Friday, November 17, 2006

Is Honoring Mumia a Crime?

photo: Pam Africa with French delegates at the Philadelphia Mayoral Reception Room when the French received miniature liberty bells from the mayor's assistant. Africa is holding a picture of the late actor and Mumia supporter Ossie Davis. February 11, 2005.

Link to Bennett's new "Voice of the Voiceless" series on Abu-Jamal, published in the weeks leading up to December 9--the 25th anniversary of Abu-Jamal's arrest.

Philadelphia's 59th Republican Ward Executive Committee files criminal charges against French cities supporting black death-row prisoner

by Hans Bennett

Is it a crime to publicly honor black death-row prisoner and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal (convicted of killing white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in a 1982 trial that Amnesty International has declared a "violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty")? Future Philadelphia mayoral candidate Peter J. Wirs thinks so.

Acting as the Chairman of Philadelphia's 59th Republican Ward Executive Committee, Wirs has filed criminal charges against the French cities of Paris and St. Denis. Their crime?

In 2003 Abu-Jamal was declared an honorary citizen of Paris—the first time since Pablo Picasso was similarly honored in the 1970s. This April, the French city of St. Denis (a Paris suburb) named a major street after him. Located in the Cristino Garcia District of the city (named after an anti-Franco Spanish Republican), Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal leads directly to the largest sports arena in Europe: “Nelson Mandela Stadium.”

Wirs and the GOP ward committee allege that these public honors violate French Penal Code, Article 24 § 2 (L. 29 juillet 1881), prohibiting “the glorified perpetration of a crime [whose elements include] the voluntary trespass to another person's life or physical integrity ...”

  • The committee's press release
  • explains that:

    “The 59th Republican Ward Executive Committee’s French counsel, Martin Bozmarov, Esq. filed a plainte, (criminal complaint) with the Procureur de la Republique, akin to a District Attorney, in two separate départements (France’s primary political subdivision) who represents the government before the trial courts, the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris for the capital city and Tribunal de Grande Instance de Bobigny that has jurisdiction over Saint Denis. Once each Procureur determines the charges founded, a instruction judiciaire (judicial investigation) is requested of the Chambre de l'Instruction, a separate body of judges, who appoints the Juge d'Instruction, a special investigating judge, to conduct a full scale investigation for both exculpatory as well as inculpatory evidence, including interviewing parties and witnesses.”

    “If the Juge d'Instruction estimates prosecution is warranted, the dossier is transferred back to the Procureur, while the three-judge Chambre de l'Instruction, if determining there is sufficient evidence to charge, issue the mise en examen, the formal indicting instrument, and transfers the case to a trial court.”

    Calling Abu-Jamal a “punk,” Chairman Wirs proclaims that “Abu-Jamal’s gratuitous exploitation of genuine international opposition to the death penalty should be exposed for the 'snake-oil’ scam that it is.”

    Wirs will be among the numerous Philadelphia city officials traveling to France on November 27 to lobby against Rue Mumia and his honorary citizenship in Paris. In an
  • advance letter requesting a meeting with the Paris City Council
  • , this delegation writes:

    “To give to honours of the city to a cop killer is both an immoral and irresponsible choice. It is all the more choking to see the name of a murderer next to that of Pablo Picasso in the gallery of the “Parisian Honours”. But the message that the decision of your assembly is making is much more disturbing as the French policemen are everyday exposed to an increasing number of assaults and violent urban acts.”

    Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal
    At the Rue Mumia inauguration ceremony in St. Denis this past April, Mayor Didier Paillard declared: “Mumia's struggle is a symbol for justice, the abolition of the death penalty, human rights, and resistance against a system which has the arrogance to reign over the world in the name of those same human rights that it tramples with complete impunity on its own soil.”

    In response to the street-naming, resolutions condemning St. Denis were introduced in the US Congress, the Pennsylvania State Senate, and the Philadelphia City Council.

    In September, a delegation visited from France to defend Rue Mumia. They attempted to meet with Philadelphia Mayor John Street, but after several hours of being ignored, they left his office to speak at the town meeting nearby organized by Mumia's local supporters.

    At the town meeting, the visitors proclaimed: “As long as the city of St. Denis exists, we will have Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

    Mumia's supporters later presented their own resolution defending Rue Mumia at the City Council.

