Friday, November 19, 2010

"We Are All Mumia!"

Betsey Piette
Published Nov 17, 2010 5:51 PM

More than 500 people, mostly African American and youth, mobilized for an outdoor rally Nov. 9 here in support of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. The rally lasted through a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on whether the death sentence would be reinstated for Abu-Jamal, who has maintained his innocence since being railroaded to death row for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Abu-Jamal’s supporters included a delegation from the Transport Workers Union Local 100; Charles Barron, the New York Freedom Party gubernatorial candidate; Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, NYC; International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal; and the International Action Center. Activists traveled from as far away as California, Texas, Arizona, Germany, France and Russia.

Shenice Morris told Workers World that she and two other high school students missed school to attend: “We are not going to sit down and be oppressed. Mumia’s case is an example of just how corrupt this government is. We are tired of the attacks on the African-American community. It has to stop.”

Larry Holmes with the Bail Out the People Movement stated: “We are all Mumia. We want to see Mumia walk out as a free man. We will not give up until that happens. Around the world Mumia has come to symbolize the struggles of African Americans for freedom and against oppression.”

Inside the court, a three-judge panel convened to reexamine their 2008 decision regarding confusion over jury instructions in the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial. Two years ago these judges, finding that the jury had been given flawed and misleading instructions, upheld an earlier decision by Judge William Yohn to vacate the death sentence. Yohn’s decision left Abu-Jamal in prison for life without the possibility of parole.

However in January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a lower court order vacating the death sentence in another case had been in error. That case, which also focused on confusing language on a jury ballot form and misleading instructions to the jury, involved neo-Nazi Frank Spizak, who was sentenced to death for the random killings of Black and Jewish people.

An appeal of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Abu-Jamal’s case, filed by the Philadelphia district attorney, was pending in the Supreme Court. After ruling against Spizak, the court sent Abu-Jamal’s appeal back to the 3rd Circuit, asking them to review their decision in light of the Spizak ruling.

While Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns tried to argue that the issues in Abu-Jamal’s case were “almost identical” to those in Spizak’s, Widener University law professor Judith Ritter, arguing for Abu-Jamal, countered that the two jury forms were “fundamentally different.” Ritter successfully argued the same issue before these judges in 2008.

At a press conference following the hearing, Professor Johanna Fernandez with Educators for Mumia said she “found it very disturbing that the court was obsessive over semantics and insignificant details, without being willing to consider the case as a whole — the overwhelming evidence of innocence and the totality of violations of Mumia’s legal and constitutional rights.”

No decision is expected until 2011, but even if the judges uphold their 2008 decision, the district attorney’s office can appeal again to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court could vote to reverse the lower court and reinstate the death penalty.

If the Supreme Court chooses not to take the case or lets the lower court ruling stand, the district attorney would have to decide whether to seek a new penalty-phase trial or to leave Abu-Jamal with a life sentence. A new trial would give Abu-Jamal the chance to introduce new evidence regarding the killing.

It’s clear that support for Abu-Jamal cannot be allowed to waiver. Supporters vowed to intensify a campaign demanding that Attorney General Eric Holder conduct an investigation into the numerous violations of Abu-Jamal’s civil rights.

Justice debated

The high energy at the rally was fueled by an event the night before where two Abu-Jamal supporters, Fernandez and attorney Michael Coard, took on Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and filmmaker Tigre Hill in a debate on the case.

Hill, who is African American, had previewed his anti-Abu-Jamal, pro-Fraternal-Order-of-Police film, “The Barrel of a Gun,” to a mostly white audience of cops and politicians in September. He set up the Nov. 8 debate to follow a screening of his film at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia the night before Abu-Jamal’s hearing.

It’s hard to believe Hill did not anticipate that Abu-Jamal supporters would pack the hall, or that Fernandez and Coard would trounce him and Williams, but that’s exactly what happened.

Hill’s film claims that Abu-Jamal conspired with his brother, William Cook, to murder Faulkner because Abu-Jamal was a former member of the Black Panther Party and a supporter of the MOVE Organization that “always wanted to kill police.”

Long on innuendo but seriously short on facts, “The Barrel of a Gun” presents a one-sided portrayal of the revolutionary Black movements of the 1960s and 1970s as a group of “violent, extremist, communist-sympathizing radicals out to kill cops.”

There is never any mention of the rampant police repression against the Black and Latino/a communities, nor of the widespread corruption that eventually led to federal investigations of the Philadelphia police department. Hill ignores the fact that Black Panther Party members carried guns in self-defense after dozens of their comrades were killed by police.

Williams tried to minimize the facts as well, repeating a refrain that “four witnesses said they saw Mumia shoot Faulkner” and “Mumia confessed.” When Williams said, “We’re bound by the facts,” he was greeted by jeers from the audience.

Fernandez responded that the prosecution’s star witness, Cynthia White, initially picked out Kenneth Freeman, a passenger in William Cook’s car, in a lineup. Police coerced White to change her testimony. Fernandez noted that 15 of the police involved in collecting evidence in Abu-Jamal’s case were brought up on corruption charges for evidence tampering in other cases, but the jury was not told that.

Fernandez has produced another documentary on the case entitled “Justice on Trial.” She challenged Williams and Hill to “stick to the facts in the case, not the ones you make up.”

Coard spoke of the inherent racism in the U.S. and compared Abu-Jamal’s case to those of thousands of other Black and poor people who are railroaded through the judicial system without adequate representation or juries of their peers. Coard noted that the police failed to perform gun residue tests on Abu-Jamal’s hands to prove he had even fired a gun the night Faulkner was shot.

Coard also pointed out that Abu-Jamal’s attorney during the original trial, Anthony Williams, was eventually disbarred.

Seemingly nervous that the debate was not going his way, Hill left the stage at one point to be coached on the sideline. He returned with yet another lie: that Abu-Jamal’s former attorney, Robert Bryan, “was going to argue for self-defense.” Fernandez and the audience booed this outright lie.

A highlight of the debate came when Coard stood up and hand-delivered an order charging Hill with copyright infringement for using substantial footage from the film “Black and Blue” without obtaining permission from its owner, Hugh King. “Black and Blue” focuses on police brutality in Philadelphia. The order instructed Hill to cease screening and disseminating his film and to destroy all copies or risk a lawsuit.

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