During a jailhouse interview in 1978 a Philadelphia radical awaiting trial for a policeman's death advanced a salient observation about a fundamental flaw in America's legal system.
The "System just make and break laws as it see fit!" noted this radical who for years had battled Philadelphia authorities arbitrarily bending and breaking laws to brutally assault his organization.
This observation by a member of Philadelphia's MOVE organization would prove both prophetic and profound for the journalist conducting that jailhouse interview – Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Four years after that 1978 interview, Abu-Jamal stood trial for murdering a Philadelphia policeman. That trial produced a conviction so mired in controversy that today millions around the globe support Abu-Jamal as the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Abu-Jamal cites that radical's observation in his new book "Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners vs. the U.S.A." (City Lights Books 2009).
This is the sixth book written by Abu-Jamal during his twenty-five-plus years on Pennsylvania's death row. This book examines inmates who've learned law through self-study to challenge criminal convictions and conditions inside prisons.
Abu-Jamal, in Chapter 2 of his new book, provides his assessment of American law terming it an "instrument of the powerful, mortality be damned. For the weak, the powerless, the oppressed, the law is more often a hindrance than a help."
That radical's observation about arbitrary operation in the justice system accurately describes the Abu-Jamal case where courts – state and federal – have repeatedly altered and/or abrogated established law to block Abu-Jamal receiving relief granted to other inmates raising the same legal challenges.
The latest example of this alter-law-to-undermine-Abu-Jamal dynamic drives his appeal currently pending before the US Supreme Court. This appeal attacks the 2008 ruling by a federal 3rd Circuit Appeals Court panel that created a new legal standard for persons challenging racist jury selection practices by prosecutors.
That newly created legal standard advanced by two 3rd Circuit judges to reject voluminous evidence documenting racist jury selection practices by the prosecutor during Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial erects courtroom procedures far in excess of procedures required by existing US Supreme Court and 3rd Circuit rulings.
The third member of that three-judge 3rd Circuit panel issued a 41-page dissent that repeatedly upbraided his panel colleagues for radically changing the established jury discrimination standards applied by their Circuit and the US Supreme Court.
"Why we pick this case to depart from [3rd Circuit precedent] I do not know," Judge Thomas Ambro noted in his 2008 dissent.
Incredibly, that panel's ruling – later backed by the full 3rd Circuit – faults Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial attorney for not strictly following procedures the US Supreme Court didn't adopt until 1986...four years after Abu-Jamal's trial.
An internet based petition campaign requesting the US Supreme Court to overturn the 3rd Circuit ruling and grant Abu-Jamal a court hearing on the jury selection discrimination issue amassed over 1,200 signatures in just a few days.
This petition campaign initiated by a coalition of anti-death penalty groups in Germany has gained signatures from persons in Germany, Austria, Brazil and Turkey despite it not being formally launched internationally. So far, petition signers include noted German actors, actresses, activists, academics, civic leaders and one member of the German parliament.
The prosecutor during Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial used 10 of 15 preemptory challenges to purge potential black jurors – more than twice the exclusion rate expected with race-neutral procedures.