In the last week, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Mumia Abu-Jamal should have a new jury trial to determine only whether he should serve life in prison or be sentenced to death. The decision was 2 to 1, with a 41-page dissent written by Judge Thomas Ambro in which he pushed for a new trial altogether and stated “No matter how guilty one may be, he or she is entitled to a fair and impartial trial by a jury of his or her peers.” He cited the Snyder v. Louisiana case in which the Supreme Court ordered a new trial whenever procedural fairness is jeopardized by racial bias. In that decision, Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion overturned a Louisiana man’s murder conviction and death sentence, citing the prosecutor’s exclusion of blacks from the jury.
Partially based on Ambro’s dissent, Abu Jamal’s lawyer is appealing for a new criminal trial on four grounds. The two most important are that the prosecution engaged in racial discrimination during jury selection by purposely excluding African Americans and that the judge who presided over the original trial was not impartial in that he had known affiliations to the Fraternal Order of Police and had made openly racist comments during the trial saying that he was “going to help fry that n***”.
Abu Jamal’s lawyer relies on recently surfaced pictures that prove much of the evidence admitted and statements made were flawed. In The Guardian, Laura Smith wrote that at least one third of the officers involved in Abu-Jamal’s investigations have since been found to have engaged in corrupt activities, including fabricating evidence to frame suspects.
While Justice Alito and Judge Ambro may have set a precedent that helps current death row inmates appeal to overturn racially biased convictions, the more important factor in jury trials are the jurors. Cases like Snyder and Abu Jamal will continue to plague our legal system if the impartiality of the jurors is not a priority. Certain measures can create an environment that supports choosing an impartial jury. People from all walks of life must be encouraged to respond to jury pool questionnaires, rather than avoid reporting for fear of being investigated by government agencies. Laws should be enacted that require actual juries to be diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and class, not just the pools that jurors are drawn from and a more thorough examination needs to be done when lawyers choose to move a case from one county to another, especially in cases where discrimination might be a factor. Furthermore, the ability of jurors to render an impartial decision cannot be jeopardized by upholding decisions that were poisoned by procedural unfairness such as bad evidence. The combination of these types of systemic solutions with judicial opinions that re-try flawed cases would help to prevent innocent people form being convicted when the neutrality of a jury or accuracy of the evidence is debatable, as in the Abu Jamal case.
Opponents of Abu-Jamal’s quest to get a new trial claim that his supporters are questioning the application of a system rather than Abu-Jamal’s guilt. But why shouldn’t we question the system when its application affected the determination of guilt or innocence and affected penalty. Why not revisit the entire pool of evidence? If it again proves that a crime was committed, then we can move onto the sentencing phase and consider all mitigating evidence. The cost of human life is far more important than the inconvenience of changing a system.
A mass demonstration to protest the current ruling will be held in Philadelphia on April 19th, the Saturday before the Presidential Primary Election in Pennsylvania.