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Hundreds Protest at DOJ to Demand Federal Probe of Alleged Racism in Mumia Abu-Jamal Conviction

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Hundreds of supporters of former death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal marked his 58th birthday Tuesday with a protest outside the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., calling for a federal probe into his case. For decades, Abu-Jamal has argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to his conviction for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Last year, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower judge, who set aside his death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose the death penalty rather than a life sentence. In January this year, Abu-Jamal was transferred from solitary confinement to the general prison population. We get legal update from Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Judith Ritter. Later in the broadcast we speak directly with Abu-Jamal by telephone. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hundreds of supporters of former death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal marked his 58th birthday yesterday by protesting outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther and journalist who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. For decades, he has argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to his conviction. In January this year, Abu-Jamal was transferred from solitary confinement to the general prison population. Last year, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower judge, who set aside Abu-Jamal’s death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence.

Yesterday, Abu-Jamal’s supporters called on Attorney General Eric Holder and the White House to open a federal probe into his case that could lead to his release.

ABU-JAMAL SUPPORTER: I am here to ask President Barack Obama to let Mumia go. He never committed a crime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The “Occupy the Justice Department” protest also focused on the inequalities of the U.S. justice system and the privatization of the prison industry. Speaking to Prison Radio shortly before the April 24th action, Mumia Abu-Jamal addressed his supporters and the wider Occupy movement.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: The real deal is Occupy Everything. Where the people are, there should you be. Where power and wealth are hurting the people, there you should be organizing, resisting, fighting back, winning a better world. You will succeed if you fight hard enough, for despite what the corporate media echoes, the majority of the people are on your side. You are voicing their concerns, their fears, and their sense of mass betrayal.

In fact, it has largely been the corporate Dow Jones reporting media that has betrayed their readers, listeners and viewers, not only by selling the wars, but by selling their corporate visions to the world—in effect, by being their mouthpieces. That’s where the big bucks are. So, to defend their masters, the lords of high finance, they will try to savage you. Note that this is but a signal of your success and a reflection of their bosses’ fears.

Keep on rolling. Keep on moving. And while you do it, treat each other as brothers and sisters, compañeros y compañeras. Care for each other, for that, in itself, will distinguish your movement from the market-driven carelessness and selfishness that characterizes the age of globalized capital. “Same old, same old” has not been working for us. We need only look around us and see this. It’s time for a better way. Do you wait? Or do you act? From message to the movement, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: That message of Mumia Abu-Jamal was played for the A24 Occupy the DOJ protest yesterday.

Over the years, Mumia Abu-Jamal has become one of the world’s most high-profile prisoners. In a forthcoming film called Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, some of his supporters explained why his case continues to matter. These are some of the voices of his supporters, from Professor Cornel West to writer Tariq Ali, Mike Africa, publisher Greg Ruggiero, and journalist Linn Washington. It begins with the former prisoner, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

RUBINHURRICANECARTER: Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the lost souls of the revolution.

CORNEL WEST: Mumia, how are you dealing with all of this darkness and despair and despondency and so forth? He said, “Let me write about it. I’ll tell the truth about it. It’s a living hell. It’s a nightmare.”

TARIQ ALI: They have moved heaven and earth to stop his voice being heard in the United States.

MIKE AFRICA: Anybody who has the ability to draw a crowd with their voice and then speak truth, oh, my god.

GREG RUGGIERO: Mumia Abu-Jamal is a revolutionary person. So he’s like a guerrilla in the jungle in a tent in the rain writing to the community with next to nothing.

LINN WASHINGTON: So here we have somebody who defiantly says, “Yes, I’m not only a journalist, but I’m a revolutionary journalist. And no, I don’t agree with anything that you’re doing. And yes, I have an international platform—interestingly enough, a platform that I never use to talk about my own case.” They want him ground up.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the forthcoming documentary, Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, directed by Steve Vittoria.

