- Johanna Fernándezassociate professor of history at CUNY’s Baruch College and longtime supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Supporters of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal are celebrating a decision by a Philadelphia judge on Friday to order the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to share all of its files on the case with Abu-Jamal’s defense team. Judge Lucretia Clemons gave prosecutors and the defense 60 days to review the files, including many that Abu-Jamal’s team has never seen. The judge is then expected to rule on whether to hold a new trial for the former Black Panther, who has been imprisoned for over 40 years for his 1982 conviction in the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. His supporters have long claimed prosecutors withheld key evidence and bribed or coerced witnesses to lie, and documents found in the DA’s office in 2019 show Abu-Jamal’s trial was tainted by judicial bias and police and prosecutorial misconduct. For more on the case, we speak with Johanna Fernández, an associate professor of history at CUNY’s Baruch College and one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. “We have enough evidence here to clearly give Mumia at least an evidentiary hearing, a new trial or set him free,” says Fernández. She is the executive producer and writer of the film “Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal” and is also the editor of “Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Supporters of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal are hailing a decision by a Philadelphia judge to order the Philly DA’s Office to share all of its files with Mumia Abu-Jamal’s defense team on the case. Judge Lucretia Clemons gave prosecutors and the defense 60 days to review the files, many of which Abu-Jamal’s team has never seen. The judge is then expected to rule on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s request for a new trial.
Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther, journalist, has been imprisoned for over 40 years. He was convicted in 1982 of the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. He spent much of his years on death row. But his supporters have long claimed prosecutors withheld key evidence and bribed or coerced witnesses to lie. Documents found in the District Attorney’s Office in 2019 show Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial was tainted by judicial bias and police and prosecutorial misconduct. The judge’s surprise ruling came just days after a U.N. working group submitted an amicus brief urging the judge to grant Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial.
To talk more about the case, we’re joined by Johanna Fernández, associate professor of history at City University of New York’s Baruch College, one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She spoke Friday outside the courthouse.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: There are documents that emerged recently, as early as January 2019, which clearly suggest that the main witnesses in this case were bribed. A letter by Robert Chobert, the star witness in the case, who said that he saw what happened, and he allegedly saw Mumia, he wrote a letter, with his handwriting, asking the lead prosecutor in the case, Joe McGill, “Where is my money?”
AMY GOODMAN: Johanna Fernández joins us now. She is also executive producer and writer of the film Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Professor Fernández, it’s great to have you back. So, why don’t you talk about the scene in the courtroom? We interviewed an Arkansas trial judge who was calling for Mumia Abu-Jamal to be released last week, and he was particularly talking about issues like the one you just mentioned outside the courthouse, the issue of bribery — if you could explain that? — and, once again, the judge himself in the original trial, Judge Sabo, referring to Mumia Abu-Jamal with the N-word.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Good morning, Amy, and thank you so very much for covering this issue.
That letter, handwritten by Robert Chobert, is really the smoking gun, if you will, in this case. It’s exculpatory evidence. At this hearing, the prosecutor argued, somehow, that it is pro forma, it is customary, to give witnesses money. But our attorneys corrected the record. They said, “Well, yes, you give witnesses money for missed work and for transportation. However, Robert Chobert was driven to work by police nightly. He was a cabdriver. And he was held in a hotel, and all of his expenses were paid. And he was cared for by the police during the trial. So, what money exactly was he being compensated for?” This is bribery. He would have said in the letter, “I was promised compensation for travel.” But that could not have been the case.
Another thing that was raised in the hearing by our attorneys is the significance of circumstantial evidence and inference. This was a man who was driving with two DWIs and who was driving without a license. He said that he was parked directly behind the police car, the car of Officer Faulkner, who was killed that night. But photographs show that he was not where he said he was, and a person who’s driving with two DWIs and a driver’s license that’s been canceled is not going to want to park anywhere near a police officer’s car. So, the record suggests that Robert Chobert was bribed for fingering Mumia.
AMY GOODMAN: And the judge, Judge Sabo, what he said, reportedly overheard by the stenographer in the original trial?
