By Dave LIndorff
The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to send convicted police killer Mumia Abu-Jamal's case back down to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, with instructions for a three-judge panel there to reconsider its decision to uphold the lifting of the prominent African-American journalist's death penalty, is only the latest in a long string of examples of how courts at all levels have made special exceptions to precedent in order to try and kill this particular prisoner.
The high court found on January 19, that Frank Spisak, a self-described Nazi and killer of three in Ohio, had been properly sentenced, because at the time the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed his death penalty on appeal, "settled law" was that the jury instructions given to his jury had been proper. And under the terms of the 1995 Effective Death Penalty Act, federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have to defer to the judgements of state courts unless those courts' decisions are deemed "unreasonable." Where it gets complicated though, is that subsequent to the conclusion of Spisak's state appeals, the US Supreme Court, in a 1988 decision called Mills v. Maryland, ruled that ambiguously worded jury ballot forms and confusing or misleading jury instructions on sentencing by judges were grounds for reversing a death sentence. Mills was never made retroactive (one of the more repugnant features of many Supreme Court decisions), but Abu-Jamal's state appeals didn't even properly begin until after his 1995-96 Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing, and so the same finding made by the Supreme Court majority in Spisak's case--that the confusing jury instruction standards were "settled law" at the time--cannot be made in Abu-Jamal's case.
But the Supreme Court order sending Abu-Jamal's case back down to the Third Circuit, right or wrong, hardly means Abu-Jamal's battle is over, much less lost, despite his already having spent an astonishing 28 years in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania's hellish death row.
Even if the Third Circuit were to reverse itself, and decide against all logic that because of another Supreme Court decision made last month, reimposing the death penalty on Frank Spisak, the self-proclaimed Nazi killer of three men, Abu-Jamal should also die, it would not mean he can simply be marched off to a gurney for a lethal injection.
As Hugh Burns, the assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who has been leading the effort by the DA's office to have Abu-Jamal executed for the last decade and a half, noted in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, threre are at least three more avenues of appeal of Abu-Jamal's death sentence that still need to be considered at the district Federal Court level (actually there are four). That's because when Federal Judge William Yohn, way back in 2001, issued his historic ruling revoking Abu-Jamal's death sentence on the grounds that the jury ballot form used to determine sentencing, and the instructions of trial judge Albert Sabo, had been confusing on the question of mitigating circumstances, he mooted those other avenues of appeal, saying that he didn't need to rule on them. The sentence was already lifted.
Now that Yohn has been reversed on that lifting of the death sentence, though, Abu-Jamal has a right to have Judge Yohn go back and look at the other three challenges to his sentence. And those challenges are very solid and serious. (Actually, I've always considered it a measure of how confident Judge Yohn was in the correctness of his decision on the jury instructions claim that he didn't bother to deal with the other four appeals claims--something he could have done simultaneously.)
The first unresolved appeal claim goes to the heart of a defendant's right to representation and a fair trial. Abu-Jamal's attorney, Anthony Jackson, testified under oath at a Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing in 1995 to the obvious truth that did absolutely nothing to prepare for the sentencing portion of the trial. He called no witnesses to testify to Abu-Jamal's character, an astonishing lapse which left the prosecutor free and unchallenged in portraying Abu-Jamal as a cop-hating terrorist. Jackson prepared no witnesses, though Abu-Jamal's siblings and mother were on hand and ready to testify, as were many others in the community. Jackson, astonishingly, didn't even request a delay of a few days after the guilty verdict in order to prepare for the sentencing hearing. When the judge ordered the session to begin the next day, Jackson went along meekly. It didn't help that on the morning of the sentencing hearing, Jackson was awoken first at 6 am by fire trucks at his home--the result of a "prank call"-- and that after he got to court, he received a frightened and frightening call from his 15-year-old son saying that someone had called his home telling the boy "You are the one we want. We'll be coming over to get you!" (Any bets on who was making those calls?) Abu-Jamal in his 1999 habeas appeal the federal court claims his constitutional right to representation was denied by Jackson's dismal performance at the sentencing hearing.