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A Path to Freedom? Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal Wins Chance to Reargue Appeal in 1981 Police Killing

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Former Black Panther and award-winning journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner but has always maintained his innocence. On Thursday, a Philadelphia judge ruled Abu-Jamal can reargue his appeal in the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The judge cited then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s failure to recuse himself from the case due to his prior role as Philadelphia district attorney when Abu-Jamal was appealing. We get an update from Johanna Fernández, professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY and one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She has been in the courtroom for much of this case and is the editor of “Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with an update on a major development that could be the path to freedom for former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, the award-winning journalist who was convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner but has always maintained his innocence.

On Thursday, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge ruled Mumia Abu-Jamal can reargue his appeal in the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille failed to excuse himself from the case due to his prior role as Philadelphia district attorney when Abu-Jamal was appealing his case. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers argued that statements Castille made about people accused of killing police officers indicated he should have recused himself. They cited campaign speeches and letters he wrote that called for the death penalty in such cases.

Abu-Jamal spent nearly three decades on death row before his sentence in the shooting death of officer Daniel Faulkner was thrown out over flawed jury instructions. Prosecutors then agreed, in 2011, to a sentence of life without parole. Judge Tucker’s decision on Thursday was split, because he denied Abu-Jamal’s claim that Castille had, quote, “personal significant involvement” in the case while he was in the District Attorney’s Office.

For more, we’re joined here in New York by Johanna Fernández, a professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY, the City University of New York, and one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She has been in the courtroom for part of this case and is the editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Professor Fernández, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of Thursday’s ruling?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, this is a case that is important for Mumia Abu-Jamal but also for dozens of people sitting in prison in Pennsylvania. Essentially, the judge established that if there is prejudice in a hearing, the defendant has the right to a new hearing. And he essentially ruled broadly on the issue of judicial bias and impartiality in the courtroom.

That’s really important, because the Williams issue, which is the issue that Mumia and his attorneys presented, is very narrow. It essentially establishes that in order to get relief, you have to prove to the court that a prosecutor-turned-judge had previously been involved in a significant decision in the case. That’s a very narrow issue to prove.

The judge stepped back, and he said, “Well, we cannot prove that there was a significant involvement in a major decision in the case, because the DA’s Office lost the files.” However, it is very clear that this judge made comments in public that were improper, that he lobbied on the issue of law and order—in fact, he ran on this issue. He made statements about sending, quote, “a clear and dramatic message” to, quote-unquote, “cop killers” that the death penalty will be used against them. And all of these things, including the fact that this judge received funding from the Fraternal Order of Police, the same organization that in the 1990s was hell-bent on executing Mumia, that essentially paints a clear picture of partiality.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what exactly this means.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: So this means that if the liberal DA of Philadelphia, someone who was elected on the issue of the horrors of the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, if he does not challenge the judge’s decision, Mumia will immediately be eligible to present all of the violations that he had previously presented before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

And those violations are many. They include the fact that Terri Maurer-Carter, a court stenographer, was overheard saying to another—overheard the judge in this case, Judge Albert Sabo, saying, quote, “I am going to help them fry the nigger.” It also includes another violation, that essentially the police tampered with evidence and manufactured evidence in order to obtain a conviction in Mumia’s case. It also includes the violation that the prosecutor hid evidence from the defense and from the jury. Essentially, there was a fourth person at the crime scene. And the presence of that person, at trial, was suppressed by the prosecutor, Joe McGill. So, these and many other violations, that essentially violated Mumia’s constitutional rights, were denied by Judge Ron Castille when Mumia presented these violations on appeal.

Because there was an impropriety in the conduct of Judge Ron Castille, because he was prejudiced, now Mumia is able to present all of those violations again. His case can be heard once again, and the violations connected to his conviction will be heard in court. This has not happened in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The courts have not allowed Mumia to really challenge, in a significant way, any of the violations connected to his conviction. They’ve only allowed his attorneys to essentially address the issues concerning his sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the question is: Will the district attorney now, Larry Krasner, who’s considered this new generation of district attorneys around the country, has represented many groups, from Black Lives Matter to others, as a lawyer—would he appeal, number one, what he’s considering now? And if there was a trial, would he prosecute Mumia Abu-Jamal?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Right. Well, I think that the judge, Leon Tucker, essentially presented a case that will be very difficult for Larry Krasner to challenge. He essentially said, “In order for the criminal justice system to stand, justice must be completely just.” Those were his words. And it’s very clear in this case and in this issue of judicial bias that there was a “no justice,” that there was impartiality.

