These decisions were the first significant rulings on the Effective Death Penalty Act, or EDPA. The EDPA, passed in 1996, put important new restrictions on the rights of prisoners to appeal their cases to the federal court level.

The two decisions came down in a contradictory and potentially confusing way. The Court granted the appeals of the two prisoners--Terry Williams and Michael Williams. At the same time it upheld the EDPA and its new rollbacks and restrictions on prisoners' rights.

This article will try to explain the content of these decisions and how they will affect prisoners on death row. It will also discuss the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal in particular. But, first, a brief review of the EDPA itself.

What is the EDPA?

In the decade before Congress passed the EDPA, people who appealed death sentences to the federal courts won reversals in more than one out of three cases. State courts were churning out verdicts so obviously unjust that they threatened to undermine the principles and credibility of the judicial machinery.

In other words, many wrongly convicted people were winning justice. So Congress and President Clinton decided to act. How? Did they pass laws guaranteeing poor people a right to better lawyers? No, in fact they slashed and even abolished programs of legal assistance for the poor. Did they stiffen penalties for prosecutors, cops, and judges who rigged trials against defendants? No, far from it. Instead, they passed the EDPA, a law to make it harder for wrongly convicted people to appeal their cases.

The EDPA (also known as the AEDPA because it is part of a larger reactionary law) severely restricts the rights of prisoners to appeal their cases to the federal courts in a process known as habeas corpus. It limits prisoners to one single habeas appeal that must be made within one year of the completion of their state court appeals. It further mandates federal judges to assume that findings of fact by the state courts are correct unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary (as opposed to reviewing the facts without any assumptions about who is right).

Another important EDPA restriction concerns the standard used by federal judges to strike down state court rulings on points of law. In the past, if a defendant could prove that state judges had incorrectly or wrongly interpreted the law, then the federal courts were obligated to overturn the verdict. The EDPA changes this, allowing federal judges to intervene only in cases when the state court decision is "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law."

Thus the EDPA makes it okay for a state court to incorrectly interpret the law, so long as this is not done in an "unreasonable" way. In addition, the EDPA mandates that if a defendant "fails to develop" evidence or arguments at the state level, then he or she can NOT later introduce them on federal appeal. Both of these provisions were up for review in the recent Supreme Court rulings.

In sum, Congress and Clinton passed a law intended to speed the deaths of many more prisoners, with no regard for the fairness of their trials or even whether they were innocent. In the rush to do this, they tossed out rights that had been paid for in blood, particularly during the eras of Reconstruction and the Black Liberation Movement. Now, with its recent decisions, the Supreme Court has endorsed and upheld this attack.

The Two Cases

These decisions were complex. The Court upheld key EDPA provisions at the same time as it actually granted relief to two death row prisoners. As a result, many people thought that the court was putting restrictions on the EDPA or even signaling some rethinking on the death penalty. But this is not so. The main content of the two decisions was the upholding of the EDPA in its first major test.

The court majority explicitly upheld the "unreasonableness" criterion of the EDPA. Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, said that "for purposes of today's opinion, the most important point is that an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." She said that a federal court cannot grant relief just because a state court decision is wrong, so long as it is reasonable. Of course, this distinction is very elastic, but the point remains: the Court has now set the bar much higher for anyone appealing a wrong decision.

In the individual case at issue, however, two members of the majority switched over and voted to throw out the state court decision. These two justices said that this particular decision happened to be "unreasonable," so they were voting to throw it out. At issue in this case was the legal representation of Terry Williams, whose lawyer had neglected to bring up mitigating circumstances at his trial (as happened in Mumia's case).

Lower courts had gone back and forth on whether this constituted grounds for a new sentencing hearing. Finally, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals--the level right below the Supreme Court--ruled that the decision refusing Williams relief was not "unreasonable." To do this, the Fourth Circuit claimed that a decision should be considered reasonable unless it was one that all judges would agree was not! This standard would have effectively barred ALL federal review of any state court decision, and neither the Supreme Court (nor the bourgeoisie as a whole) intends that with this law. Such a step would risk raising questions about the EDPA too broadly, and could also prevent federal courts from intervening when a lower court acted against the broader interests of the ruling class.

