COURTROOM AUDIO: Mumia Abu-Jamal’s May 17 Oral Arguments
Presented by Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal
On May 17, 2007, a three-judge panel from the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard oral arguments in Philadelphia on four different issues regarding the fairness of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s original 1982 trial. Robert R. Bryan, lead counsel for Abu-Jamal, joined by his associate, Professor Judith L Ritter, and Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that Abu-Jamal’s trial was tainted with racist jury selection, confusing and wrong jury instructions on the death penalty, prosecutorial misconduct regarding a false argument to the jury at the guilt phase, and the bias of the trial judge at a 1995 hearing whom a court stenographer overheard boasting in 1982 that he was going to help the prosecution “fry the n-word.” The National Lawyers Guild also submitted amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefing on the issues of judicial bias and false prosecutorial argument.
Because of the limited time, not all of the issues were discussed, even though they were thoroughly covered in briefing filed by Bryan and Ritter on behalf of Abu-Jamal. At the outset of oral argument, Deputy District Attorney Hugh Burns addressed three issues: 1) He argued for reinstating the death penalty, in his appeal of Judge Yohn’s 2001 decision regarding the death penalty. 2) He argued in defense of prosecutor Joseph McGill’s false argument to the jury: “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,” implying the trial was not final. 3) Addressing the Batson racism-in-jury-selection claim, Burns argued in defense of McGill’s use of 10 of 15 peremptory challenges to strike black jurors.
For the defense, Ritter addressed the issue of the death penalty, which is based on the Mills v. Maryland precedent. In December, 2001, U.S. District Court Judge William Yohn ruled that sentencing forms used by jurors and Judge Sabo's instructions to the jury were confusing and contrary to the law. Jurors were mistakenly led to believe that they had to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstance in order to consider it as weighing against a death verdict.
Lead attorney Robert R. Bryan and Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund focused on the racial discrimination in jury selection issue. 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. Most importantly, Batson significantly lowered the defendant's burden of proof.
Lead attorney Robert R. Bryan can contacted via email: RobertRBryan@aol.com