Tuesday, April 8, 2008



Heidi Boghosian, NLG Executive Director, director@nlg.org, 212-679-5100, ext. 11
Zachary Wolfe, NLG Amicus Committee, zwolfe@gwu.edu, 202-994-3053


Culture of Police Corruption and Judicial Bias Infected Trial and Appellate Proceedings

New York. The National Lawyers Guild is gravely disappointed by the decision of the three-judge panel of the Appellate Court in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal v. Martin Horn. In a 118-page written decision, two of the three judges denied the defense’s Batson v. Kentucky claim, namely that the prosecution was motivated by racial discrimination when it struck blacks from the panel of prospective jurors. Dissenting from the opinion, Justice Thomas Ambro questioned why the court chose this case to announce a new procedural requirement and wrote that he would have ordered a hearing and required the prosecution to explain its challenges of black jury panelists. “It is merely to take the next step in deciding whether race was impermissibly considered during jury selection in his case,” he wrote.

The court also ruled that the death penalty could not be reinstated unless a new penalty hearing is held within 180 days.

Executive Director Heidi Boghosian said, “Yesterday’s decision is a somber reminder that the criminal justice system has been unable to eradicate the continuing impacts of racism. Despite evidence that racial bias influenced all stages of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial and appeals, an award-winning journalist has been denied the chance to prove the extent that overt racial animus colored his day in court.”

From its inception, a climate of racial animosity within the Philadelphia criminal justice system has plagued the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. After a 1993 police corruption scandal in which 300 convictions were thrown out as improper, the Philadelphia District Attorney revealed that juries had routinely been selected with an eye toward excluding blacks. Numerous brutality suits and an FBI probe resulting in the conviction of thirty police officers for corruption greatly damaged the Police Department’s image. The 1985 police department bombing of the MOVE Organization’s West Philadelphia residence and the burning down of two city blocks, resulted in additional federal investigations into brutality and corruption. Earlier, in 1979, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against former police commissioner and then Mayor Frank Rizzo for police brutality, citing nearly 300 fatal police shootings of civilians in a three-year period.

Amidst this culture of police corruption and brutality toward African-Americans, in 1982, Judge Albert Sabo, who issued Abu-Jamal’s death sentence and presided over his appeal, was overheard in chambers to have said “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” Sabo was widely known as the “hanging judge” for sentencing 33 people to death (all but two of them persons of color), more than twice as many as any other sitting judge in the United States.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is a Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild. Founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association, which did not admit people of color, the National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in every state.

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