    Supporters in New York City have started an
  • online petition calling for a street in Harlem
  • to be named after Abu-Jamal.

    A History of International Support
    Support from France has been extensive. In November, 2002 a delegation of more than 40 French supporters of Abu-Jamal traveled to Philadelphia to hand-deliver a 250,000 signature petition (demanding a new trial) to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania office at City Hall. However, the Supreme Court ultimately rejected the petition on grounds that it was not done on the official form created by the courts.

    Arguably the world's most famous political prisoner, Mumia's international supporters include the Japanese Diet, the European Parliament, and members of both the British & German Parliaments.

    In 1982 he was convicted of killing white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in a trial that Amnesty International has declared a "violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty,"

    Calling for a new trial, supporters around the world feel that the original one was tainted by racism, prosecutorial & judicial misconduct, coerced witnesses, suppressed evidence, and a denial of Mumia's constitutional right to represent himself.

    His case has attracted activists around the world organizing against racism, poverty, corporate media censorship, mass incarceration, political repression, and the death penalty.

    Activist Noam Chomsky argues that “Mumia's case is symbolic of something much broader...The US prison system is simply class and race war...Mumia and other prisoners are the kind of people that get assassinated by what's called 'social cleansing' in US client states like Colombia.”

    Still on Death Row
    In December, 2001 Federal District Court Judge William Yohn affirmed Abu-Jamal's guilt but overturned the death sentence. Citing the 1988 Mills v. Maryland precedent, Yohn ruled that sentencing forms used by jurors and Judge Sabo's instructions to the jury were confusing. Subsequently, jurors mistakenly believed that they had to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstances in order to be considered as weighing against a death sentence.

    Mumia's case is now in the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals. DA Lynne Abraham is appealing the death penalty ruling while Mumia is appealing the guilty verdict.

    If the penalty ruling is overturned, a new execution date will be set for Mumia. If his ruling is upheld, the DA can still impanel a new jury to rehear the penalty phase, which could then sentence Mumia to death—regardless of the 3rd Circuit ruling.

    Because the DA appealed Yohn's death penalty decision, Mumia has never left death row, and is still unable to have such “privileges” as full-contact visits with his family.

    The Legal Update
    In December, 2005, the 3rd Circuit announced the beginning of deliberations and shocked many by agreeing to consider two claims not “certified for appeal” by Yohn in 2001.

    Mumia's attorney Robert R. Bryan declared it to be “the most important decision affecting my client since his 1981 arrest, for it was the first time there was a ruling that could lead to a new trial and his freedom.”

    On October 23, attorney Robert R. Bryan (attorney for death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal) filed the 4th Step Reply Brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Philadelphia. Because this should be the last round of reply briefs, Bryan estimates that the public hearing of arguments should begin within three months. After the hearing, the panel of judges will then decide whether to grant Abu-Jamal a new trial.

    The courts are now considering the following four issues:

    #1. Whether the penalty phase of Mumia's trial violated the legal precedent set by the US Supreme Court's 1988 Mills v. Maryland ruling. This issue was Yohn's grounds for overturning the death sentence and is now being appealed by the DA.

    #2. “Certified for appeal” by Yohn in 2001, the Batson claim, addresses the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges to exclude Blacks from Mumia's jury. In 1986, the US Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that a defendant deserves a new trial if it can be proved that jurors were excluded on the grounds of race.

    At Mumia's trial, Prosecutor McGill used 11 of his 15 peremptory challenges to remove black jurors that were otherwise acceptable. While Philadelphia is 44% black, Abu-Jamal's jury was composed of ten whites and only two blacks. From 1977-1986 when current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was Philadelphia's District Attorney, the evidence of racism is striking: from 1977-86, the Philadelphia DA struck 58% of black jurors, but only 22% of white jurors.

    #3. The legality of McGill's statement to the jury minimizing the seriousness of a verdict of guilt: “if you find the Defendant guilty of course there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final.”

    In 1986 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against McGill in another case (Commonwealth v. Baker) on the same grounds. When Abu-Jamal addressed this same issue in his 1989 appeal with the State Supreme Court, the court reversed its decision on the legality of such a statement—ruling against the claim for a mistrial.

