Philadelphia Tribune, May 13, 2007
(The Tribune is the oldest Black community newspaper in the U.S.)
Judge bias fuels appeal
for Mumia Abu-Jamal
By Linn Washington
An Aug. 8, 1995 newspaper headline about Philadelphia Judge Albert Sabo presiding during a critical appeal hearing for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal carried this headline: “Hangman judge holding hearings to decide on new trial.”
Sabo’s then widely known pro-police, pro-prosecution bias on the bench was not the stunning aspect about this headline for an article about the hearings for an inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman.
The stunning aspect is that this headline ran in one of America’s most conservative, law-and-order newspapers – the Washington Times.
Sabo’s pro-prosecution, pro-police bias during that 1995 appeals hearing was so blatant that it drew stinging criticism from columnists and editorial writers across the nation, including many with published records of being openly hostile to Abu-Jamal’s claims of innocence.
One staunchly anti-Abu-Jamal columnist in Philadelphia demanded in July 1995 that Sabo step down from the then pending appeal hearings because he could not provide “an assumption of objectivity and credibility.”
On Thursday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Abu-Jamal case; it will examine alleged misconduct by Sabo and the trial prosecutor.
Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia journalist prior to his December 1981 arrest, has published five books while on death row plus thousands of print and broadcast commentaries on a range of topics…rarely if ever on his own plight.
One interesting aspect of this federal appeal hearing is that the Third Circuit took the unusual step of placing Sabo’s alleged bias during that 1995 hearing into the appeal process despite Sabo’s antics not being an item certified for appeal by the federal judge who ruled on Abu-Jamal’s appeal a few years ago.
Groups from the NAACP to Amnesty International have criticized Abu-Jamal’s death sentence as the product of an unfair trial, a
contention rejected by his detractors including Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office and the city’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
Sabo’s actions during the 1982 trial contribute to the internationally held belief that Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial.
The belief that Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial is so pervasive the French city of St. Denis last year named a street after Abu-Jamal honoring his struggle for a fair trial.
The U.S. Congress, along with Philadelphia City Council and the state Senate last year approved resolutions castigating the St. Denis street naming.
“The purpose of the judge in the proceeding is to remain fair and impartial. The bias of [Sabo] affected his ability to adjudicate those proceedings in a fair and impartial manner,” said former Pennsylvania death row inmate Harold Wilson in a pro-Abu-Jamal statement released recently.
Wilson is the sixth person released from the state’s death row and the 122nd person in America to leave death row – where he languished for more than 16 years.
Wilson’s November 2005 release from death row resulted from the discovery of misconduct by a Philadelphia prosecutor and DNA evidence.
Since Wilson’s release, his anti-death penalty activism has included demanding a new trial for Abu-Jamal, a man who helped him prepare the appeals that produced his release from death row.
Opponents of Abu-Jamal sternly reject all allegations of bias by Sabo or any Pennsylvania judge hearing the case. Pennsylvania courts up to the State Supreme Court have consistently upheld Abu-Jamal’s conviction.
False allegations of bias against Sabo “diverts attention for the real criminal, Mumia Abu-Jamal,” states an account critical of Amnesty International’s 2000 report on the case co-authored by local media personality Michael Smerconish.
A number of news media sources reported about and/or commented on Sabo’s antics during the 1995 hearing, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, the American Lawyer Magazine and Philadelphia’s two
An Aug. 13, 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial blasted Sabo for his“injudicious conduct” that included “ridiculing, interrupting and generally feeding the worst suspicions of Abu-Jamal’s supporters.”
Sabo’s antics undermined his duty “to ensure that justice was done” that Inquirer editorial concluded.
Despite this widespread and unusual news media criticism, the state Supreme Court rejected it as independent verification of judicial misconduct.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled that Sabo was legally impartial when it upheld Abu-Jamal’s death sentence for a second time in October 1998.
“The opinions of a handful of journalists do not, however, persuade us that Judge Sabo [evidenced] an inability to preside impartially,” the Court’s 1998 opinion declared.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken different postures in other cases alleging judicial misconduct.
In a March 1988 ruling addressing judicial impartiality in a murder case involving a former state trooper who killed a woman inside a judge’s office in western Pennsylvania, the Court found misconduct.
The Court found that a statement from the judge during the former state trooper’s trial, questioning one aspect of a defense witness’s testimony, “was extremely prejudicial” to the defendant.
The Supreme Court ruled that the former state trooper was “entitled to a new trial.”
Exactly one year later, the Supreme Court upheld Abu-Jamal’s death sentence for the first time in a ruling rejecting claims of Sabo improprieties during the 1982 trial far more numerous than the one incident during that former state trooper’s trial.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office vigorously objected to defense requests that Sabo not preside over the 1995 hearing where a
central appeal item was Sabo’s bias during the 1982 trial.
The district attorney’s office also objected to requests that former Philadelphia district attorney and now Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille not participate in the deliberations for Abu-Jamal’s post-1995 appeal because Castille opposed Abu-Jamal’s previous appeals as district attorney.
Castille rejected those 1996 recusal requests, contending that judicial ethics provisions did not apply to him
Castille’s rejection additionally stated that it was unfair to criticize him for receiving campaign support from the Fraternal Order of Police when four other members of the state Supreme Court also received support from the police union. Five members of the seven-member Court had received FOP campaign contributions, Castille noted.
Yet, earlier this year, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office asked the entire Third Circuit to step aside.
The district attorney contended that since Gov. Ed Rendell’s wife is a Third Circuit judge and a jury discrimination practice during Rendell’s tenure as Philadelphia district attorney is an appeal item, having that Court hear the appeal would breach the ethical mandate of appearance of impropriety by judges.
