A new front may be emerging in the fight to free African-American political activist and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

The fatal shooting of Faulkner happened in the early hours of Dec. 9, 1981, during a confrontation, witnessed by Abu-Jamal, between his younger brother, William Cook, and the officer at a traffic stop. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death and kept in isolation on death row for the next three decades; his death sentence was overturned in 2001, and he remains in prison serving a life sentence without parole.

In an interview posted last weekend, Rachel Wolkenstein, a lawyer for Abu-Jamal, tells Consortium News’ Dennis Bernstein about the potential she now sees in pursuing the argument that judicial bias in Abu-Jamal’s case should undermine the legitimacy of his conviction:

Well, about a year ago, a very important case was decided by the United States Supreme Court. It involved the fact that one of the justices who became the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, had been the prosecutor in Philadelphia, following [Ed] Rendell as the chief [district attorney].

He had been a D.A. and ran on a law-and-order platform, and was endorsed and received major funding from the Fraternal Order of Police. Nonetheless, when he became a Philadelphia Supreme Court justice he sat and ruled on a number of cases, including Mumia’s case, despite requests for him to remove himself on grounds of bias and conflict of interest.

About a year ago, in a different case, after many attempts to get a ruling, it was found that it is a conflict of interest and a denial of a fair and impartial appeal process to allow a judge to sit who had previously been personally involved in a significant fashion in the earlier prosecution of the same case. Basically, it required all the appeals that that judge had sat on and that had been negatively decided against the defendant to be thrown out and to be able to start over again.

Based on this ruling, Mumia’s lawyers brought an action last August to challenge Mumia’s appeals, because Castille was the district attorney who was in charge of all the appeal issues on Mumia’s case at the time that dealt with his Black Panther membership, the rigging of the jury selection to keep blacks off the jury, and various other issues. In all significant issues of Mumia’s case, Castille was the person who argued the decisions should be upheld.

When Castille became a supreme court justice, he had already been the architect of all the D.A.’s support of Mumia’s conviction. During the period of my involvement in the case, and with all the challenges to Mumia’s conviction that began in 1995 and went on through 2008, Castille refused to removed himself from the case and instead ruled against Mumia in each of these cases. The argument is now being made that Castille violated the fundamental precept that as a prosecutor involved in the case he should never have sat as a judge.

Wolkenstein says these details are significant in Abu-Jamal’s case, despite the D.A.’s attempt to argue that this latest effort is occurring too late to be legitimate (a judge ruled that it did apply, so the case can proceed). She says that the D.A.’s office was noncompliant with regard to an order to come forth with evidence of Castille’s involvement, in spite of his statement in court that he took personal involvement in the appeals.

Abu-Jamal then filed another motion to push the D.A.’s team to comply and search the records again. According to Wolkenstein, “they came up with one paragraph saying, ‘Well, we had two people going through 31 boxes looking for this and that” but did not metion going through Castille’s D.A. files. She continues:

Also, one of the people at the D.A. who has been working on Mumia’s appeals since 1986 and has been in the courtroom through all these hearings during the ’90s was personally appointed by Castille to be in charge of the appeals division. He is actually arguing the case on behalf of the D.A.’s office now. He is still working on the case thirty years later. We have nothing indicating what role he played or any statement at all indicating whether he had any consultations with Castille regarding this case.

Activists have long criticized the legitimacy of Abu-Jamal’s trial, with Amnesty International reporting that it “failed to meet international standards.” In a full-page ad in the Aug. 9, 1995, edition of The New York Times, some 112 writers, thinkers, politicians, and artists including Oliver Stone, Jacques Derrida, Paul Newman and Norman Mailer asserted: “There is strong reason to believe that as an outspoken critic of the Philadelphia police and the judicial and prison systems, Mumia Abu-Jamal has been sentenced to death because of his political beliefs.”

According to the International Action Center, these are the general facts of the case:

On Dec. 9, 1981, Abu-Jamal was driving a taxi when he saw that police had stopped his brother. He got out of the car to make sure police were not violating his brother’s civil rights.

In the altercation that followed, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed. Witnesses saw a man flee the scene who did not look like Abu-Jamal. But when police arrived, they arrested Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had also been shot.

Ballistics reports prove that the gun found on Mumia Abu-Jamal, a .38 caliber weapon, was not the gun that killed Officer Faulkner. He was shot with a .44 caliber weapon. Police did not even test Abu-Jamal’s weapon to see whether or not it had been fired.

Eyewitnesses who were not called to testify in 1982 have come forward. They say Mumia Abu-Jamal was not the shooter. Eyewitness Veronica Jones says police threatened to jail her if she testified. Other witnesses, who testified against Abu-Jamal in the original trial, have changed their stories, saying police threatened and intimidated them.

The International Action Center also reports that Judge Albert Sabo, who presided over Abu-Jamal’s trial in 1982, has sent more people to death row than any other U.S. judge — most of them black and Latino. Sabo is a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, and his apparent hostility to Abu-Jamal’s defense was widely noted during the trial’s proceedings. Among other noted trial issues: Only two black jurors served, in a city that was 40 percent black, and the prosecution’s case largely centered on Abu-Jamal’s involvement with the Black Panthers.

Before his imprisonment, Abu-Jamal drew acclaim for his journalistic prowess as an award-winning radio news reporter for several public radio stations, and he served as president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He has continued writing in prison, publishing various books and essays on religious themes of prisoners, the nature of crime and punishment, a diary of daily life on death row (written before his sentence was commuted to life without parole), and a history of the Black Panthers. He is a regular commentator on an online broadcast sponsored by Prison Radio, and he teaches Georgist economic courses to other prisoners in a correspondence course.

Wolkenstein emphasized the importance of political pressure and demonstrations in order to demand that officials at the District Attorney’s office open their files.


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