Well, for more, we’re going to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attorney Judith Ritter. She has represented Mumia Abu-Jamal since 2002. She’s the director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Widener Law School.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! First of all, I think there are a lot of people who do not even realize, Judith Ritter, that Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former death row prisoner, that he has been moved off of death row. Can you explain where he is and how this happened?

JUDITH RITTER: Yes, it’s true, but it’s only since January of this year that he has been in the general population. You know, what people may have heard is that the death penalty was set aside in his case, but that was originally in 2001 by a federal district court judge here in Philadelphia, and yet he was only removed from death row in December of 2011. Now, the reason for that is because the prosecuting attorney appealed our victory in the federal court. And there’s been appeals that we’ve been arguing over all of these years. The case—the DA asked the Supreme Court to take the case. The Supreme Court sent it back to the Third Circuit. We had a second argument in the Third Circuit, went back to the Supreme Court, where they refused to review the setting aside of his death penalty. But all of that took many years, and the policy of the Department of Corrections here in Pennsylvania is as long as these appeals are pending, they won’t take an inmate off of death row. So despite the fact that his sentence was set aside in 2001, he’s been on—was on death row until December of this year.

He was in a high maximum security facility in western Pennsylvania, when the district attorney in Philadelphia announced that they would not seek a new penalty phase. I mean, when we had the ruling from the Supreme Court that they would not review the case, the district attorney here in Philly did have the option of seeking a new death sentence. They announced in December last year that they would not. He was then moved off of death row. He’s now in a medium security facility, a lot closer to Philadelphia, which is good for his lawyers and for his family and close friends in order to see him a lot more often. And he was just moved to general population in January.

And the reason that he’s not on death row, as you said at the beginning of the segment, is that the death penalty was set aside because the jury instructions were found by not just, you know, one judge, but at some point about four federal judges, as being unconstitutionally misleading, so that the jury who voted for him to have the death sentence, the courts have determined, were given instructions that were incorrect on the law and incorrect in a way that would make it more likely that they would vote for death. And that’s what happened. So the death sentence is now off, off the horizon here, which is obviously a very, very wonderful thing. Mumia is in general population. But, you know, as you all, I think, know, he’s certainly not free, and he will be shortly resentenced to life without possibility of parole.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Judy Ritter, just to clarify, even though he’s been removed from death row, his first-degree murder conviction still stands, is that correct?

JUDITH RITTER: That’s correct. And the only alternative sentence—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is there any way to appeal that—

JUDITH RITTER: The only alternative sentence for that is life without parole.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is that the best that we can hope for now?

JUDITH RITTER: Well, you know, his supporters, his lawyers are, you know, continuing to work on his behalf. What’s, you know, important for people to know, and probably most people don’t know, is that the laws in the past, you know, 10 years—the laws have changed so that it makes it very, very difficult to—for a state prisoner to get into federal court and convince the court there to overturn their conviction. The courts—the federal courts are required by law—this is a law signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. It made federal habeas corpus relief very, very difficult to achieve. It gives deference to the state court’s ruling, so that the federal court, even if they disagree with something the state court decided, they still have to give deference and can only do anything if they find it unreasonable. To go back into court with a habeas petition after one has been done is also extremely difficult to do. So, there is room for litigation, and we’re working on his behalf, and we’ll continue to do so.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, what is it that you’re planning now, in terms of subsequent action?

JUDITH RITTER: You know, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on legal strategies, you know, at this point, and I’d prefer not to do that. But as I said, we—you know, there are things about this case that have yet to be investigated, believe it or not, even after all these years. And, you know, we’ve got a team of lawyers and very, very hard-working, dedicated activists who are working very, very hard. And that’s not just activists in Philly and not just activists in the United States, but all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Ritter, I want to go to the district attorney, to Seth Williams. Back in January, he said he’ll appeal the federal court’s decision to grant a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal. Can you respond to this?

