Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Case Stuck in Limbo

The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to send convicted police killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case back down to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, with instructions for a three-judge panel there to reconsider its decision to uphold the lifting of the prominent African-American journalist’s death penalty, is only the latest in a long string of examples of how courts at all levels have made special exceptions to precedent in order to try and kill this particular prisoner.

The high court found on January 19, that Frank Spisak, a self-described Nazi and killer of three in Ohio, had been properly sentenced, because at the time the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed his death penalty on appeal, “settled law” was that the jury instructions given to his jury had been proper. And under the terms of the 1995 Effective Death Penalty Act, federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have to defer to the judgements of state courts unless those courts’ decisions are deemed “unreasonable.”

Where it gets complicated though, is that subsequent to the conclusion of Spisak’s state appeals, the US Supreme Court, in a 1988 decision called Mills v. Maryland, ruled that ambiguously worded jury ballot forms and confusing or misleading jury instructions on sentencing by judges were grounds for reversing a death sentence.  Mills was never made retroactive (one of the more repugnant features of many Supreme Court decisions), but Abu-Jamal’s state appeals didn’t even properly begin until after his 1995-96 Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing, and so the same finding made by the Supreme Court majority in Spisak’s case–that the confusing jury instruction standards were “settled law” at the time–cannot be made in Abu-Jamal’s case.

But the Supreme Court order sending Abu-Jamal’s case back down to the Third Circuit, right or wrong, hardly means Abu-Jamal’s battle is over, much less lost, despite his already having spent an astonishing 28 years in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s hellish death row.

Even if the Third Circuit were to reverse itself, and decide against all logic that because of another Supreme Court decision made last month, reimposing the death penalty on Frank Spisak, the self-proclaimed Nazi killer of three men, Abu-Jamal should also die, it would not mean he can simply be marched off to a gurney for a lethal injection.

As Hugh Burns, the assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who has been leading the effort by the DA’s office to have Abu-Jamal executed for the last decade and a half, noted in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, threre are at least three more avenues of appeal of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence that still need to be considered at the district Federal Court level (actually there are four). That’s because when Federal Judge William Yohn, way back in 2001, issued his historic ruling revoking Abu-Jamal’s death sentence on the grounds that the jury ballot form used to determine sentencing, and the instructions of trial judge Albert Sabo, had been confusing on the question of mitigating circumstances, he mooted those other avenues of appeal, saying that he didn’t need to rule on them. The sentence was already lifted.

Now that Yohn has been reversed on that lifting of the death sentence, though, Abu-Jamal has a right to have Judge Yohn go back and look at the other three challenges to his sentence. And those challenges are very solid and serious. (Actually, I’ve always considered it a measure of how confident Judge Yohn was in the correctness of his decision on the jury instructions claim that he didn’t bother to deal with the other four appeals claims–something he could have done simultaneously.)

The first unresolved appeal claim goes to the heart of a defendant’s right to representation and a fair trial. Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Anthony Jackson, testified under oath at a Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing in 1995 to the obvious truth that did absolutely nothing to prepare for the sentencing portion of the trial. He called no witnesses to testify to Abu-Jamal’s character, an astonishing lapse which left the prosecutor free and unchallenged in portraying Abu-Jamal as a cop-hating terrorist. Jackson prepared no witnesses, though Abu-Jamal’s siblings and mother were on hand and ready to testify, as were many others in the community. Jackson, astonishingly, didn’t even request a delay of a few days after the guilty verdict in order to prepare for the sentencing hearing. When the judge ordered the session to begin the next day, Jackson went along meekly. It didn’t help that on the morning of the sentencing hearing, Jackson was awoken first at 6 am by fire trucks at his home–the result of a “prank call”– and that after he got to court, he received a frightened and frightening call from his 15-year-old son saying that someone had called his home telling the boy “You are the one we want. We’ll be coming over to get you!” (Any bets on who was making those calls?) Abu-Jamal in his 1999 habeas appeal the federal court claims his constitutional right to representation was denied by Jackson’s dismal performance at the sentencing hearing.

