PHILADELPHIA–The second day of Kwanzaa, the annual Black cultural holiday, brought Mumia Abu Jamal a special gift in the form of a new avenue for appeal. On Dec. 27 Judge Leon Tucker ruled that the famed former death row inmate can re-argue his appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The fight for justice has been arduous. Prosecutors agreed in 2011 to a sentence of life without parole and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected his final appeal in 2012. Attorneys for the former Black Panther, who has spent 29 years on death row following his conviction in the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner, petitioned the court under the Post-Conviction Relief Act to have his previous appeals thrown out.
Mr. Abu Jamal’s successful legal challenge was based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, which ruled that an appellate judge cannot participate in a case in which he formerly had a personal role in a significant prosecutorial decision.
The key point was “personal role,” which is what Mr. Abu Jamal’s attorneys successfully established was the case for state Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille, who was the Philadelphia district attorney at the time of Mr. Abu Jamal’s conviction and who refused to recuse himself as a state supreme court justice during Mr. Abu Jamal’s appeals.
Judge Tucker in part agreed. “The claim of bias, prejudice, and the refusal of former Justice Castille to recuse himself is worthy of consideration as true justice must be completely just without even a hint of partiality, lack of integrity or impropriety,” Judge Tucker wrote in his ruling.
He further stated in his 36-page opinion that under the Williams v. Pennsylvania decision, “if a judge served as a prosecutor and then the judge, there is no separate analysis or determination required by the court, there is a finding of automatic bias and a due process violation. Judge Tucker added: “Re-argument before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would be best to perform the heart of the function of the appearance of justice. The argument only on the past submitted briefs will avoid the unacceptable danger of having the slightest appearance of impropriety.”
In the second part of his ruling, Tucker said Mr. Abu Jamal’s lawyers failed to present evidence that Mr. Castille had “significant personal involvement in a critical decision” over Mr. Abu Jamal’s case while Mr. Castille was district attorney.
“This is an unheard of legal victory,” Rachel Wolkenstein, a former lawyer and longtime activist for Abu Jamal said to WHYY News. “This is the best opportunity we have had for Mumia’s freedom in decades.”
In a statement published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Attorney Judith Ritter, Mr. Jamal’s lead attorney wrote the judge’s reinstatement of Mr. Abu Jamal’s right to appeal shows that the state Supreme Court was biased with the presence of Mr. Castille.
“Judge Tucker recognized the unconstitutional bias involved with Justice Castille’s sitting on the prior post-conviction appeals and the need for a new appeal untainted by such bias.”
Maureen Faulker told the media Dec. 9 that she would continue to seek justice for her late husband. “The Faulkner Family and myself have resolved ourselves to fight for him. This case has been going on for 39 years,” she said.
Pam Africa of the Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal told The Final Call in a telephone interview that now is the time to keep up the pressure. “We need to give Judge Tucker his praises for doing the right thing,” she said. “He stood up to the color of law.”
“What we are doing now is focusing on the district attorney Larry Krassner waiting to see if he appeals the decision. The D.A.’s office has not made an official comment on their response to the judge’s decision,” Ms. Africa stated. A rally is planned for Jan. 5, she added.