Incarceration Nation

Mumia’s Legal Challenge

District Attorney covers up judicial bias 

By Rachel Wolkenstein

On April 28, 2017 Mumia Abu-Jamal had a promising win in his new legal action to reverse all the Pennsylvania state appeal decisions from 1998-2008 that upheld his murder conviction. Philadelphia Judge Tucker, supervising judge of the Court of Common Pleas, denied the District Attorney’s “Motion to Dismiss” Mumia’s petition.  Judge Tucker also ordered the District Attorney’s Office to disclose all files and information that support Mumia’s claims that his state appeal process was corrupted because Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille was involved in prosecuting Mumia’s appeals of his conviction and death sentence, and then sat in judgment as an elected Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice and refused to recuse (remove) himself during Mumia’s post-conviction appeals. These appeals challenged the constitutional violations that Castille had defended as District Attorney. 

Mumia’s new petition is based on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Pennsylvania.  That decision held that a judge who had previously been personally involved in a critical prosecutorial decision in that case has a conflict of interest. Such a conflict violates due process if the judge does not recuse himself from the appeal deliberations. In the Williams case, the former DA, then judge, was the very same Ronald Castille.

In addition to Mumia, thirteen other men whose death sentences were authorized or defended by DA Castille brought legal actions to reverse and reinstate their appeal rights. Because of information about Castille’s involvement already known to the court in five of those cases, new appeal rights were granted. In the other cases, like Mumia’s, the District Attorney was ordered to search the DA office files for information about Castille’s involvement in those cases (referred to as “discovery.”)

A legal victory in Mumia’s new petition reinstates his appeal rights to assert his innocence and appeal the wholesale denial of his due process rights to a fair trial. 

It was anticipated that the District Attorney’s Office  (DAO) would not comply with the order to provide the documentation that Ronald Castille, as District Attorney, had significant personal involvement in Mumia’s case. It was anticipated that the DA’s office would continue the cover-up of the judicial and prosecutorial misconduct that permeates the frame-up conviction of Mumia. 

Thirty days after the judge’s order to produce the DAO files on Castille, some 50 pages that carried Castille’s name as the District Attorney were released.  These were pages from the public record; there were no internal memos or information about Castille’s involvement in the constitutionally significant issues in Mumia’s appeal, including racial discrimination in jury selection, the integrity of the jury deliberation and responsibility for the verdict, and the violation of First Amendment rights by injecting Mumia’s membership and advocacy as a Black Panther Party member as motive for murder.

The DAO’s May 30, 2017 response was non-compliant, obstructionist and a blatant cover-up. They said:  “the Commonwealth has reviewed its files for this case in search of documents or records ‘showing former District Attorney Ronald Castille’s personal involvement in the [case of Mumia Abu-Jamal].’ The Commonwealth has found no such documents or records in the materials reviewed.”

Mumia’s lawyers, Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Judith Ritter, sent a letter to Judge Tucker on June 13, 2017 asking him to order “complete compliance” by the DAO, including a list and index of the files searched.

On June 22 Judge Tucker ordered the DA to examine more records, produce indexes proving that they searched, and an order to turn over all documents that might show Ron Castille and PA Supreme Court judges’ direct involvement in Mumia’s criminal case. The battle has begun.

This latest development underscores the decades long frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the continued commitment by the police, prosecution and judiciary to keep Mumia imprisoned for life—on slow death row.  There is a path to Mumia’s freedom in winning this legal action. But winning in the capitalist racist courts will take nothing less than an international campaign and mobilization demanding, Free Mumia, Now!