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Terry Moore Carter was a stenographer at the time, working with a different judge. And her judge used the same courtroom that the lead judge in this case, Albert Sabo, used. And this was during a shift of cases. And Terry Moore Carter, the white stenographer, overheard the major judge in this case, Albert Sabo, say, quote, “I’m going to help them fry the [N-word],” referring to how he was going to instruct the jury in this case.
The amicus brief that was filed by the Working Group of Experts [on] People of African Descent said that it is the responsibility of the state to remediate decades, centuries of racism, that there was no time bar on this, and that it is the responsibility of this court to right this wrong. The only way to right this wrong is to release a man who was wrongfully on death row for 28-and-a-half years. A federal judge ruled that his death sentence was obtained unconstitutionally in 2010, and he was released to serve a life in prison without parole. You’d think that after 28-and-a-half years of wrongful sentence on death row, you’d get out of prison.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell me more about Cynthia White — she was another witness — and what apparently is in these boxes that were found in the DA’s Office, and the significance of the fact they were found, what, in 2019?
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: So, they were found in January 2019. And what we see is a string of documents wherein the lead prosecutor in the case, Joe McGill, is tracking what is happening to Cynthia White’s other cases. She was a sex worker and had over 36 violations pending against her. So, she was facing upwards of 20 years in prison. And he was consulting with other prosecutors, ensuring that before they made any decision in Cynthia White’s case, they consulted with him. So there was clearly some kind of bargain made between Cynthia White and the prosecutor, Joe McGill, that if she fingered Mumia, she would get off and would not have to serve time in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Judge Wendell Griffen. We spoke to him last week. He is a Division 5 judge of the 6th Circuit in Arkansas. He spent more than 10 years as a judge in the state Court of Appeals. He’s retiring at the end of this year after almost a quarter of a century on the bench. This is what he had to say about why he’s become a prominent voice — another trial judge, just like the trial judge in Philadelphia, but he’s in Little Rock — why he’s become a prominent voice for a new trial and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: 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: Again, that is sitting Arkansas trial Judge Wendell Griffen, speaking to us from Little Rock, Arkansas. The significance of this judge speaking out? And then I want to go back to the beginning, before we end, and what happened on Friday — what you expected to happen, what the judge had said would happen on Friday, but then what did happen.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, she had promised on October 26th that she would make a decision in this case on December 16th. And, in fact, she issued an intent to dismiss opinion on October 26th and said, “We will make a final decision on December 16th, because this case has gone on for too long.” But the facts of this case, she now understands, merit adjudication.
And the prosecutor in this case said over and over again, “These issues have been litigated. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court litigated this issue. Why are you bringing this up now?” What the prosecution fails to understand is that new evidence has emerged, that that office has hidden for 41 years. That is the reason why these previous courts were unable to grant Mumia relief, not to mention the fact that the judges in this case have historically been funded by the Fraternal Order of Police, the same organization that has attempted to keep Mumia behind bars and the same organization that attempted to execute him and make sure that he was executed when he was on death row.
AMY GOODMAN: We just —
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: The fact —
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: The fact that a sitting judge has spoken out in this case is tremendous. It speaks to the validity of the new evidence, the new exculpatory evidence, in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we just have 30 seconds, but can you remind our viewers and listeners and readers why these boxes were discovered in 2019? What changed? Where were they?
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, another judge, Leon Tucker, was hearing the issue of judicial bias in the case, that Ronald Castille was in fact funded by the Fraternal Order of Police and named him Man of the Year, the same judge that was hearing Mumia’s appeals. He should have recused himself.
In the process of that hearing, these new boxes emerged, and they were hidden in the underworld of the prosecutor’s office, six boxes with exculpatory evidence. The judge currently has asked us to look at all of the boxes, 32, maybe 200, but we have enough evidence here to clearly give Mumia at least an evidentiary hearing, a new trial or set him free.
AMY GOODMAN: Johanna Fernández, associate professor of history at CUNY’s Baruch College here in New York City, one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home.
Coming up, we look at how Qatar and Morocco have been caught bribing members of the European Parliament in a scandal that’s rocked Brussels and put European Parliament members behind bars. Stay with us.