LDF Backs Mumia

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(Mumia, right, continues to languish in prison).

On Friday the Legal Defense Fund filed a "friend of the court" brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal's claim of racial discrimination in jury selection.

LDF's brief argues that Abu-Jamal's case presents substantial evidence of intentional discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges and that the lower courts erred in rejecting his claim. In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the shooting of a police officer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. LDF's brief outlines the compelling evidence of intentional discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges by Abu-Jamal's trial prosecutor:

[] The racially charged nature of the case: Racial tensions in Philadelphia were at its worst when Mumia Abu-Jamal, the dread-locked, self-proclaimed revolutionary journalist, was charged in the police officer's death. Not only was Abu-Jamal, an African-American man, charged with killing a white police officer, the local media consistently highlighted the racial overtones of the case. The racially charged atmosphere of the trial was, therefore, rife for the abuse of Abu-Jamal's constitutional rights.

[] The conduct of the trial prosecutor: Abu-Jamal's trial prosecutor used a disproportionate number of his peremptory challenges to exclude African-Americans from service on Abu-Jamal's trial: he struck 10 of 14 Blacks, but only 5 of 25 whites from the pool of potential jurors. The trial prosecutor also indicated that he believed that for an African-American juror to be fair, s/he had to hate Abu-Jamal. Finally, the trial prosecutor had a history of excluding African-Americans from jury service. A survey of cases tried by this prosecutor between 1981 and 1983 showed that he excluded prospective African-American jurors three times as often as he excluded non-Black jurors.

[] The conduct of the Philadelphia County District Attorney's Office: a statistical study of Philadelphia County death penalty cases tried between 1981 and 1997 reveals that prosecutors in that office struck 51% of Black jurors but only 26% of non-Black jurors. Additionally, a videotaped training on jury selection produced by that office explicitly advocates the exclusion of African-American potential jurors. Finally, anecdotal experiences of defense lawyers as well as Pennsylvania court decisions corroborate the fact that the Philadelphia County prosecutor's office routinely excludes Black jurors from service.

In 1986, the United States Supreme Court, in Batson v. Kentucky, declared that the constitution is violated if a prosecutor in a particular case uses his/her peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race. The Court held that the discriminatory use of peremptory challenges not only subject criminal defendants to an unfair trial, but also jurors-of-color to public race prejudice and a "brand of inferiority" and the larger community to questions about the integrity of the judicial system.

In 2001, a federal court vacated Abu-Jamal's death sentence but denied his claim that the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to exclude African-Americans from service on Abu-Jamal's jury. LDF has a long-standing concern and litigation record of challenging discrimination in jury selection, one of the most pervasive forms of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Last year, LDF won a decision in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Wilson v. Beard, in which Zachery Wilson, who was serving a life sentence, was granted a new trial. LDF's brief exposed the existence of a training tape that featured the prosecutor in Wilson's case, also tried in Philadelphia, explaining to young prosecutors in Philadelphia the importance and methods for eliminating prospective African-American jurors while successfully avoiding Batson challenges.

In addition, LDF, serving as a "friend of the court", prevailed in last year's United States Supreme Court decisions validating the Batson claims of Texas death-sentenced prisoner, Thomas Joe Miller-El, and California prisoner Jay Shawn Johnson.

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