Senior Correspondent

Protesters in support of unjustly convicted Mumia Abu-Jamal rally outside the United States Courthouse in Philadelphia, May 17. An appeals court panel pressed defense lawyers and prosecutors on how to determine whether the district attorney intentionally kept Blacks off the jury that convicted former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal of killing a White police officer in 1981. Abu-Jamal�s death sentence was overturned in 2001. Prosecutors are asking the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate it, while Abu-Jamal�s attorney are challenging his 1982 conviction.

WASHINGTON ( – There was a packed courtroom inside the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia May 17, while outside hundreds of supporters of journalist and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal supported his claim of innocence. The appeals court heard oral arguments that the former Black Panther deserves a new trial because his original trial was flawed by a racially biased jury selection process and by an overtly hostile, racist trial and appellate judge.

Mr. Abu-Jamal has been on death row for 25 years. A political prisoner. A prisoner of injustice. He was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Since that conviction, key witnesses have recanted their testimony, and admitted being coerced by prosecutors.

A radio journalist and former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Mr. Abu-Jamal had angered Philadelphia police authorities for his critical reports concerning police misconduct toward the back-to-nature group MOVE. Once, after tracing phone calls he made filing news reports in 1980 to a MOVE house, police authorities tried to get Mr. Abu-Jamal fired from his job at a non-commercial radio station.


Mr. Abu-Jamal’s supporters have rallied international support and many prominent supporters to his cause. His 1982 trial is widely criticized as unfair due to misconduct by police and prosecutors, and pro-prosecution bias by the trial judge, who was accused of “polluting” Mr. Abu-Jamal’s 1995 appeals hearing.

“From what I saw in court today, judging from the questions offered by the judges, and also judging from the previous rulings from this court on the jury selection issue, I would suspect that the court would send this back to the Federal District Court for a full hearing,” Linn Washington, a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune, told The Final Call. Mr. Washington is a journalism professor at Temple University, and he has reported on the case since Mr. Abu-Jamal was arrested Dec. 9, 1981.

“One of the problems with the Abu-Jamal case is that judges have not followed the law. They haven’t followed precedent. If precedent had been followed, say at the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court level, Abu-Jamal would have had a new trial 12 years ago, and possibly have been released totally,” said Mr. Washington.

Judge Albert Sabo (now deceased), both the trial judge and appeals court judge, was known as a pro-prosecution “hanging judge” who—proudly admitted that he had himself been a member of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), yet he refused to recuse himself from hearing the case. This same judge has sentenced more defendants to death than any other jurist in America.

“There are a number of issues pending before this court,” Robert Bryan, Mr. Abu-Jamal’s lead attorney said May 18 in a broadcast interview. “They involve the death penalty, racism in jury selection, the racism and bias of the trial judge, Sabo, who referred to my client during the trial, to use his words–I’m quoting him–‘I’m going to help them fry the n—-r,’ referring to Mumia Abu-Jamal. I’ve handled hundreds of death penalty trials and cases in post-conviction proceedings in the past three decades,” said Mr. Bryan.

“I even went and spent three days in jail in a murder case for contempt of court, in which my client was acquitted–African American. I’ve seen a lot of racism, but I’ve never heard anything like that, except in this case in Philadelphia. It’s unprecedented,” Mr. Bryan said of the judge’s comment made to another judge in an ante-chamber, and overheard by a court stenographer.

Such conduct on the part of Judge Sabo was openly condemned at the time, according to Mr. Washington. He recalls that “the bias that was exhibited by Judge Sabo during the 1995 appeal hearings was so outrageous” that editorials and columns appeared in newspapers normally hostile to Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case, criticizing Judge Sabo as “undermining both the reality and the appearance of a fair trial.”

“It appeared from the questioning of the judges that they felt that there was more than ample evidence that (Mr.) Abu-Jamal’s death penalty was suspect and that should be set aside, said Mr. Washington.

Amnesty International issued an extensive report in 2000 in what has become a highly politicized case, concluding that “the proceeding used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty.”

But prosecutors reject charges that the original conviction is riddled with improprieties. Meanwhile, an alarming number of police involved in the original investigation of Officer Faulkner’s murder were later fired and/or indicted for incidents of corruption that included manufacturing evidence. These firings, forced resignations and indictments involve one-third of officers in the Abu-Jamal investigation. While their acts were unrelated to the Abu-Jamal case, they do constitute improper acts which are also heavily criticized in the Abu-Jamal case–like tampering with evidence and forcing perjured testimony.

“But our focus yesterday is interesting,” said Mr. Bryan on Democracy Now! “with all the energy by the prosecution to kill my client. The focus yesterday was on constitutional crimes committed by the prosecution. What the whole focus was primarily on [was] the death penalty, I’d say 20 percent and 80 percent on racism in the District Attorney’s office of Philadelphia.

“And in all of my years of doing this kind of work, I find yesterday’s hearing, as I think back on it this morning, as unprecedented. These judges, how they’ll rule, we do not know, but they were very troubled–that was very clear–about the racism in this case.”

There is also ample evidence of witness tampering in the original trial. Witnesses who saw someone fleeing the scene of the shooting that left Mr. Abu-Jamal wounded, and Officer Faulkner mortally struck, were never called at trial, and were not on witness lists for the defense to question, according to several investigative reports. The principal witness at the scene was a woman who had several prior prostitution convictions, and who was facing three prostitution prosecutions, which were dropped after her testimony.

Another witness was Veronica Jones, legal authority Leonard Weinglass told The Final Call in a 1996 interview. During a hearing, Ms. Jones told the judge she had testified falsely in the 1982 murder trial; that her false testimony was coerced by police detectives; and that she did in fact see two men running from the late night murder scene after the shooting of the police officer.

In her original statement to police investigators, Ms. Jones said immediately after hearing shots she saw two men flee the scene where the officer was shot. Critically wounded, Mr. Abu-Jamal was found by police moments later at the scene. Ms. Jones “was subjected to a reminder of the intimidation she faced at the original trial,” according to Mr. Weinglass.

Following her testimony at the hearing she was arrested on the witness stand, he said, on a two-year-old charge that she allegedly passed a bad $180 check. She was held overnight in jail and released on $10,000 bail. “It’s the coercion that all of the witnesses who were favorable to Mumia” faced during the original trial, Mr. Weinglass said.

During the original trial, Ms. Jones was in custody on an armed robbery charge, and threatened with a mandatory 5-10 year sentence and the loss of custody of her three young children. After her testimony, recanting her original statement to police, which helped convict Mr. Abu-Jamal, the 21-year-old mother was given probation on the pending charge.

But later, living outside of Pennsylvania, employed, and with two of her children in college, Ms. Jones was located by investigators working for Mr. Abu-Jamal’s defense team.

Another witness was Dessie Hightower, who claimed she saw the gunmen flee, and who successfully passed a polygraph test to that effect. But she could not be found for the trial. Another witness, a cab driver who was on parole and driving the night of the shooting without a license, was coerced into testifying falsely, Mr. Weinglass said at that time.