The Third Circuit rejected the district attorney’s request yet Judge Rendell and a few other judges stepped aside.
Harold Wilson says the antics of the district attorney’s office and Sabo sabotaged any semblance of Abu-Jamal’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
“A biased judge, coupled with a prosecutor’s office that has a long and documented history of misconduct relating to issues of racism was a recipe for disaster,” Wilson said. “Grant [Abu-Jamal] a new trial so he
can be afforded his rights as a citizen of this country.”
Discrimination in jury selection by the prosecutor is another element that led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant a new trial for Wilson.
The Court rejects all jury selection discrimination claims from
Abu-Jamal but this claim is a central aspect of the Third Circuit hearing.
The prosecutor during Abu-Jamal’s trial used 11 of 15 challenges to keep Blacks off the jury.
Scholarly research documents that this prosecutor struck Blacks 74 percent of the time during a period from 1977-1986 compared to 25 percent for whites.
Research also documents that the Philadelphia district attorney’s office struck Black jurors 58 percent of the time compared to only 22 percent for whites during that 1977-86 time frame.
Abu-Jamal detractors dismiss this research as pseudo-science.
“The study is the product of a well-known anti-death penalty law professor…and it’s a crock,” stated that critique co-authored by Michael Smerconsish. “There was nothing wrong with the jury.”
The Third Circuit, in a series of rulings released during the past few years, has criticized Philadelphia prosecutors for discriminatory jury selection practices. Further, Third Circuit rulings have criticized the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for misapplying U.S. Supreme Court standards on jury discrimination.
For example, a February 2005 ruling by conservative Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, criticized a Philadelphia prosecutor and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“[T]he explanations given by the state trial and appellate courts, were all contrary to Batson, or at least represented unreasonable application of that precedent,” Alito’s opinion stated noting the Batson decision, the U.S. Supreme Court’s controlling ruling on discriminatory jury selection.
Abu-Jamal opponents say since the prosecutor in his case didn’t exclude all Black jurors and Abu-Jamal did exclude Black jurors, the discrimination claim is without merit.
Alito ruled otherwise: “a prosecutor may violate Batson, even if the prosecutor passes up the opportunity to strike some African American jurors.”
The May 17 hearing could produce a new trial or set the stage for the execution of Abu-Jamal, known worldwide for his criticisms of injustices.
German citizen Victor Grossman is typical of Abu-Jamal’s far-flung supporters.
Grossman is an American born, Harvard graduate who’s lived in Germany since 1952 when he served in the U.S. Army.
“Despite oceans of hogwash and lies,” Grossman said, “we here view the case as critically symbolic in the age-old battle against racism and
frame-ups against people of color and the poor, and against the death penalty."
Glover sees ‘villainy’
in Abu-Jamal case
By Linn Washington
For acclaimed actor/activist Danny Glover, the controversial case of journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal is a “legal lynching” pure and simple.
“Every aspect of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case reeks with villainy,” Glover said during a recent interview in Philadelphia where he was the featured speaker in a program for Abu-Jamal, who is on death row for the slaying of a policeman.
“We have seen consistent patterns of legal lynchings, from the great Paul Robeson to the COINTELPRO Program,” Glover said, referring to assaults by federal authorities against Blacks, especially those critical of racism.
Robeson, a legendary actor/activist, spent the last years of his life living in virtual seclusion in West Philadelphia.
U.S. authorities strangled Robeson’s ability to make money, retaliating against his strident criticisms of race-based inequities across American society including injustices in courts.
Abu-Jamal consistently criticizes injustices in print and broadcast commentaries from death row, where he has written five books during the past 25 years.
“Mumia’s case is symbolic of so many other cases,” Glover said while speaking at a Center City program held on April 24 – Abu-Jamal’s birthday.
A predominantly white jury sentenced Abu-Jamal to death row in July 1982 after finding him guilty of the December 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal’s trial and unsuccessful state court appeals have sparked intense criticism, citing instances of misconduct by police, prosecutors and judges.
For example, a witness overheard Abu-Jamal’s trial judge proclaim that he would help prosecutors “fry the n----r” days before the opening of the 1982 trial.
Yet, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court dismissed this disturbing allegation of judicial bias as irrelevant without allowing this witness to testify in court.
“The ability to find the truth in this case has been denied by the authorities,” Glover said. “That is wrong.”
The FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO covert operations campaign referenced by Glover targeted the Black Panther Party for disruptive dirty tricks and
Ironically, a December 1969 COINTELPRO connected raid in Chicago that killed an influential Black Panther leader played a major role in sending Abu-Jamal to death row 13 years later.
When Abu-Jamal, a teen-aged Black Panther Party member in 1969, returned from the Chicago funeral for Black Panther leader Fred Hampton he told a
Philadelphia newspaper reporter that deadly police attacks on Panthers nationwide proved that “power flows from the barrel of a gun.”
During Abu-Jamal’s trial, the prosecutor twisted that statement out of context convincing jurors that Abu-Jamal’s teenaged statement really meant he favored killing police and he finally acted on his teenage desire in December 1981.
Some jurors later said they approved the death sentence based on the twisted presentation of Abu-Jamal’s statement, believing the statement
showed Abu-Jamal favored violence against police instead of fearing police violence.
“A foundation of democracy is due process,” Glover said during the interview.
“Every aspect of Abu-Jamal’s case from so-called eyewitnesses to actions by the prosecutor shows that due process was subverted,” Glover said.
“In a democracy, it is important that all sides of a situation are heard not just the side that’s coercively fashioned for us to hear,” noted Glover, who once narrated a documentary film examining a biased ABC network news account of Abu-Jamal’s case.
“We demand that Mumia’s side be heard,” Glover told a cheering audience that numbered in the hundreds