- Wendell GriffenDivision 5 judge of the 6th Circuit in Arkansas and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock.
This Friday, Mumia Abu-Jamal faces what could be his last chance for a new trial to consider newly discovered evidence that casts doubt on his 1982 conviction for murder. The journalist and former Black Panther has spent 41 years in prison for the death of police officer Daniel Faulkner, for which he has always maintained his innocence. His lawyers say evidence in boxes discovered in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 2019 shows his trial was tainted by judicial bias, as well as police and prosecutorial misconduct, like withholding evidence, and bribing or coercing witnesses to lie. Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Lucretia Clemons indicated she intends to dismiss Mumia’s request for a new trial, but said she would announce her final decision this Friday, December 16. For more on this closely watched case, we speak with Wendell Griffen, Arkansas circuit judge, who is calling for Abu-Jamal’s release and says Judge Clemons should take into account how the irregularities in Abu-Jamal’s case should have already secured his freedom, suggesting a drive for vengeance is the main reason that hasn’t happened. “The prosecution messed up, the investigation messed up, and Mumia Abu-Jamal was wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully sentenced and is now wrongfully incarcerated,” says Griffen. “But our bloodlust prevents us from acknowledging that.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
After 41 years in prison, most of it on death row, this Friday, the journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal faces what could be his last chance for a new trial to consider newly discovered evidence that casts doubt on his 1982 conviction for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia Abu-Jamal’s lawyers say evidence in boxes discovered in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office by the new DA at the time, Larry Krasner in 2019, show his trial was tainted by judicial bias and police and prosecutorial misconduct, like withholding of evidence, and bribing or coercing witnesses to lie. Evidence in the boxes included notes from one of two key witnesses to prosecutors requesting, quote, “the money owed to me.”
Well, on Tuesday, a United Nations working group submitted an amicus brief urging the judge to grant Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial to consider the evidence, and also cited evidence of racial bias in the case, quoting the statement by Mumia Abu-Jamal’s original trial judge, Albert Sabo, overheard by a court stenographer, when he said, quote, “I’m going to help them, the jury, fry that [N-word],” but he used the word.
Last month, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Lucretia Clemons indicated she intends to dismiss Abu-Jamal’s request for a new trial, but said she would announce her final decision this Friday, December 16th. Judge Clemons is a member of the archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Commission on Racial Healing. She spoke last year in a video by Catholic Philly about how Catholics can address racial division by seeking the truth, justice and reconciliation.
JUDGE LUCRETIA CLEMONS: I think one of the most important things to focus on is truth and reconciliation. A familiar cry in the street during the social justice protests is “No justice, no peace.” And while I know that many people want peace, they really want quiet. Quiet is not the same as peace. Peace requires justice, and justice requires truth. And therefore, I believe that we start this with some truth and reconciliation, with some understanding of where we have come from, the historical implications of that, how it is impacting people today, and how do we reconcile that history with where we are and where we want to go.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lucretia Clemons, who will issue a decision on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case Friday.
For more on this closely watched case, we’re joined by another trial court judge, a prominent voice calling for a new trial and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. That’s Judge Wendell Griffen, judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas, 5th Division. He spent more than 10 years as a judge on the state Court of Appeals. He is retiring this month after almost a quarter of a century on the bench and a career that’s included speaking out against the death penalty, as well as the War in Iraq. Judge Griffen is also the pastor of New Millennium Church and author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope.
Judge Griffen, welcome back to Democracy Now! You wrote an essay last month headlined “Finding justice for both Maureen Faulkner and Mumia Abu-Jamal,” referring to the widow of the slain Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Can you talk about that and why you are calling for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, in this critical week where it could be the last chance he has for a new trial?
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to talk with you again.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a Black American political activist and journalist, as you know, who has been incarcerated since he was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police officer. His 1982 death sentence was overturned by a federal judge in 2001 due to sentencing irregularities. At that time, the question was: Why wasn’t the whole conviction overturned?
But in 2019, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office disclosed for the first time that there were six boxes of materials that had been concealed and not delivered to the defense team before Mumia was tried. Under a 1963 decision that every law student knows about and every lawyer knows about who does criminal law practice, Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court of United States held that due process of law is violated when the prosecution conceals evidence relevant to guilt or punishment from defense. In this country, that kind of precedent should have required Mumia to be released, and the state, or the commonwealth, in this case, decide whether or not to prosecute him based upon having revealed the right evidence. That hasn’t been done. And so, the question is: Why is Mumia Abu-Jamal not being given, as another federal judge has said, the benefit of the precedents, since 1963 — this is 60 years — that he should be getting, because the state or the commonwealth attorneys violated his due process laws? He had a pretense of a trial. And that’s what the Supreme Court of the United States said earlier than that, in 1935, in an earlier case.
