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Mumia’s former lawyer Rachel Wolkenstein gives clarity to new events in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, whereby Mumia has been granted appeal rights. Mumia’s lawyers argued that Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille should not have presided over Abu-Jamal’s appeals because of a conflict of interest. Castille was formerly Philadelphia’s district attorney whose office fought to keep the activist behind bars

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has recently been in the headlines across the world. Joining me to bring some clarity to Mumia’s case is Rachel Wolkenstein.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me, Eddie. I really appreciate it.

EDDIE CONWAY: Can you explain what this new ruling by Judge Tucker means for Mumia.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Yes I can. First of all, I want to say this is a tremendous win for Mumia. It’s the first time since he was arrested in December 1981 that there has been a positive decision for him by any Pennsylvania state court judge. So this is huge. Now, what Judge Tucker granted is also extremely significant. What he did is he vacated all the appeal denials that Mumia had from his post-conviction proceedings, beginning in 1998 through 2012, and Mumia has a right now to repeal all of those post-conviction proceedings.

And this is the whole scope of issues in Mumia’s case, from of course his innocence and the prosecutorial and police misconduct that occurred and was in transit to his conviction and death sentence. It also is the questions of jury selection, the exclusion of African-Americans from the jury, his right of self-representation, his right to effective assistance of counsel, and just about every single legal issue that exists in a criminal trial. So all of those issues, most of them would give him a new trial, will be on appeal again. In my opinion, based upon the entirety of the case, the evidence of Mumia’s innocence, and the violations of the state misconduct, that actually the charges should be dismissed at the end of such a hearing if there was any justice in the appeal court.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, what was the basis for Judge Tucker’s decision? I understand there was a Williams case up there that’s related to Mumia. Explain that, if you will.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Right. Well, the Williams case is Williams v Pennsylvania and it was decided in June of 2016. It itself is a precedent-setting, United States Supreme Court decision, not a Pennsylvania state court decision. And in that decision, it was Justice Castille, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice who was the subject of the court’s ruling. And what the Supreme Court found is that Justice Castille should’ve recused himself during the appeals of Terrance Williams because Castille had been the district attorney who authorized the prosecutors to seek the death sentence against Terry Williams. And the fact that Castille did not do so was considered to be a fundamental violation of due process, the right to an impartial appeals hearing, and the appearance of bias, and in fact, the bias. And the courts set out a new standard for determining on an objective basis when a judge has committed this type of misconduct.

And that issue, that basically new fact period, the new law was used as the basis for Mumia’s attorneys to file a post-conviction proceeding, Mumia’s fourth in the Pennsylvania Court of Common pleas with Judge Tucker presiding. So that was the legal basis of the whole proceeding. This has been litigated for two and a half years. The district attorney’s office was required to produce any sort of documents that they had that indicated Castillo’s involvement in Mumia’s case. Mumia was on appeal, direct appeal, when Castille was the district attorney. But in that role as the district attorney, Ronald Castille was responsible for arguing on behalf of the prosecution that all of the due process violations in Mumia’s trial should be upheld. And the central issue in that case, in Mumia’s direct appeal, was the exclusion of African-Americans from the jury. And we could go on and on, but that was his responsibility.

EDDIE CONWAY: Did he actually argue the case or did one of his prosecutors argue the case? There’s some question about who was actually there representing the state.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Well, that isn’t really the issue in an appeals situation or in this prosecutor thing, because what we’re talking about is actually–Castille was the district attorney, he was the elected district attorney. His job was never to be the person who actually argued the appeals in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or in the United States Supreme Court when Mumia filed for review after being denied by the Supreme Court in ’89. So the issue, technically, was one of whether or not there was “proof evidence” that Castille was personally involved in Mumia’s case. And the point about this is that, in fact, evidence did come out about this new evidence, which was, to try and keep this brief, is that evidence came out that Castille had written, had a whole policy of expediting death sentences, the signing of death warrants against people who were sentenced to death.

And at that time, the total responsibility for the signing of execution warrants was in the hands of the governor. The governor at that time was a named Robert Casey, and he was opposed to capital punishment so he was not anxious to sign death warrants. Castille and some legislators were very anxious to push Casey to sign warrants, and Castille wrote a personal letter as then district attorney to then Governor Casey and said, “I urge you to expedite the signing of death warrants, and in particular, you must do this in cases where people are convicted as police killers, to send a message that we really need to execute people. The key phrase about pushing for sending the message for police killers was not part of the original draft by Castille’s assistant, but he had written that in himself and made that a specific thing.

Now DA Krasner’s office, which is a whole other issue–I can come back to that in a second, I would like to–they maintained and still maintain that that is not specific enough, despite the fact there were only three men death row at the time that Castille wrote this letter, and despite the fact that Mumia’s name was not specifically mentioned in the letter because Mumia was still on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, so technically there could be no warrant of execution signed against him until that was completed. Krasner’s position, which actually was adopted by Judge Tucker, is that that wasn’t specific enough to prove that Castille was involved.

Now, I want to make another point, which goes to the actual ruling that Tucker had in favor of Mumia and granting him new appeal rights. The point about this is that Castille, when he ran both as DA and when he ran to be elected as a Supreme Court Justice, bragged about the fact that he had put forty-five men on death row. He bragged that he was the law and order candidate, he bragged that he had the support of the Fraternal Order of Police and he had been granted an award by them. And all of that was in the public domain. He also publicly defended prosecutors who were found to be involved in various acts of misconduct by the superior courts in Pennsylvania, and he castigated attorneys who were pushing Brady issues, police and prosecutorial misconduct issues, in a way that he thought they shouldn’t.

