Prolonged Case Of Mumia Abu-Jamal Takes Another Turn

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal back to federal court, thereby vacating that court's ruling which took Abu-Jamal off death row. Few murder trials have attracted as much attention, or notoriety. Abu-Jamal is an African-American former radio journalist and cab driver convicted in 1981 of killing Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. Craig Green, associate professor of Law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law about the new twist in the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a long-running legal and political saga: the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist who was convicted of killing a white Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner.

Few murder trials have attracted as much attention or notoriety, depending on your point of view, as this one. High-profile artists and activists from around the world have weighed in in support of Abu-Jamal, who was originally sentenced to death for the 1981 killing.

But in 2008, an appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out that appeals court ruling, perhaps moving Abu-Jamal one step closer to death row.

For more on why this case has gone on so long and why it's attracted so much attention, we're joined by Craig Green, associate professor of Law at Temple University's School of Law.

Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

Professor�CRAIG GREEN (Law, Temple University): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, why has this case attracted so much attention? It's been the subject of four documentaries that I know of, many books, some 25 municipalities around the world have made Mumia Abu-Jamal an honorary citizen. Why do you think it's attracted so much attention?

Prof. GREEN: Well, I think the Mumia case, depending on whom you ask, is actually two trials. One is about a very gruesome death and murder of a police officer in the line of duty, Daniel Faulkner, with very compelling and marshaled evidence against Mumia Abu-Jamal. And on the other hand, it's a trial of the system. There are allegations of police coercion and abuse, racial stacking the jury and racial application of the death penalty.

So on the one hand, it's a very vivid murder story, and on the other hand, it's everything that's thought to be wrong with the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: And to that point, I should mention that just as there are many, many high-profile people who have supported Abu-Jamal over the years, there's also been tremendous advocacy and organizing by people who think he's guilty and are outraged that he has not been executed to this point.

So let me ask you: What is the strongest evidence in support of his guilt, and what's the strongest evidence in support of his innocence?

Prof. GREEN: On the side of guilt, there were eyewitnesses proffered by the prosecutors who identified Abu-Jamal as having shot Daniel Faulkner once in the back and at least once in the head. There were ballistic experts to track the bullets to a gun that Abu-Jamal owned. There were witnesses from the hospital who said that Mumia had shot him and hoped he would die.

The other side, I think the compelling evidence is not so much about Mumia's innocence, although there are arguments about his innocence. But I think some of the most compelling evidence is actually about procedural flaws in the trial and in the sentencing.

So, for example, of a 12-person jury, 10 were white and two were black. And the prosecutors used 10 out of their 15 strikes to strike black jurors. There were arguments that the judge who presided over Mumia's trial and post-conviction, that he was biased and was basically a prosecutors' judge.

So procedural errors really are the root of the other side, I think, arguments that the system is stacked and further arguments that the prosecutor's office, the police office, applied criminal justice - and particularly the death penalty - in a racially motivated way against a Black Panther who was on the scene with a dead cop.

MARTIN: Well, it's my understanding, though, that one of the arguments in support of his innocence is that many of these people who claimed that he made these statements and so forth were either coerced or later recanted them, and I wanted to know whether that's true.

Prof. GREEN: Yeah, I think it's very hard to say. And so another thing - I mean this trial, as you sort of alluded to, the events happened in 1981. The trial was completed in 1983, which is an awfully long time ago. And so what's at stake is that a lot of these witnesses are not available or not willing to participate.

There have been other witnesses who, from time to time, Mumia's attorneys have tried to introduce to try to prove his innocence or to cast more doubt on the prosecutor's story. But I think that at this stage, 20, 30 years later, if there's a retrial or a resentencing, then I think it would be extremely difficult for the prosecution to expect to win, which is why the prosecutors are so concerned to get finality.

MARTIN: What is the next legal step?

Prof. GREEN: What happened is the United States Supreme Court held that the death sentence for Mumia was not invalid for the reason the Third Circuit had held, and so the next step is probably for the case to be sent back to the district court, to the trial court, where Mumia has at least eight other arguments why his death sentence should be overturned.

That will, in turn, be appealed to the Third Circuit, which is a court of appeals. And probably, there'll be another petition brought before the Supreme Court of the United States.

So this is, in another way, another story about the Pennsylvania death-penalty system, where we have the fourth-largest death row, with over 200 inmates, but haven't executed anymore in more than a decade and haven't executed anyone who is pursuing appeals in many decades.

So this is another story, from our perspective today, about how long these cases can be drawn out and how expensive and costly and difficult it can be, even when there is substantial amount of evidence of guilt, how difficult it is to apply the death penalty and how much controversy it stirs up.

MARTIN: Do you feel comfortable hazarding a prediction about what will happen in the end?

Prof. GREEN: I don't. I mean, the only thing I can predict is more legal fights. That's very predictable, and I think that this case will remain in the public eye because it is such a compelling story about police death and also about criminal justice system irregularities and procedural violations.

MARTIN: Craig Green is associate professor of Law at Temple University's School of Law. He joined us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. GREEN: Thank you, Michel.

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