JUDITH RITTER: What happened was they did appeal, and they appealed for many, many years. When the U.S. Supreme Court said that they would—in October of 2011, so this past October—said, “We will not review the case,” that was the end of the line for any appeals by the district attorney’s office. The only thing they could have done at that point was to convene a new jury, try to convince a new jury now to issue a death sentence. And they announced in early December at a press conference in Philadelphia that they would not seek that, that they would not try to have a new sentence of death imposed, which leaves the sentence—that hasn’t been officially imposed yet, but will be—as life without parole.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Seth Williams. This is what he had to say, the Philadelphia district attorney.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY SETH WILLIAMS: What I’m going to do is I’m going to review fully the opinion of the Court of Appeals, but it is my belief at this point that I will ask the Supreme Court to clarify and to make a decision on what we should do at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Judith Ritter?

JUDITH RITTER: And he did ask the—he did ask the Supreme Court. His office did ask the Supreme Court to review it, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Ritter, what do you say to Daniel Faulkner’s family, who says—his supporters will just never accept that Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering her husband?

JUDITH RITTER: Well, there are good reasons that the conviction is not acceptable to many, many all over the world, and that is because there were many, many unfairnesses in this trial. There was the federal habeas corpus petition that was filed in the late '90s, had 32 counts alleging improprieties in the trial, not just in the penalty phase, but in the trial. There's evidence that witnesses were intimidated in order to get them to testify. There was very strong proof that the district attorney who handled the trial discriminated in jury selection in order to remove African Americans from the jury. And that was a strong claim. The federal courts rejected it. In fact, when they rejected that claim, it was because—at that point they adopted a new standard for hearing those jury discrimination claims that they had never used before, but in Mumia’s case, they did adopt it in the Third Circuit.

So, you know, there were—I don’t know that anyone, you know, should be comfortable with a conviction, with even a life sentence, that is based upon a trial that had lots of lots of racial issues infused in it by the prosecutor’s office, and where the jury was unfairly chosen, and, you know, on and on. There were lots of issues. You know, forensic evidence was questionable, and the testimony associated with forensic evidence was questionable. And years later, we’ve been able to show that. But unfortunately, as I said, the law makes it very difficult to succeed on post-conviction attacks on state court convictions.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Judith Ritter, who has represented Mumia Abu-Jamal since 2002. What about his access now? Explain the prison where he is, the circumstances right now of where he is incarcerated.

JUDITH RITTER: Yeah. Well, it’s a vast improvement over death row, you know, not just that he doesn’t have a death sentence hanging over his head, but that he is no longer in a cell 23 out of 24 hours a day. He used to be able to get about an hour of being outdoors when he was on death row for all those many years, and—but there was never any sunlight in the small area that he was allowed to walk in. Now he can, you know, enjoy sunlight, go outdoors, have contact visits with his family, with, you know, anyone who visits him.

He is a lot more, you know, able to do the kinds of things that keep him going. You know, you all just heard that—you know, I think it’s great that you played his message that he delivered to the protest yesterday. You know, he’s remarkably so mentally and physically healthy still, after such difficult, difficult circumstances for so many years. But he keeps his—you know, he writes, as you all know. He delivers radio addresses regularly. He reads more than anyone I know. He keeps up with current events, in a way that’s amazing to me. And he—you know, he plays music. He’s now, for the first time, being able to have a musical instrument, which he wasn’t allowed on death row.

So he’s in a better place. But, you know, he hasn’t been free for 30 years. But he’s in a new place now, and it’s better, no question about it. And through it all, he’s—you know, keeps up his spirits, and he’s funny, and he’s—and as I think someone said in the thing you played earlier, you know, he doesn’t talk about himself. You have to really get him to try to talk about his case. He is interested in what’s going on in the world and the suffering of really, you know, everybody but himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Ritter, I want to thank you very much for being with us, has represented Mumia Abu-Jamal since 2002, professor of law and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Widener Law School, speaking to us from Philadelphia.

JUDITH RITTER: Very welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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