November 11, 2009 By Robert R. Bryan
In nearly three decades of being on Pennsylvania's death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal has become a global symbol in the campaign against the death penalty and human rights abuses. There is an escalated effort by the authorities to see him die at the hands of the executioner. This is the most dangerous time for Mumia since his 1981 arrest. I am fighting for his life. Public support is crucial to this campaign to save and free him. There follows an overview of recent significant developments.
United State Supreme Court
We continue to litigate on behalf of Mumia in the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Philadelphia, ruled that he was entitled to a new jury trial on the issue of the death penalty. That victory never took effect because the state petitioned the Supreme Court for review. The matter is pending. Thus Mumia remains on death row and under a death sentence.
Even though the major briefing has been completed, the Supreme Court has withheld rendering a decision due to the pendency of a case from Ohio, Smith v. Spisak, which has a similar issue regarding instructional errors at the penalty phase. In Mumia's case the jurors were instructed that they were precluded from considering any mitigating evidence unless all 12 agreed on the particular circumstance. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Spisak on October 13. Mumia and I are anxious about the effect of that case because it is one of the worst imaginable. As Shannon P. Duffy of The Legal Intelligencer wrote the next day: "In a bizarre twist of fate, Mumia Abu-Jamal . . . may find that his very life hinges on the outcome of the case of a neo-Nazi triple murderer who wore a Hitler mustache at trial as he testified proudly about his desire to kill blacks, Jews and gays." That is ironic, for Mumia's life as a journalist and author has been committed to speaking out against racism, discrimination of any sort, inequality, injustice, and human rights abuses.
My office has received many inquiries as to when the Supreme Court will rule, my analysis of what occurred in Spisak, and what will the court decide. First, I anticipate a decision within two months even though it is always difficult to accurately make such predictions. Secondly, there are significant differences between the Spisak case and that of Mumia. Most importantly, the controlling decision of Mills v. Maryland applies to Mumia's case but not to Spisak. Mills was decided in 1988, a year before the Pennsylvania state proceedings became final in our case. However, Spisak had already been decided when Mills came down; Mills is not retroactive. The Spisak case actually concerns both the instructional issue and another on the ineffectiveness of the defense attorney due to his penalty phase argument. Only the former has any relevance to Mumia.
The hearing was lively with Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the outset questioning the Ohio attorney general about the applicability of the Mills decision since it was decided after Spisak became final. It seems that all the justices, with the exception of Clarence Thomas, had questions. Finally, my impression at the end of the day was that clearly some of the justices were poised to reverse and rule for Ohio on the legal incompetence issue. Whether there are enough votes for such a decision remains to be seen. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A, Alito, Jr. were clearly bothered by the trial lawyer's poor penalty-phase jury argument, while Anthony Scalia thought it was "brilliant." As to the instructional issue that affects Mumia, it does not seem so clear for there are different ways the court could go. On the one hand it might not reach the issue since Mills does not apply, or because the court finds that the death penalty cannot stand in view of the lawyer's ineffectiveness. On the other hand, the court could address the Mills issue which might affect my client's situation in different ways.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
We are also litigating an issue concerning the reliability of the ballistics evidence presented at trial. On April 20, 2009, we filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief in the trial court, the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia. The petition, based upon newly discovered evidence, was denied without a hearing on May 27, 2009. The matter is being appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Recent activities In recent months there have been many events regarding Mumia. A few of the more interesting, were:
The Netherlands and World Day Against the Death Penalty
October 10 was World Day Against the Death Penalty. I was in the Netherlands at the invitation of Amnesty International to speak on behalf of Mumia. That included a lecture at the prestigious Utrecht University school of law, sponsored by Ad Informandum. My topic: Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Death Penalty: A Global Human Rights Crisis. It was a great experience, for I have not encountered more bright and inquisitive students. They were interested in why the United States, in company with countries such as Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia, is still in the business of executing people. I also spoke at the showing of the extraordinary movie, In Prison My Whole Life, concerning my client and the death penalty. Mumia and I are particularly indebted to Amnesty's Stef Arens, who was responsible for organizing these events. Another highlight was seeing Arlette Stuip, who attended Goddard College with Mumia. She and her husband Tom have remained his good friends.
Reporters Without Borders, Paris
Recently Reporters Without Borders published a video interview regarding Mumia and the latest case developments. It is in English, French and German, and can be found at: http://www.rsf.org/spip.php?page=article&id_article=34689.
There are various groups and individuals in Germany who are doing incredible work to save Mumia. Last spring the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts), Berlin, hosted a panel discussion on Mumia to a capacity crowd. It began with an except from In Prison My Whole Life. Participating on the panel, was: Madame Danielle Mitterrand, former First Lady of France; Klaus Staeck, President of the Akademie; Johano Strasser, President of PEN Germany; Günter Wallraff, a well known author; Gerhart Rudolf Baum, member of the Bundestag (parliament), former Minister of the Interior, and United Nations representative; and me. The work of supporters in Germany is a model of positive activism. A video of the event is available, at: http://www.adk.de/de/aktuell/forum_dokumentationen/forum_27.Akadgespr.html.
The movement for Mumia in France is strong, led by the Ensemble Sauvons Mumia Abu-Jamal which is composed of approximately 80 organizations. Come rain, sleet or snow, supporters continue to demonstrate each week at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The film In Prison My Whole Life is being shown in theaters around France. In September, Nicole and I joined Claudine Cordillot, Mayor of Villejuif, a Paris suburb, for a showing of the movie and a presentation afterwards. One of Mme. Cordillot's first acts upon taking office in 1999 was to come out in support of Mumia. The Council of Villejuif unanimously declared both him and Nelson Mandela citizens of honor.
Tax-deductible Donations for Mumia's Legal Defense
We continue to receive e-mail from people unsure as to how and where they may send donations for Mumia's legal defense, because a few websites are falsely soliciting for legal donations. The only way to guarantee that donations go only to the legal defense, is to make checks payable to the National Lawyers Guild Foundation (indicate Mumia on the bottom left). The U.S. donations are tax deductible under the Internal Revenue Code Code, section 501(c)(3), and should be mailed to:
Committee To Save Mumia Abu-Jamal
P.O. Box 2012
New York, NY 10159-2012
Mumia's life remains in great danger. My career has been marked by successfully representing people facing death in murder cases. Our goal is to save Mumia's life and win his freedom.