So, we have to ask ourselves the question: Why is this journalist, why is this Black activist not free? And why is it so hard for a judge to say, “Hey, we’ve got the law that requires him to be free. I’m going to follow the law and declare him free”? And if the commonwealth wants to retry him, they can do so. If the commonwealth decides we can’t retry him because the evidence is no longer there, people have passed away, witnesses have forgotten information, then that is not Mumia’s fault. That is the fault of prosecutors, and Mumia should not be imprisoned because, A, he had a pretense of a trial in the first place, and, B, because, for some reasons, bloodlust or the desire to keep a Black activist journalist in prison means that we don’t want to do what’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk specifically, as a judge, around the law when it comes to, for example, finding a handwritten note in this evidence box, that was just found —
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — in the offices of now the DA Larry Krasner, one of the two key witnesses requesting “the money you owed me,” writing that to the prosecution, and then, of course, the well-known comment of the judge himself? I mean, human rights groups have decried the racism in the original trial. But Judge Sabo being heard by the court stenographer saying, “I’m going to help them” — referring to the jury — “I’m going to help them fry that [N-word],” but he used the word.
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: He used the word.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the judge.
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: He used the N-I-G-G-E-R word. It was heard by the stenographer. That would have and should have been sufficient to disqualify that judge point blank. Beyond that, there was proof that there were peremptory challenges that were exercised by the prosecution based upon racial, racist inclinations, which violates the Supreme Court decision in Batson v. Kentucky. That should have been enough to disqualify the trial.
But then, you referred to this note that was found where a witness for the prosecution, that allegedly fingered Mumia, writes the prosecutor and wants to know, “Where is my money?” Now, if you’re a defense lawyer, that’s powerful information, because it indicates that this witness has been bribed or has an incentive to lie. That’s a reason to disqualify — or, that’s a reason to overturn the conviction in and of itself. This is the kind of due process violation that any law student would recognize on a criminal law or constitutional law exam. So, this is not hard stuff. This is not hard stuff for any trial judge.
And so, the issue is not whether or not this is a tough legal question; the issue is whether or not a judge — in this case, Judge Clemons — has the strength, the courage, the compassion and the commitment to follow the law to do what the law requires, which is, basically, declare the man who had a pretense of a trial, declare him free and tell the commonwealth, “If you want to try him again, have at it. But you can’t keep him in prison because you simply messed up and don’t want to confess it.”
AMY GOODMAN: The daughter of the novelist, the famous novelist, Richard Wright, Julia Wright, wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Lucretia Clemons this week. In part, it read, “We, Black women, who carry such intergenerational trauma have in common the gift of 'wounded healers' in the words of the late Archbishop Tutu who called for Mumia’s release in 2011 on behalf of peace and reconciliation. I trust you will judge righteously,” she said. Julia Wright is so interesting in that she was recently involved with the case in Elaine, Arkansas, of five Black men who were tried and convicted of murder in less than 30 minutes in a mob rule trial. It was 1919 in your state of Arkansas. Can you talk about what you see as the parallels?
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: You refer to the landmark case of Moore v. Dempsey, a 1923 case where the Supreme Court of the United States Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion and wrote that where there has been a mob-dominated trial, it violates due process. And in that case again, the Supreme Court invalidated the murder convictions, the first-degree murder convictions, of five Black men who were sentenced to death. And that, again, is precedent. That is, again, a connection. And Julia Wright, bless her heart, has connected the dots between the Elaine race massacre, the massacre of Black people in southeast Arkansas by white vigilantes and by federal troops, by the way, and the incarceration and the refusal to release Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is now in prison because — and let’s be clear — because of bloodlust. There is the notion that a police officer was murdered. Daniel Faulkner was murdered. And the prosecution messed up. The investigation messed up. And Mumia Abu-Jamal was wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully sentenced and is now wrongfully incarcerated. But our bloodlust prevents us from acknowledging that. And I understand that. As a state court trial judge who has tried murder cases, I understand that, the pain of victims. I understand the desire of colleagues to get revenge. However, justice is never about revenge. We do not allow victims, or the friends or partners of the murdered, to decide what justice is. Justice is doing right, not getting revenge. And we need to understand the difference between the two.
AMY GOODMAN: Judge Wendell Griffen, there’s so much more to talk about. Judge Griffen wrote the essay, “Finding justice for both Maureen Faulkner and Mumia Abu-Jamal,” referring to the widow of the slain Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. We will link to your piece, and we will also do a Part 2 conversation with you as you come to the end of your judicial career. You’ll be retiring at the end of December after 24 years on the bench. You are also the pastor of the New Millennium Church and author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope. In Part 2 of our conversation, we’re going to talk about your illustrious career on the bench. People should check it out at democracynow.org.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena.