Listen to the courtroom audio from the May 17 oral arguments.
Mumia’s Battle in the Courtroom:
The Four Issues Made Simple
by Hans Bennett
In December, 2001 Federal District Court Judge William Yohn affirmed Mumia Abu-Jamal's guilt but overturned the death sentence. Citing the 1988 Mills v. Maryland precedent, Yohn ruled that sentencing forms used by jurors and Judge Sabo's instructions to the jury were confusing. Subsequently, jurors mistakenly believed that they had to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstances in order to consider them as weighing against a death sentence.
Mumia's case is now in the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, with oral arguments set for May 17. District Attorney Lynne Abraham is appealing the death penalty ruling while Mumia is appealing the guilty verdict.
If the penalty ruling is overturned, a new execution date will be set for Mumia. If Yohn’s ruling is upheld, the DA can still impanel a new jury to rehear the penalty phase, which could then sentence Mumia to death—regardless of the 3rd Circuit ruling.
Because the DA appealed Yohn's death penalty decision, Mumia has never left death row, and is still unable to have such “privileges” as full-contact visits with his family.
While the specter of execution still exists, there is also reason for hope. In December, 2005 the 3rd Circuit announced the beginning of deliberations and shocked many by agreeing to consider two claims not “certified for appeal” by Yohn in 2001.
Mumia's attorney Robert R. Bryan declared it to be “the most important decision affecting my client since his 1981 arrest, for it was the first time there was a ruling that could lead to a new trial and his freedom.” The court is now considering the following four issues:
Whether the penalty phase of Mumia's trial violated the legal precedent set by the US Supreme Court's 1988 Mills v. Maryland ruling. This issue was Yohn's grounds for overturning the death sentence and is now being appealed by the DA.
“Certified for appeal” by Yohn in 2001, the Batson claim addresses the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges to exclude Blacks from Mumia's jury. 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.
At Mumia's trial, Prosecutor McGill used 11 of his 15 peremptory challenges to remove black jurors that were otherwise acceptable. While Philadelphia was 40% black, Abu-Jamal's jury was composed of ten whites and only two blacks. From 1977-1986 when current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was Philadelphia's District Attorney, the evidence of racism is striking: from 1977-86, the Philadelphia DA struck 58% of potential black jurors, but only 22% of white jurors.
In their Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) brief supporting the Batson claim, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund concludes that it is an “abundantly clear… prima facie case of discrimination.” The LDF cites a survey of homicide cases DA McGill tried from Sept., 1981 to Oct., 1983, showing that “the odds that Mr. McGill would peremptorily challenge an African-American potential juror were 8.47 times greater than for non-black jurors.”