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  New Sentencing Hearing for Mumia Abu Jamal
Steve Hawkins Interview by Scott Harris

An interview with Steve Hawkins, an attorney who worked with Mumia Abu Jamal's legal team for six years and now serves as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
For release Dec. 31, 2001

In a major development in one of the nation's most closely watched capital punishment cases, federal Judge William Yohn announced his decision to throw out the death sentence against Mumia Abu Jamal, convicted of the1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Jamal, an award-winning journalist on Pennsylvania's death row for 20 years, has drawn attention to his case through radio commentaries and the publication of several books critical of the U.S. justice system. Thousands of supporters across the globe have demanded that the 47-year-old former Black Panther be freed or receive a new trial.

Judge Yohn's decision issued Dec. 18, upholds Jamal's first degree murder conviction, but ruled that the state must conduct a new sentencing hearing within six months, or a life sentence without parole would be imposed. Jamal's supporters have vowed to appeal the judge's decision and press their demand for a new trial that would include the testimony of Ronald Beverley, who recently confessed that he, not Jamal killed Daniel Faulkner. Officer Faulkner's wife and many police officials have bitterly condemned the judge's ruling.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Steve Hawkins, an attorney who worked with Mumia Abu Jamal's legal team for six years and now serves as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Hawkins analyzes the latest developments in Jamal's case and how they may affect the movement to end capital punishment.

Steve Hawkins: Judge Yohn has only overturned Mumia's death sentence, not the underlying conviction and because of that, Mumia is now entitled to a new sentencing hearing. What the judge found is that the jury in the initial sentencing hearing was not allowed to individually consider mitigating evidence, evidence that would allow the jury to vote for a sentence less than death. The jury was led to believe that -- and this was a big error -- that they had to agree unanimously on anything that was of mitigating value. So that's really the sum of Judge Yohn's ruling.

Between The Lines: What is allowed to be introduced in such a hearing? Supporters of Mumia Abu Jamal, of course want the issue of guilt or innocence to come up. Can it happen in such a sentencing hearing?

Steve Hawkins: Is it possible to get the jury to focus on the question of, is the right person before them for sentencing? Yes, there is a narrow window because of something called "lingering doubt" about guilt, which has been in the law for awhile. But we have seen in Virginia, for example, where several governors have commuted death sentences. Even though the person has been convicted, the governor has said, "I have a lingering doubt as to whether the system got it right." The attorneys may very well argue to the jury that the system has the wrong man, and make that part of their argument as to why a sentence of death should not be imposed. It would be very critical to Mumia's whole defense if the jury was to come back and say, "We refuse to sentence this man to death because we still believe there is a lingering doubt about his guilt." I phrase it that way because there were several egregious errors -- major constitutional violations -- that happened at Mumia's trial. The judge should have granted him a new trial for a complete determination of guilt or innocence and that has not happened. Mumia's lawyers will appeal the decision of the federal court.

Between The Lines: Could you describe the wider significance of this judge's decision in Mumia Abu Jamal's case for those advocating abolition of the death penalty?

Steve Hawkins: Mumia's case represents very clearly how difficult it is for people who have credible claims of innocence to get that evidence heard in federal court. We have heard of people who have been released from death row on grounds of innocence. Most of those people have been incredibly lucky, frankly, to get released. DNA has cleared perhaps a quarter of them now. Others have been able to get critical evidence heard. But we all -- someone like myself, who's been involved in death penalty defense for 13 years now -- we all know of cases where people were executed when there were serious doubts about their guilt. Mumia is in that situation where he is fighting for his life to get his evidence heard. So it underscores for those of us who are opposed to the death penalty, the difficulties that exist and why it is so important that these cases get heard. (These cases) help to reveal all of the problems that underlie how the death penalty is used in the United States.

Mumia's attorney, for example, at the original trial had no experience with any death penalty trials. He was only given $150 to hire a investigator, which is completely unrealistic. That is how poor people, time and again, are subject to the death penalty in the United States. The other issue of course, is racial bias. Philadelphia had a very clear history of keeping black people off of capital juries. It was furthered by having someone like Judge Sabo send more people to death row than any other judge in the country. Of all the people he sent to death row, all but two of the people were African American or Latino.

I do not think that Mumia would have gotten the relief that he did, a new sentencing hearing, without the kind of activism that has taken place nationally and internationally. There have been hundreds of people on the streets in Philadelphia, thousands of people in the streets in Paris and other parts of the world, and all of that pressure has certainly helped to make his case well-known, but also, I think, to further his chances in court.

Many people believe Mumia was very much specifically targeted by the Philadelphia police. He was well-known, he was writing about the injustices and the police brutality in Philadelphia at the time it happened. I frankly have found that most people who get relief from death row in the United States get relief because somebody makes known what is happening in their case. I don't think that most people get relief silently because the courts just work out the problems in the case.

Contact the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty by calling (888) 286-2237 or visit  their Web site at www.ncadp.org
You can listen to this Interview with a RM file player (no streaming)  here

18.12.2001: Richter John setzt Todesurteil aus
Alles zum Thema.

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