In Mumia's 1982 trial presided over by the notorious "hanging judge" Albert Sabo, the prosecutor Joseph McGill used 10 or perhaps 11 of his 15 peremptory strikes against Black jurors. But as with virtually all court decisions over the past decades in Mumia's case, the "Mumia Exception," the contorted interpretation of the "law" to reach a predetermined result, was once again applied, with the high court refusing to review the twisted logic of its subordinate bodies thereby allowing Mumia's frame-up murder conviction to stand.
But what has caught the attention of both legal observers and human rights activists even more is the fact that the same court, while refusing to hear Mumia's appeal, chose to delay a ruling on a cross appeal filed by the State of Pennsylvania that seeks Mumia's execution. Pennsylvania prosecutors, twice rejected in their efforts to impose the death penalty on Mumia (in 2001 and 2008), may have found new support in the U.S. Supreme Court.
It appears that the court's delay in ruling on the validity of Mumia's original execution sentence was due to its decision to grant oral arguments in the Ohio case of Smith v. Spisak, a case that might re-write or reinterpret the nation's laws to make it easier to obtain jury verdicts calling for execution. The Court heard Ohio prosecutor's arguments for Spisak's execution on October 13, 2009. A ruling is expected in the year ahead.
Frank Spisak, a neo-Nazi who wore a Hitler mustache to his trial, denounced Jews, and Blacks, and confessed in court to three hate crime murders in Ohio, saw his jury-imposed death sentence reversed in the federal courts when his attorney's successfully invoked a 1988 Supreme Court decision in the famous Mills v. Maryland case. Mills requires that in order to find mitigating circumstances sufficient to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, as opposed to the death penalty, the jury's majority decision (as opposed to unanimous decision) on each mitigating circumstance is sufficient. In both Spisak and Mumia's case the presiding trial court judge violated Mills and in essence instructed the juries that unanimity, not a majority vote on each mitigating circumstance was required. In both cases the prosecution's appeal was rejected and Mills was upheld, thus staying the imposed death sentences and ordering a new trial or sentencing hearing with the proper jury instructions. In both cases the prosecution, seeking to avoid a new trial in any form, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court demanding execution.
An April 7, 2009 article in the Legal Intelligencer, the oldest law journal in the country, had this to say about the Supreme Court's decision to delay a ruling on Pennsylvania's request to re-impose the death penalty on Mumia.
"In both cases, [Spisak and Abu-Jamal] the federal courts' decisions to overturn the death sentences hinged on Mills v. Maryland -- a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that governs how juries should deliberate during the penalty phase of a capital trial.
"The Mills ruling struck down a Maryland statute that said juries in capital cases must be unanimous on any aggravating or mitigating factor.
"The justices declared that unanimity was properly required for any aggravating factor, but that mitigating factors -- those that weigh against imposing a death sentence -- must be handled more liberally, with each juror free to find on his or her own."
The effect of Mills was to make it harder for prosecutors to obtain death sentences in capital cases. The Intelligencer concludes, "The question now before the courts is whether Mills requires that death sentences in other states be overturned if the juries in those states are misled by faulty instructions or sufficiently vague verdict forms to believe that mitigating factors require unanimity."
I emphasize the words "other states" because prior to this unexpected turn of events the legal community appeared to agree that Mills applied to all states. That is, if a jury was orally mis-instructed and/or received faulty or unclear verdict forms that implied it needed to be unanimous with regard to mitigating circumstances sufficient to not impose the death penalty, the death penalty was set aside and a new sentencing hearing was ordered.
This is what happened in Mumia's case when Federal District Court Judge William H. Yohn in 2001 employed Mills to set aside the jury's death penalty decision. Yohn gave the State of Pennsylvania 180 days to decide whether or not to retry Mumia at a new sentencing hearing where new evidence of innocence can be presented by Mumia, but where the jury can only decide between execution and life in prison without parole. At this hearing, the jury cannot make a decision regarding guilt. Since then, Pennsylvania officials have effectively stayed Yohn's order by appealing to the higher federal courts.
In deciding to hear Ohio prosecutors' arguments in the Spisak case with regard to Mills the Supreme Court has implied that one of the key issues they will consider centers on the interpretation of the concept of federalism, that is, that the exercise of power in the U.S. is shared in some measure between the federal government and the states. The political pendulum has swung back and forth on this issue. In past decades, the "states' rights" interpretation was employed to justify racist state laws that denied Blacks access to public institutions and facilities. With the rise of the Civil Rights movement federal power was used to compel the elimination of the same racist laws. Justice has been far from blind in racist America. It is applied to the advantage of the working class and the oppressed only to the extent that the relationship of forces, that is, the struggles of the masses, demand it.
Since Mills was decided in the State of Maryland, the would-be Ohio and Pennsylvania executioners argue that based on the laws of their states, Mills cannot be automatically applied to the situation in Ohio where a different set of jury instructions and therefore jury deliberations were involved. Indeed, Ohio prosecutors argued before the Supreme Court on October 13 that Ohio and Pennsylvania were the exception and not the rule and that the norm in other states was to essentially reject a strict interpretation of Mills in favor of various state guidelines regarding jury instructions.
Should this "states' rights" argument be accepted and Mills be effectively constricted, the Supreme Court could then uphold Spisak's death sentence and, with a mere citation to Spisak and the new interpretation of Mills, uphold the Pennsylvania's appeal seeking Mumia's execution.
While most legal observers previously considered a Supreme Court Mills re-interpretation a virtual impossibility, the stage has now been set for such an outcome. The state's longstanding effort to execute Mumia has been given new legal avenues for success with the top court's decision to re-consider the Spisak case.