    Incredibly, just one year later, in the very next case involving this issue (Commonwealth v. Beasley), the State Supreme Court flip-flopped and restored the precedent. However, this would not affect the ruling against Mumia, because the court ruled that this precedent would only apply in “future trials.” This suggests that the rulings were designed to specifically exclude Mumia's case from its precedent.

    #4. The fairness of Mumia's 1995-97 PCRA hearings when the retired, 74-year-old Judge Sabo was called back specifically for the hearing. Besides the obvious unfairness of recalling the exact same judge to rule on his fairness in the original 1982 trial, his actual PCRA bias has been extensively documented.

    During the 1995 hearings, the mainstream Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that the “behavior of the judge in the case was disturbing the first time around—and in hearings last week he did not give the impression to those in the courtroom of fair mindedness. Instead, he gave the impression, damaging in the extreme, of undue haste and hostility toward the defense's case.”

    Concluding the PCRA hearing, Sabo rejected all evidence and every witness presented by the defense as not being credible. Therefore, Sabo upheld all of the facts and procedures of the original trial as being correct.

    “I'm Going To Help Them Fry The Nigger”
    In 2001 another witness—Terri Mauer-Carter—challenged Sabo's integrity, but the State Supreme Court ruled against the defense's right to include her affidavit in their current federal appeal. Mauer-Carter was working as a stenographer in the Philadelphia Court system on the eve of Mumia's 1982 trail when she states that she overheard Judge Sabo say in reference to Mumia's case that he was going to help the prosecution “fry the nigger.”

    Journalist Dave Lindorff recently interviewed Mauer-Carter's former boss, Richard Klein, who was with Mauer-Carter when she states she overheard Sabo. A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge at the time, who now sits on PA's Superior Court, Klein told Lindorff: "I won't say it did happen, and I won't say it didn't. That was a long time ago." Lindorff considers Klein's refusal to firmly reject Mauer-Carter's claim to be an affirmation of her statement.

    The State Supreme Court ruling was an affirmation of lower-level Judge Patricia Dembe's argument that even if Maurer-Carter is correct about Sabo's stated intent to use his position as Judge to throw the trial and help the prosecution "fry the nigger," it doesn't matter. According to Dembe, since it "was a jury trial, as long as the presiding Judge's rulings were legally correct, claims as to what might have motivated or animated those rulings are not relevant."

    Rapper Immortal Technique performs for Mumia on February 11, 2005
    after French received miniature liberty bells.

    Organizing for December 9
    Pam Africa (coordinator of Mumia's support network) explains that “when we defend Rue Mumia, we call attention to Mumia's current battle in the courts. We know the Supreme Court won't hear his case, so this current phase truly is the last chance for a new trial.”

    “I believe Mumia is innocent and am personally calling for his immediate release. However, I'll work with anyone supporting a fair trial. By demanding a new trial, we can work with those who know the trial was rotten but are unsure of Mumia's innocence.”

    Philly supporters are organizing for Dec. 9—the 25th anniversary of Abu-Jamal's incarceration. Africa is urging supporters to come to Philly or otherwise organize an event in their hometown. “Mumia's case represents all that is wrong with this system. We must take action now before it is too late!”

    Note from author: The Philly City Council members named in the letter to Paris City Council members (translated from French into English) have disavowed the letter and said they knew nothing about it. Suzanne Ross of the NYC Coalition for Mumia said that she had received the letter from a member of the Paris City Council (who says it was sent to the City Council from Peter Wirs' lawyer Martin Bozmarov) --who then gave it to a member of the French Communist Party and passed it on to Ross and Mumia supporters in the US. This issue is discussed in a Philadelphia Tribune article

    While many folks in the Tribune article describe this letter as a "hoax," Suzanne Ross responded to this and insisted that it was NOT a hoax and that the letter was recieved by the Paris City Council.

    When I spoke to Peter Wirs last night he said that there would not be a delegation going to France and that it had only been an idea that he was considering.

    The criminal lawsuit, however, is definitely still happening.

    Link to Bennett's new "Voice of the Voiceless" series on Abu-Jamal, published in the weeks leading up to December 9--the 25th anniversary of Abu-Jamal's arrest.

    Hans Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photojournalist who has been documenting the movement to free Mumia and all political prisoners for more than 5 years. Check out his new website:

    Please see photo-essays from past French visits to Philadelphia in
  • 2005
  • and in
  • 2006

  • All work by photojournalist Hans Bennett