22 November 2010. A World to Win News Service. Following is an edited excerpt from an article by C. Clark Kissinger that appeared in the 21 November 2010 issue of Revolution, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
The largest courtroom of the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals was packed with supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal as a three judge panel heard the latest oral arguments in his case. Outside hundreds more marched and chanted. People from all over the Eastern United States were there, including a whole history class from Hunter College in New York. There were also delegations from France and Germany.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the best known political prisoners in the world. Forces ranging from people of all walks of life to the European Parliament and Amnesty International have protested his unjust conviction. He has spent 27 years in isolation on death row, after being railroaded in a manifestly bogus trial. In 2001, a federal court refused to grant Mumia a new trial, but overturned his death sentence. Mumia has continued to fight his conviction, and the State of Pennsylvania has attempted in court to get the death penalty reinstated. This hearing was an attempt to reinstate Mumia's death penalty.
People were justifiably angry with the latest turn of events. This same federal appeals court had already thrown out the death sentence on Mumia in 2008 because the instructions given to the jury were in violation of well-established federal law. But now the U.S. Supreme Court, after an appeal by the state of Pennsylvania, had ordered the federal appeals court to reconsider their previous decision.
Casting a shadow over Mumia's whole appeal process has been the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (signed into law by Bill Clinton). A big thrust of this law is making it more difficult for prisoners seeking to overturn illegal state court decisions in the federal courts. Under this law, it is not enough for Mumia to show that his death sentence was obtained through a violation of federal law – he has to show that it was obtained through an "unreasonable application of clearly established federal law." This wording is designed to give state courts "the benefit of the doubt" in pushing through executions.
Mumia was represented at the oral argument by Professor Judith Ritter of Widener University School of Law. Professor Ritter had successfully argued the issue of the jury instructions in the earlier 2008 oral arguments. In a carefully reasoned presentation she asked the court to sustain their previous finding that Mumia's death sentence be overturned as the new case cited by the Supreme Court did not apply.
While progressive legal observers remain hopeful that the Third Circuit panel will hold their ground and resist calls to reverse their previous decision, were that to happen the State of Pennsylvania can still convene a new jury and hold a new sentencing phase for the original conviction, in which Mumia could again be sentenced to death. Ever since Mumia's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his conviction was rejected, the State of Pennsylvania has been ferociously determined to execute Mumia.
No matter which way the current ruling goes, the losing side will undoubtedly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court again. Also, there are still other legal issues concerning Mumia's sentencing that have never been ruled on. This means a considerable road ahead in court, but in a political climate that is much more reactionary than earlier years. A mass movement, reaching far and wide in society and around the world, was a crucial factor in stopping the rulers of this country from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal in the 1980s and '90s. It is ever more important that people must come together behind the demand to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.