And so, there is going to be an enormous amount of pressure on Larry Krasner by the Fraternal Order of Police to challenge this decision. But at some point, the people of Philadelphia have to stand up and have to demand that Krasner do the right thing in this case, that he not uphold what is known as the Mumia exception—that judges and courts have been willing to overturn precedent in order to keep the facts in Mumia’s case from seeing the light of day.

AMY GOODMAN: In October, the widow of Philadelphia officer Daniel Faulkner was ordered removed from the courtroom after she protested the judge’s decision to extend Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal hearing. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Maureen Faulkner stood up and cried out to the judge, “With all due respect, your honor! I have another 30 days that I have to go through this pain and suffering?” she said. As she was ordered removed, she said, “Thirty-eight years! This is wrong!” The judge said the court was sensitive to both sides but wasn’t going to rush to judgment, and added, quote, “No matter how long it takes, this court is going to do the right thing.” Were you in the courtroom in October?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: I was. It was a very dramatic moment in the history of this case. It was an important moment because, for the first time, a judge essentially said that the supporters, but also the family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, has a right to have this issue treated fairly in the case. That hadn’t really happened before.

At the very last hearing, we had another very dramatic development. The Fraternal Order of Police, Maureen Faulkner and the original prosecutor in the case, Joe McGill, were present. And they were allowed into the courtroom before anyone else. And when we were finally allowed in the courtroom, including Mumia Abu-Jamal’s brother, Keith Cook, who served in the military in the United States, the courtroom was filled with white people. And it was a completely Jim Crow seating. Essentially, Mumia’s supporters, the majority of whom are black and brown, including his family members, were forced to sit in the back of the courtroom.

So, this is really the atmosphere and the message that the Philadelphia establishment sent to the judge, that he should essentially be careful about the decision he was about to make. But the judge, in fact, ruled in favor of justice. And we are demanding that Larry Krasner live up to that standard, the standard that he promised the people of Philadelphia, a city that is known for imprisoning the majority of black and brown youth in the country.

So, Philadelphia is the city that imprisons the majority of black and brown youth. This is the city that has also imprisoned and attempted to silence the most important political prisoner in the history of the United States—essentially, the Nelson Mandela of our time. So, if there is a victory in this case, in the case of a man who has been demonized for essentially illuminating the truth about black oppression, about the predations of capitalism and imperialism, a man who is mild-mannered but is unwilling to compromise with justice—this is the reason why he’s been demonized by the police. If there is a victory in this case, the entire apparatus of criminal justice in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and the country will be under the microscope.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to 2013, when Democracy Now! spoke to Mumia Abu-Jamal in a rare live interview from the prison he was in at the time, Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution Mahanoy. This was after an appeals court upheld his conviction in 2011 but vacated his death sentence. He had been on death row for decades. I asked Mumia Abu-Jamal what it means to no longer be on death row.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I could, but I’d be lying, because I call this “slow death row.” “Life” in Pennsylvania means life. Pennsylvania has one of the largest “life” populations of any state in the United States. It had the distinction of having the absolute highest number of juvenile lifers of any state in the United States—indeed, of any jurisdiction in the world. So, that should give you some sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking in 2013. He was moved from—he no longer faces the death penalty. Life without parole is what he faces now, in general population. What about his health, Professor Fernández?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, about two or three years ago, Mumia collapsed in prison and was rushed to the hospital. He was near death. After six months of tests, medical tests, one of our doctors, who randomly went in and looked at Mumia, essentially established that he had hepatitis C. And as you know, hepatitis C is a deadly disease that affects the liver. But because treating hepatitis C and curing it costs approximately $100,000, the Pennsylvania prisons essentially decided that they would not treat Mumia or the approximately 7,000 other prisoners with hepatitis C.

We filed a suit, even though attorneys insisted that this was an uphill battle and we would not win. And we secured a victory, and we secured treatment of hepatitis C. Mumia is now cured of hepatitis C. But also, this was a precedent-setting ruling that has opened up the possibility for prisoners in Pennsylvania and across the country to get treated and cured of hepatitis C.

Mumia is doing better. He is back to health. He’s got many issues. Currently, he has a problem with his sight. He has glaucoma. And he has to get the best treatment, as do other prisoners. And so, part of what Mumia said is that life in prison is essentially a sentence of death, for him and for the thousands of other prisoners in Pennsylvania and around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’ll continue to follow this case, as now a judge has ruled that Mumia Abu-Jamal can appeal his case. We want to thank Johanna Fernández, professor of history at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She is editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be joined by antiwar activist Medea Benjamin to get response on President Trump saying he’s pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Syria. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations, lead vocals by Dennis Edwards, who passed away this year at the age of 74.

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