The second case concerned a prisoner named Michael Williams. Williams found out, after his state appeals were exhausted, that the prosecutor had withheld important evidence. Yet the Fourth Circuit ruled that because the defense had "failed to develop" this evidence before they got to the federal courts, they had lost their chance and Williams would have to die. Michael Williams' lawyers argued to the Supreme Court that they could hardly be faulted for "failing" to develop evidence that the prosecution had illegally withheld from them! And in this case the Court agreed with the defense that since the state had suppressed the evidence, Williams deserved an evidentiary hearing.

In analyzing this, it helps to know that the Fourth Circuit Court generally plays the role of point man in stripping away people's legal rights. For example, the Fourth Circuit recently overturned the Miranda decision, which compels the police to inform people of their right to an attorney when arrested. This case, too, was recently argued before the Supreme Court, but the decision has not yet been announced.

What Will This Mean for the People?

On the most basic level, this means that many more prisoners will now be executed. Ninety-eight prisoners were killed in 1999, before these key provisions of the EDPA had been upheld. More will be killed this year, and some experts estimate that by 2001 the U.S. will be executing a person a day. This is a terrible prospect, and the people must intensify their opposition to this government's use of the death penalty.

The recent high court decisions will also affect the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. First, in order to get a new trial, Mumia must demonstrate not only that the decisions of the state courts were incorrect or wrong, but that their actions were "unreasonable." But the Supreme Court failed to define what is meant by unreasonable, as opposed to being merely incorrect.

Thus Judge Yohn, who is hearing Mumia's habeas appeal, can either find the decisions of the Pennsylvania courts incorrect but not unreasonable--and hence deny Mumia a new trial. Or, he can find them to be both wrong and unreasonable, and order a new trial for Mumia.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court did, in these decisions, reverse a death sentence for reason of ineffectiveness of counsel--failure of the defense lawyer to do an adequate job. This is precisely one of the issues raised by Mumia, with facts far more damning than those in the Virginia case which the Supreme Court reversed. There has been much exposure recently on how death row prisoners have systematically been denied effective counsel by the justice system. And it is likely that public exposure of this injustice played a part in the court's decision to grant Williams his appeal.

But there are other issues before Judge Yohn as well. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when his lawyer admitted that he didn't interview a single witness, or was it merely incorrect? Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when three witnesses changed their account of what they observed and one admitted to testifying falsely, or was it merely incorrect?

Was it unreasonable for the district attorney's office to remove 10 qualified African-American jurors, or was it merely incorrect? Was it unreasonable when the one witness who reported that Mumia made no comments on the night he was alleged to have confessed was prevented from testifying by the false report that he was unavailable, or was it merely incorrect? Was it unreasonable when the district attorney introduced evidence of Mumia's political statements and associations 12 years earlier as an argument for execution, or was it merely incorrect?

The difference between "unreasonable" and incorrect is now the difference between life and death.

What then do we conclude from all this? Overall, the Supreme Court decisions continue the reactionary offensive against the people--indeed, they have given their stamp of approval to this terrible unjust law, the EDPA. So we must have no illusions whatsoever about the likelihood of the enemy easing up for any reason short of the intensity of our struggle, along with the penetrating exposure of Mumia's legal case.

At the same time, it is still possible for the federal courts to overturn Mumia's conviction, on a number of grounds. In other words, these recent decisions narrow the terrain on which the legal team is fighting, but do not fundamentally close off their ability to fight...and to prevail.

In all, the old point from Frederick Douglass still applies: power concedes nothing without a struggle. And the further point made by Mao Tsetung applies as well: Dare to struggle, Dare to win!

Mumia must not die. This reactionary agenda must be turned back. The struggle of the people must, can, and will go higher, winning justice for Mumia, and in so doing strike a blow for the thousands of others on death row and the millions of others battling the every-day bone-deep injustice of the system.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)