So this was the public persona of Castille and Justice Castille. And Judge Tucker, when he made his ruling, while he didn’t find there was this specific involvement, he did say that actually, Castille should have recused himself because everything that he said and did created the appearance of impropriety and the appearance of bias, and that a judicial tribunal, whether it’s the trial court or the appeals court, is supposed to be neutral and impartial. Now, the other point I want to make is that, just to be clear, is that–well, two things. One is that it’s absolutely impossible for Castille to have not been personally involved in Mumia’s case. The Fraternal Order of Police was literally banging their drums over and over again to make sure that Mumia was executed. As I said, Castille was actually paid for by the Fraternal Order of Police.

And in fact, one of Mumia’s statements that he’s made, and he made it to me specifically when I visited him to actually deliver him a copy of Judge Tucker’s decision, he hadn’t gotten the order yet and the decision, he said, “This is what it must feel like to be before a criminal court judge paid for by the Fraternal Order of Police.” So when Castille denied recusal motions that while I was co-counsel for Mumia we brought, for Castille not to hear Mumia’s first set of post-conviction appeals, Castille basically said, “Well, it’s his decision to make, he has no involvement in Mumia’s case.” And he basically laughed off the argument that he had been awarded and given contributions by the Fraternal Order of Police, making the point that four out of the seven justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also got financial and political support from the FOP. And I daresay that a huge number, if not a majority, of elected judges in this country actually are supported by police organizations in their respective areas.

EDDIE CONWAY: Let me ask you, though, about the DA’s decision right now, the present DA, Krasner.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Krasner, yes, absolutely.

EDDIE CONWAY: It seems that his office is saying they have not found any paperwork at all, but then it seemed like six boxes of Mumia’s records and files had been found. What’s the status of that now?

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: OK. Well, let me first make the point that Krasner was elected as a progressive. He was elected by the substantial support from the Black community in Philadelphia. He has done a number of things that sort of chip away some of the more horrific aspects of the criminal justice system in a very modest way. However, when it came to Mumia’s case, from the very beginning when Krasner took office, he refused to meet with Mumia’s brother and Pam Africa and other international supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He met with Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the deceased police officer and with the Fraternal Order of Police, however. He also, when he was elected, he put Castille on his advisory board, which was a sure signal of where he was going, at least on Mumia’s case.

Castille had been castigated by the United States Supreme Court. That does not happen often. The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said, in a decision by the Supreme Court, that he had committed a form of judicial misconduct by his whole role in these capital cases. So that is what Krasner went for, is to actually put him on his advisory board. And after month two of Krasner being on the case, being responsible, he announced that he was opposed to–from the end of April–opposed to Mumia’s petition, that there was not this specific evidence. And as I said earlier, the evidence that came out from the files that were there showed that Castille was involved in pushing for execution of people.


RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: You want the boxes. I’ll go to the boxes.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, because of time.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: So here’s the point. So all the evidence was in, supposedly, the judge issued his order. He granted Mumia a new appeal, right, so that was on the 27th of December. On the 28th of December, according to the filing that the DA put in, for some reason DA Krasner and assistants are busy looking for furniture in a very obscure area of the offices of the prosecution. They come across a room that says “Storage” on it, and in there, they find six boxes that are named with Mumia Abu-Jamal’s name on it, Mumia, et cetera, in it. We don’t know what’s in those boxes, but they did file a letter to Judge Tucker. Now, it took them six days to do that. They didn’t file that until the 3rd, which is sort of outrageous to begin with, and notified him that they had now found six boxes and they were going through these boxes. They gave no indication of what was in there, they gave no indication of how those boxes are being secured, protected, what the process was or anything.

We learned about this last night, when the court clerk’s office finally released what was supposed to be a public record of this filing from the DA’s office. And besides the very strange circumstances of finding these, they are numbered totally different, but the entire timeline of this is very suspect. I cannot know for sure, of course, what’s in these boxes, but there were thirty-two other boxes that were supposedly gone through by the DA’s office that was an in camera review by Judge Tucker. Of course, the attorneys have not seen it, they have not been publicly released, and the same thing goes for these six new boxes. I am just saying, as somebody who has worked on this case for thirty-one years, co-counsel in charge of investigation when evidence of the prosecutorial and police misconduct was exposed, that it is my supposition that these boxes include, one or another, incriminating evidence against the police and the prosecution for the misconduct and the manufacturing of evidence against Mumia and evidence of Mumia’s innocence. That’s what I suspect is in there.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. What is the next step? What are we to anticipate is going to happen?

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Well, Mumia’s lawyers have not weighed in yet and filed anything. I suspect that Judge Tucker has no choice but to reopen his order and his decision, and let the DA–either he’ll request another in camera review of these files. The way that those boxes are numbered, it looks like there may be other boxes there, and I presume Mumia’s lawyers will ask for that as well. So I think that this puts a bit of a stop, I suspect, on moving forward, on the question of Mumia’s new appeals.

I think it remains to be seen whether or not Larry Krasner goes ahead with an appeal when that’s all done. I believe that the people, the organizations supporting Mumia have begun to call, and will continue to call, that this is all proof of the type of misconduct that’s gone on in Mumia’s case, the type of corruption, the confirmation of the level of the frame-up of an innocent man, and that what should happen is the charges should be dismissed. I do not expect Judge Tucker to agree with that at this moment, I do not expect that Larry Krasner will. But there are so many questions in terms of the process, in the lack of due process and the evidence that was totally falsified against Mumia, that this is just another indication of all the hidden things, of the cover-up, of the frame-up is what I call it.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Thank you for giving us this update. We will continue to follow this case.

RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN: Appreciate it. Very important, because it’s not just for Mumia, it’s for everybody caught in the vise of this criminal injustice system. The issues here go way beyond one man or even every political prisoner, they really affect anybody who is in the criminal justice system.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.