Last week, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner agreed to drop his challenge to the appeal in former Black Panther, activist, and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case.
Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of a police officer and sentenced to death, and has maintained his innocence. Activists have pointed to evidence tampering and outright racism among police who charged him and judges who convicted him. In 2011, Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was commuted to a life sentence.
The appeal was based on the argument that Ronald Castile should have recused himself from hearing the case as chief justice since he was D.A. when Abu-Jamal first challenged his conviction.
D.A. Krasner, nationally praised for his progressive attitudes, disappointed many when he challenged the appeal. His reasons, he explained, were because the appeal could possibly have widespread implications on hundreds of other cases where a prosecutor later became a judge. Krasner allowing the appeal to move forward means Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court could hear the case.
“The significance is actually enormous,” Michael Schiffman told The Real News Network’s Eddie Conway. “This is basically his first win since almost 20 years, and at least theoretically, it opens up the possibility of a new trial for him.”
Schiffman explained that those quick to return to praising Krasner for his progressivism should be careful, and that the announcement, while important, basically moves Abu-Jamal’s case back to where it was in the mid-’90s when he approached the Supreme Court multiple times with unsuccessful appeals.
“There are signs that the Mumia case continues to be a hot potato. So, the district attorney’s office…said, ‘Well, we are retracting our appeal but that doesn’t mean that the Mumia Abu-Jamal is going to get a new trial,’” Schiffman said. “At the moment, the case is not at Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but at some superior court which is in the middle. The best thing in terms of this case moving forward would be if the Superior Court handed the case to the Supreme Court immediately.”
The makeup of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has changed since the previous appeals, no longer powered by Fraternal Order Of Police endorsements, Schiffman explained.
“When Mumia’s appeals were routinely turned down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Supreme Court was basically staffed by an old boys network which were championed for during the elections by the FOP,” Schiffman said. “The composition of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now changed. There are more Democrats on the court. They are not as beholden to the FOP. But what that will mean for Mumia remains to be seen.”
The plan, Schiffmann explained, should remain the same: put pressure on the criminal justice system as he and others have been doing on Abu-Jamal’s behalf for nearly 40 years.
“Namely, they [will] try to lobby the District Attorney’s office in the name of justice, not to oppose Mumia’s appeals,” Schiffman said. “And of course, theoretically, the courts are totally independent. But of course there is also a court of public opinion, and that’s actually where our strongest suit continues to be.”
EDDIE CONWAY I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to The Real News. A few weeks ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner agreed to drop his challenge to the appeal in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case. Mumia is now open to argue his appeal case before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. We have Michael Schiffman here today who has followed Mumia’s case for years, had written a book about Mumia and many articles, and he’s going to discuss this new decision and what it bodes for the future. Michael, thanks for joining me.
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Yeah. Glad to be here.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. How significant is this news that Krasner dropped a challenge to Mumia Abu-Jamal getting a new trial?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Well I think the significance is actually enormous. Apart from the hepatitis C case, which Mumia won in court in terms of his medical treatment, this is basically his first win since almost 20 years. And at least theoretically, it opens up the possibility of a new trial for him.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Do you think the attempt to stop his appeal, which was Krasner’s first position, and to continue to lay his case was evidence of a cover up?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Actually, no. Even though I was very upset and very disappointed about that decision which came down in January, January 25th I believe, I think the main concern of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office was that they would have to deal with hundreds, if not thousands of cases where there was a similar conflict of interest between a judge at one time being a district attorney, and another time being on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, basically judging on his own dealings in the district attorney’s office.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Krasner has been a progressive in other cases. Is this a sign that he’s continuing in that direction?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN I would very much hope so, but there are signs that the Mumia case continues to be a hot potato. The district attorney’s office made a statement— I think it was ten days or two weeks ago— and they said well, we are retracting our appeal but that doesn’t mean that Mumia Abu-Jamal is going to get a new trial. Basically this case is resumed to where it was in the mid-1990s when the trial courts started to turn him down and he turned to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court four times. And he’s now having all those four appeals.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay so in your opinion, based on your book and all your articles, do you think Mumia will be granted a new trial based on what you know about his case?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN I think that depends on at least two parameters. When Mumia’s appeals were routinely turned down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Supreme Court was basically staffed by an old boys’ network, which were championed during the elections by the F.O.P. The composition of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now changed. There are more Democrats on the court. They are not as beholden to the F.O.P., but what that will mean for Mumia remains to be seen.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Go ahead.
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN The other theoretical option— and one would have to talk to Mumia’s lawyers about that— would be, at least in my view, the district attorney’s office would have the opportunity not to oppose the motions which are before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court now. So they could say, okay we withdraw the opposition to one of those appeals or we withdraw parts of it, which would also open the way to a new trial for Mumia.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Do you feel like the six boxes of evidence will play a part in a new trial? Obviously, they had made a decision that there wasn’t nothing in there, but you think that might play a role now with this appeal?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Well I regret having to say that I’m very skeptical about that because if something new had been found in those six boxes, I’m pretty sure we would know it by now. In my view and my assessment, they are evidence of what I have personally experienced. Namely that, the Mumia files which have been accumulating for almost four decades, are in a terrible disarray. And my personal take is that probably the current district attorney’s office, where many new people came in, does not know all that much about the case and I hope they are still working on this and are working on this in depth because if they discover the real truth about the case, they should really ponder the possibility of withdrawing their own appeals against what the defense is trying to do.
EDDIE CONWAY Well have you heard what the activists on the ground have been doing around this new development? Is there any movement?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN I think what they have done, particularly in Philadelphia and New York, is basically the right thing. Namely, they try to lobby the district attorney’s office in the name of justice not to oppose Mumia’s appeals. And of course theoretically, the courts are totally independent, but there is also a court of public opinion and that’s actually where our strongest suit continues to be.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Can you— and I know this is hard because when you talk about lawyers and appeals and all that, it’s time and it involves different times depending on how much they invest in it— what can we expect to happen next and how long?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Well the basic set up is this. Actually at the moment, the case is not at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but at some superior court, which is in the middle. The best thing in terms of this case moving forward would be if the Superior Court handed the case to the Supreme Court immediately. That would fasten the process, and Mumia is no longer a young man. When I started to fight for him, I didn’t have any grey hairs in my beard and for him it’s much worse. And so in this case, I hate to quote Judge Sabo who once said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” But that’s actually the situation Mumia is in. He just turned 65.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. So we don’t know when they’ll be movement at this point. What’s the possibility of just— and I hear you say he’s 65— had Mumia been interviewed by other television networks and stuff? I’m curious about whether or not we can actually interview him. Would you know that?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN As far as I know, you can’t. But the situation was very clear when he was on death row because any direct tapings, interviews, camera crews going in, setting up Skype, were not allowed for death row inmates, for all death row inmates. Whether that’s possible in the Mahanoy prison where he is now, that’s something that you ought to try in any case. Refusing the prisoners to have this possibility is actually a civil rights violation, which should be challenged again and again.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Alright. Well, thank you. And if something else comes up, immediately could you let us know? Our producer will be in contact with you and…
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Absolutely.
EDDIE CONWAY You could give us a heads up?
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Yeah. I’m glad to do that.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. Thank you for joining me, Michael.
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN Thanks for having me. Great book, by the way.
EDDIE CONWAY Oh, Okay. I like that.
MICHAEL SCHIFFMAN [laughter]
EDDIE CONWAY Alright. Thank you and thank you for joining The Real News.