Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of the murder of police officer Daniel Faulker in Philadelphia. A former member of the Black Panthers party, Mumia was already a prominent journalist and activist at the time of the incident. He claims he’s innocent and people around the world have stood in solidarity with him since then, organizing events, spreading information and petitioning authorities.
Last year, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Leon W. Tucker demanded the District Attorney’s office release every document and memo regarding the involvement of former DA Ronald Castille in Mumia’s case.
Judge Tucker is requesting the documents because a new Supreme Court’s decision found his participation in the case as unconstitutional and potentially biased.
Following the Williams v. Pennsylvania case in 2016, it was ruled that all judges should remove themselves from any case in which they had been previously involved as prosecutors. The legal precedent says “it is a violation of the due process right to an impartial tribunal free of judicial bias if a judge participating in a criminal appeal had ´a significant personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision´ in a defendant’s case.”
Failing to do so would be framed as unconstitutional and allow Mumia’s post-conviction petitions.
Castille was Assistant DA at the time of Abu Jamal’s original trial in 1982 and Philadelphia’s District Attorney during his endless appeals in the 1990s. He was personally and politically involved in the case until he retired in 2014.
Mumia demanded Castille remove himself from his post-conviction appeals from 1996 to 1998 and again in 2002, but he refused, and the Supreme Court ignored his petition. The new precedent would allow Mumia to appeal again.
After Tucker’s request in 2017, the DA office handed in only documents that were already public, failing to deliver all the requested memos, notes and reports regarding Castille’s role in the case.
Now, the scenario seems to be a little different, as democrat lawyer Larry Krasner was sworn in as Philadelphia’s DA on January 1st, 2018.
Krasner is known mostly for his progressive opinions and acts. In 2011, he represented 52 protesters arrested by the police during the Occupy Philadelphia movement pro bono, suing the city and the police. The case settled when the city agreed to pay US$200,000. He also represented activists from the Black Lives Matter movement and other social issues.
During his campaign, he said he wouldn’t prosecute cases of marihuana possession and that he opposes any death penalty case.
It seems like Krasner, who has accused the justice system of being discriminatory, is a very different figure from other attorneys and judges involved in Mumia’s original sentence, raising new hopes for him and his supporters.
Judge Albert F. Sabo, who presided over Abu-Jamal’s 1982 murder trial, holds the record for most death sentences handed down by a Pennsylvania judge, with 31 convicted murderers sentenced to death, including Mumia himself. In 2000, the stenographer for Abu-Jamal’s case signed an affidavit stating she overheard Sabo saying “yeah and I’m gonna help ’em fry the nigger” during the original trial.
Supporters of Mumia think that Krasner’s appointment could mean a new, more positive phase in the case after trials they claim have been “racially biased.”
On Wednesday, January 17, 2018, Judge Tucker held a hearing session about a memo written by Ronald Castille to Assistant DA Gayle McLaughlin Barthold, in which he talks about 18 murder cases including Mumia’s. In the hearing, Judge Tucker said he would review all cases to find out what was Castille’s role in them.
He then ordered the District Attorney’s office again to present documents regarding Castille’s involvement in Mumia’s case in a status report hearing scheduled for Feb. 26. Supporters of Mumia called to “pack the courtroom” in solidarity, and hope Krasner’s policy to be favorable.
The status report hearings were programmed to confirm the DA is doing its job and going through the 31 boxes containing Abu Jamal’s records.
Judith Ritter, one of Abu-Jamal’s attorneys who filed the petition to Judge Tucker, has expressed a more favorable view of Krasner’s team. “We’re glad that they’re going to take a look at their position,” said Ritter on January during Mumia’s first hearing in the year, “and possibly take a position on the ultimate result this time around.”
But Krasner’s more progressive views don’t mean he will support Mumia’s case or release.
When Amy Goodman asked Krasner about Mumia’s case during his campaign, the soon-to-be district attorney refused to make comments “because it could become a basis for an argument that [he] should not be involved in that case.”
Soon after taking office, Krasner disappointed many of his supporters when he slightly softened his formerly anti-death penalty hard stance. He has declared he keeps his personal view and promise on the death penalty but also said that the District Attorney’s office homicide sentencing committee holds the right to recommend the death penalty in some instances. As elected District Attorney, the decision to follow or not the recommendation ultimately falls on him.