A second line of appeal, also mooted and left unresolved by Judge Yohn, was a claim that Abu-Jamal’s first, fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendment rights were violated when Prosecutor Joseph McGill improperly used Abu-Jamal’s membership, as a 15-year-old boy, in the Black Panther organization, in trying to portray him as a vicious cop-hater.  McGill came to court with a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer in which the young Abu-Jamal, quoting Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Tse-tung, had told reporters that  “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” It didn’t matter that the article explained that Abu-Jamal had made that statement in the context of the murder days earlier of Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago Police, and that the context made it clear he was referring to the power of police. McGill took the quote out of context and made it appear as though Abu-Jamal was advocating war on the cops. In any event, the quote had been made 12 years before, when Abu-Jamal was just a boy. The reality was that, far from being at war with police, Abu-Jamal as an adult had a sterling record or no arrests or convictions. Here is a case where the Pennsylvania courts and federal courts in the Third Circuit have repeatedly overturned death convictions where membership in allegedly anti-social organizations was cited by prosecutors in an effort to tarnish defendants before a jury, but where a special exception has been apparently been carved out for Abu-Jamal.  Judge Yohn has yet to rule on this line of appeal.

Third, there remains to be considered an appeal on the grounds that prosecutor McGill improperly sought, in his final argument to the jury in the sentencing hearing, to diminish the jurors’ sense of responsibility for their decision. McGill told the jury,

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are not asked to kill anybody. You are asked to follow the law. The same law that I keep on throwing at you, saying those words, law and order. I should point out to you it’s the same law that has for six months provided safeguards for this defendant. The same law, ladies and gentlemen, the same law that will provide him appeal after appeal after appeal….The same law, ladies and gentlemen, that has made it so because of the constant appeals…nobody at all has died in Pennsylvania since 1962 for an incident that occurred in 1959.”

Again, the courts at all levels–in Pennsylvania, in the Third Circuit, and the US Supreme Court itself–have all overturned death penalty sentences based upon just such statements having been made to juries at trials. Indeed, another case prosecuted successfully by McGill himself was overturned because he made exactly the same statement to a jury, claiming jurors need not feel they are personally ordering a man’s death. So this appeal too needs to be considered in full by Judge Yohn.

Finally, there is a fourth avenue of appeal which was also mooted and left unresolved by Judge Yohn. That is the claim that the prosecutor knowingly withheld evidence in police files which showed that Abu-Jamal had no criminal record and no propensity for violence. Specifically, Abu-Jamal, years after his trial, obtained his FBI file–largely composed of materials obtained by the FBI from Philadelphia Police and the Philadelphia Police Department’s so-called “Red Squad.” That file, 600 pages long, shows that surveillence of Abu-Jamal ended in 1973. A 1974 memo at the end of the file states, “In March 1973, per bureau instructions, captioned subject was deleted from ADEX [the list of people deemed subversive and slated as part of COINTELPRO to be rounded up and detained in the event of a national emergency] and no additionalinvestigation conducted concerning his activities. Sources, however, have continued to report periodically on COOK [Abu-Jamal’s family name] and, although he has not displayed a propensity for violence, has continued to associate himself with individuals and organizations engaged in Extremist activities.”  Clearly this file, stating that Abu-Jamal did not appear to be a violent person, had been available to the prosecution, and should have been offered to the defense. This appeal of Abu-Jamal’s conviction based upon a claim of prosecutorial misconduct must also be considered by Judge Yohn.

Once the Third Circuit has reconsidered its decision on the jury instruction issue–and the outcome there is by no means certain, with Abu-Jamal’s attorney Robert Bryan planning a spirited argument that Abu-Jamal’s case is substantively different from the Spisak case–and if it were to rule against Abu-Jamal, there would first of all be a new appeal of that decision back to the US Supreme Court. Only if the high court were to uphold such a decision would these four other issues finally go back before Judge Yohn.

It appears that even if the courts continue to rule against this now world-renowned journalist who has spent more than half his life sitting confined in a small cell on death row, his controversial case, dogged as it is by charges of judicial misconduct, racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, purjured prosecution witness testimony and political interference, will continue to drag on unresolved for years to come.

DAVE LINDORFF  is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation Into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu Jamal. He can be reached at

This article by Dave Lindorff appeared originally in ThisCantBeHappening! on its new Substack platform at Please check out the new site and consider signing up for a cut-rate subscription that will be available until the end of the month.