The United Kingdom petitions US over trial of death-row journalist
130 of the UK’s most distinguished lawyers have signed a letter to the US Court of appeal challenging the conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award winning journalist who has been on death row for 24 years.
The letter, initiated by Ian Macdonald QC and Legal Action for Women, highlights the racism in the original trial and subsequent hearings of Mr Abu-Jamal. After 24 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, Mr Abu-Jamal, convicted in 1982 of killing a policeman, has been granted an appeal which if successful could result in a new trial. This would be the first time his side of the case would be heard by a jury.
The signatories include many who are Queen’s Counsel; leading criminal trial lawyers, in some cases household names such as Michael Mansfield QC, Helena Kennedy QC, Lord Gifford QC, Gareth Peirce, Clive Stafford Smith and Geoffrey Bindman; those with experience of doing appeals in the Privy Council in death penalty cases from the Caribbean; many experienced in race and gender discrimination cases; and a professor of law.
On 20 July, Robert R. Bryan, lead counsel for Mr Abu-Jamal, will submit opening briefs for the appeal on issues such as prosecutorial use of racism in jury selection and the death penalty.
Ian Macdonald QC, criminal trial lawyer and leading authority in the UK on anti-racism and immigration law, says: “This is a most unusual case: although it is taking place in a United States court, there is enormous concern among the legal profession here at the strikingly unfair trial that took place. As members of this distinguished profession, which claims to work for justice, we feel obliged to register our grave concern. There is no doubt that what happens in US courts affects the legal climate in the UK”.
Drawing on the common legal heritage between the UK and the US which, “since the time of Magna Carta in 1215, has given pride of place to common notions of due process and a fair trial” to justify their intervention, the letter lists some of the more noteworthy outrages including: the prosecution’s systematic removal of Black people from the jury and the blatant and documented racist bias of the trial judge.
Mr Abu-Jamal’s case is a key test of judicial murder. Thousands of lives depend on the outcome, starting with the 3370 people on death row who are disproportionately Black people and other people of colour. Mr Abu-Jamal had no criminal convictions before his arrest. The determination of the police, prosecution and judge to deny him a fair trial and execute him strongly suggests that this outstanding campaigning journalist is being tried for his track record of exposing racism, police brutality and corruption in Philadelphia, and for the opposition to US government policies and practices that his journalism continues to express.
What does it mean if political opposition within the superpower can be disposed of in this anti-democratic way? When the standard of justice there is allowed to fall, the rest of the world is inevitably influenced. The lawyers entreat the US courts to make right the actions of Judge Sabo, a racist hanging judge, lest he be taken as the face of US justice.
Legal Action for Women comments:
“We have supported Mr Abu-Jamal’s fight for a new trial for many years and last October had the first opportunity to visit him in prison. With Ian Macdonald we initiated this letter to help ensure that this remarkable man, who is in the greatest danger of judicial murder, and whose case against conviction has never been heard by a jury, gets what we are all entitled to: a fair trial.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal is an award-winning journalist who, in the years leading up to his December 9, 1981, arrest, had actively exposed police corruption, racism, and violence against Black people and other people of colour. Despite severe restrictions on contact with the outside, including how much written material he is allowed, he continues his work from inside prison, recording weekly Dispatches From Death Row, incisive radio commentaries, which goes out on 100 stations. He also writes for other publications. He has written five books while in prison including: ‘Live From Death Row’ and most recently ‘We Want Freedom: a Life in the Black Panther Party.’