February 13, 2010
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther, award winning journalist, behind-bars commentator on critical social issues–and an innocent man on death row. In April 2009, after more than two decades of court rulings that ignored mounting evidence of his innocence, the Supreme Court upheld his 1982 frame-up conviction without comment. Then, this January, the Court moved closer to reinstating his death sentence–which had been put on hold by lower court rulings.
The US Supreme Court has shown it will do anything necessary to support the rule of their big corporate bosses, as seen most recently in the Citizens United ruling, which threw out the ban on independent corporate spending during an election. Years of legislation was undone in a single blow, to further tighten the death grip of big money over politics in the US. But the courts also obey the commands of their armed thugs in the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and politicians that support them, even if it means walking all over their own legal precedents and trampling on the most basic principles of justice.
Supreme Court Vacates the Stay of Mumias Death Sentence
On January 19th the Supreme Court “vacated” the Third Circuit (federal appellate) ruling, which–after upholding Mumia’s conviction–said that Mumia’s death sentence had been imposed under faulty instructions to the jury. The Third Circuit had instructed Pennsylvania state courts that under Mills v Maryland–a 1988 Supreme Court precedent–Mumia’s sentence should be decided again in a new sentencing hearing, or (if no such hearing was held) converted to a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In Mills, the Supreme Court had struck down a Maryland statute which said that juries in capital cases must be unanimous on any aggravating or mitigating factor when deciding the sentence. The Mills ruling said that while aggravating factors need be unanimous, factors that mitigate against imposing death required a simple majority only. The Third Circuit said Mills applied in Mumia’s case, and so required reconsideration of the sentence.
But now, the Supreme Court has ordered the Third Circuit to reconsider this decision. They did so in light of their recent ruling on another case, Smith v Spisak. Having summarily tossed out Mumia’s appeal against his conviction last year, the Court waited until now, after its Spisak ruling, to take up the cross-appeal by the Philadelphia DA, seeking to reinstate Mumia’s death sentence. It was obvious that the Court planned to use its Spisak ruling against Mumia, and now it has. The clear implication was that the Third Circuit had just lost its reason (the Mills precedent) for setting aside Mumia’s death sentence:
“Of the cases summarily decided [January 19th], one is especially noteworthy: the Court has granted the petition in Beard v. Abu-Jamal (08-652), vacating and remanding to the Third Circuit to consider in light of Smith v. Spisak.” http://www.scotusblog.com/
Smith v Spisak stemmed from a case in Ohio of an avowed neo-Nazi, who confessed in court to murdering five people for racist reasons. Spisak’s death sentence had been set aside, based on faulty jury instructions under the Mills precedent, similar to Mumia’s, in two lower court rulings. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed these, and said Spisak should be executed. The Mills ruling had the effect of inhibiting, somewhat, the rush to execute. But in its current ruling in Spisak, the Court said that Mills may not apply in any given state, based on differing jury-instruction forms which may or may not be confusing to jurors on the issue of mitigating factors. Thus the Court watered down what was considered to be a binding national precedent, with language allowing different states to make their own interpretations–a “states rights” position.
A Long-Established Tactic of Deception
But that’s just the beginning. It is important to see through the haze of legal gibberish here. In saying that Mills didn’t apply in the Spisak case, the Supreme Court allowed itself to say, only days later, that Mills probably didn’t apply to the politically more important case of Mumia Abu-Jamal either. The Court thus weakened its own precedent in order to reinforce and strengthen the death penalty generally. And at the same time, it used the case of a confessed racist murderer to set back the struggle of a world-renowned, innocent and anti-racist death-row prisoner–Mumia Abu-Jamal–a prisoner whom the FOP and US political establishment is falling all over itself to execute.
Taking precedent-breaking legal measures against hard right-wing targets in order to use them against the working-class left, is a long-established tactic of a ruling class which seeks above all to preserve its own power. But in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal particularly, breaking legal precedent in order to hasten his execution is the norm. In making its flat-out rejection of Mumias appeal last April, the Supreme Court had to knowingly violate its own well-established precedent in Batson v Kentucky–the 1986 ruling which said that purging a jury on the basis of race was unconstitutional. One of the best-known legal precedents in modern US history, Batson required that convictions be thrown out for even one incident of racially-based juror exclusion. And, it was to be applied retroactively. In Mumias 1982 trial, the prosecutor used at least ten out of 15 peremptory challenges to exclude blacks for reasons that were not applied to prospective white jurors.