St. Denis, France.
Harold Wilson drank wine for the first time in nearly twenty years during his recent trip to this working class city located in the suburbs of Paris known for its left-of-center politics.
Lack of access, not avoidance, had driven Wilson’s abstinence from all alcoholic beverages.
Wilson spent nearly 18-years in Pennsylvania prisons — sixteen on death row where he twice faced imminent execution for a triple-murder that DNA evidence eventually proved he didn’t commit.
Wilson’s drink of good French wine came during salutes to him at a large, communal dinner inside a church on one of the city’s most famous squares.
These salutes erupted after Wilson briefly described the injustices he endured, including death row experiences like smelling the burning flesh of an inmate who ignited himself in an insane reaction to repeated callousness by guards.
“I didn’t have to go to war to experience brutality and death,” Wilson said, fighting to control parallel emotions from recalling death row incidents and reacting to the compassion towards him from those attending that dinner.
Wilson, who is 6’4″ tall weighing nearly 250 lbs., is the sixth person freed from Pa’s death row and the 122nd person released from death rows nationwide.
Wilson said flawed evidence authorities used to convict him included a bloody jacket that fit a person eight inches shorter and 60lbs lighter than him.
Wilson is now an advocate of providing assistance to persons released from death row.
When Pa authorities released Wilson in November 2005, after a jury acquittal at a retrial, he received sixty-five cents, a public transportation token and a warning: Don’t come back.
Wilson traveled to St. Denis as a member of a small delegation from his hometown of Philadelphia to participate in the one year anniversary of the naming of a small street in St. Denis for Pa death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Wilson eagerly says Abu-Jamal, also from Philadelphia, helped him adjust to the deprivations of death row and helped him with the legal research producing his successful appeals.
“Mumia taught me how to read law books. He taught me to fight with a pen,” Wilson told a St. Denis supporter of Abu-Jamal hours before the dinner.
“Working to free Mumia and others gives me identity and purpose. I struggle everyday to rebuild my life.”
Days before traveling to St. Denis, Wilson spoke at an Abu-Jamal event in Philadelphia featuring Danny Glover, the famed actor/activist who called Abu-Jamal’s conviction a “legal lynching.”
The legal improprieties leading to a new trial for Wilson discriminatory jury selection practices by the prosecutor and incompetence by his court appointed trial lawyer are core issues in Abu-Jamal’s controversial conviction.
Like Abu-Jamal’s trial attorney, Wilson’s court appointed attorney was trying his first death penalty case. The trial lawyers for Abu-Jamal and Wilson both failed to present critical evidence at trial.
Discriminatory jury selection is the central issue in the scheduled May 17th hearing for Abu-Jamal before the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The prosecutor in Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial for killing a Philadelphia policeman used nearly all of his fifteen challenges to remove blacks from the jury.
The jury that convicted Abu-Jamal contained only two blacks in a city where forty percent of the population was black at the time of trial.
That jury contained a white man who said from the outset that he would not be fair to Abu-Jamal and other whites who “had close friends or relatives who were police officers,” noted author/investigative reporter Dave Lindorff in his excellent book “Killing Time: An Investigation Into The Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
Rulings by Pa’s Supreme Court have consistently rejected allegations of discriminatory jury selection at Abu-Jamal’s trial but a federal District Court judge found evidence of this misconduct meriting appellate court review.
In contrast to Abu-Jamal’s case, the Pa Supreme Court granted an appeal from Wilson after finding evidence of discriminatory jury selection by his trial prosecutor.
The prosecutor in Wilson’s case was the instructor in a now infamous Philadelphia DA Office training video showing new prosecutors how to evade US Supreme Court prohibitions against excluding blacks from death penalty juries.
Lindorff and other experts say the instructions on that 1987 training video reflect long-standing discriminatory jury selection practices utilized by Philadelphia prosecutors.
Lindorff writes in his book, “the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, over the period 1977-1986, including the trial of Abu-Jamal in 1982, struck black jurors 58 percent of the time, compared to only 22 percent of the time for white jurors.”
The specific prosecutor in Abu-Jamal’s trial, according to scholarly research, struck blacks 74 percent of the time during that 1977-1986 period compared to 25 percent for whites.
The fact that the Pa Supreme Court curtly rejected Abu-Jamal’s jury discrimination claims while granting relief to Wilson and other defendants using similar evidence is often cited as an example of double-standards authorities employ in the Abu-Jamal case.
Amnesty International’s 2000 report on the Abu-Jamal case criticizes Pa’s entire state judicial system for rulings against Abu-Jamal based on political considerations instead of legal precedent.
The St. Denis street naming is another case study in double standards.
The April 2006 naming of a block-long street in a secluded section of St. Denis prompted the December 2006 passage of a resolution by the US Congress demanding the removal of Abu-Jamal’s name from this small lane sandwiched between two one-way streets.
Months before passage of this congressional resolution, Philadelphia’s City Council and Pa’s State Senate passed similar resolutions assailing the naming of a street in honor of a convicted murderer.
In contrast to the criticism of St. Denis, in 1990, New York City officials changed the name of a street in front of a federal prison to honor a prisoner being held there, an escaped IRA fugitive convicted in Northern Ireland of murdering a British special forces officer.
Officials across America, including over 100 members of Congress, applauded Joe Doherty’s long fight against extradition contending the IRA fighter did not receive a fair trial from British authorities.
St. Denis’ Mayor and immediate past Mayor both criticized the unfairness of Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial during their remarks at the recent anniversary of the street naming.
That Amnesty report concluded that Abu-Jamal’s trial failed to meet internationally acceptable standards for a fair trial.
A core aspect of a fair trial is an impartial judge and the alleged pro-prosecution bias of Abu-Jamal’s trial judge during a 1995 appeals hearing is an item under review by the Third Circuit appeals court.
The outrageous bias exhibited by Judge Albert Sabo during that ’95 appeal hearing triggered harsh editorial criticism from Philadelphia’s normally anti-Abu-Jamal mainstream media.
However, Pa’s Supreme Court brushed aside that editorial criticism.
Years later, the same Court curtly dismissed a disturbing charge that Sabo was overheard on the eve of the ’82 trial saying he was going to help prosecutors “fry the nigger!” The Court claimed Sabo’s racist remark was irrelevant.
Harold Wilson, while in St. Denis, participated in a short protest march demanding a fair trial for Abu-Jamal. He later participated in the May Day March in Paris, walking with a large ‘Free Mumia’ delegation.
After those dinner salutes to Wilson, he later laughed with diners sitting near him saying French wine is “much better than Thunderbird” and other faux wines he drank prior to incarceration.
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia based journalist who has covered the Abu-Jamal case for 25-years.