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Ex-Black Panther Asks for Fresh Trial Amid New Evidence

New evidence shows that the conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal – who has spent over 40 years in prison – was tainted, prompting calls for a re-examination

A protester holds up a poster depicting Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia. ,Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the best known of the African American radicals incarcerated for decades for their actions during the black liberation struggle of the 1970s and 80s, is petitioning a Pennsylvania court for a new trial after the discovery of fresh evidence that casts doubt on his conviction.

Abu-Jamal’s case will come before the court of common pleas in Philadelphia on Wednesday. The hearing could be one of the prisoner’s last attempts at freedom after more than 40 years behind bars, including two decades on death row, for the murder of a white police officer – a crime for which he has always insisted he is innocent.

The former Black Panther and radical journalist is 68 and has long struggled with serious heart conditions and other health problems. He was moved off death row in 2011, but since then has been held on life without parole.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering Daniel Faulkner on 9 December 1981 in Philadelphia. At about 4am that morning the prisoner’s younger brother, William Cook, was stopped in his car by the police officer.

Abu-Jamal, then working as a taxi driver, coincidentally passed them by and came to his brother’s assistance. A shooting spree ensued and Faulkner was shot and killed while Abu-Jamal was also shot in the stomach.

He was put on trial in 1982, found guilty and sentenced to death. Flaws and inconsistencies in the prosecution case have been revealed, generating worldwide concern about the justice of his prolonged imprisonment.

In 2000 Amnesty International investigated the case and, without taking a definitive stand on his guilt or innocence, concluded that “numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards”.

Wednesday’s petition relates to six filing boxes marked with the prisoner’s name that were found in a storage room in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office in December 2018. The existence of the boxes were disclosed to Abu-Jamal’s lawyers the following month.

His lawyers, Judith Ritter and Samuel Spital, argue in the petition that the boxes contained “highly significant evidence which the commonwealth never previously disclosed”. The new evidence shows that their client’s conviction was tainted.

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One of the documents found in the boxes is a handwritten letter sent from the state’s star witness at trial, Robert Chobert, to the prosecutor, Joseph McGill. “I have been calling you to find out about the money own (sic) to me,” Chobert writes. “Do you need me to sign anything. How long will it take to get it.”

Chobert was one of only two witnesses at the trial who claimed to have seen Abu-Jamal shoot the police officer. No other evidence directly connected the defendant to the killing.

Abu-Jamal’s lawyers argue that the letter indicates that Chobert “understood there to be some prior agreement or understanding between himself and the prosecution, such that the prosecution ‘owed’ him money for his testimony”.

The state has disputed that interpretation, saying that Chobert asked for money to compensate himself for lost earnings after the trial had finished and that the prosecutor merely said he would “look into it”.

The second witness who testified she had seen Abu-Jamal shoot Faulkner was Cynthia White, a prostitute with 38 previous arrests on her record. She was in prison in Massachusetts at the time of the trial, and had five current criminal cases pending against her.

Among the documents in the boxes were letters from the DA’s office to prosecutors involved in each of the five pending criminal cases against White. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers argue that the letters “reveal a concerted effort by Mr McGill and several Philadelphia DA unit chiefs to bring Ms White back from Massachusetts, secure an early trial date in order to expedite her release and ultimately allow her cases to be dismissed for lack of prosecution.”

Such favourable treatment, they suggest, was designed to make “life easier for her in exchange for her testimony against Abu-Jamal”.

The lawyers also point to a third cause for concern. In the boxes were the handwritten notes that McGill kept as he was filtering out possible jurors for the trial during jury selection.

The notes show that the prosecutor placed a large letter “B” next to any prospective juror who was black. During jury selection, McGill struck 15 people from the pool – 10 were black and five non-black.

The prosecutor blocked 71% of all potential black jurors from sitting on the final jury, compared with only 20% of all non-black panelists. It is a violation of federal law to strike potential members from the jury on the grounds of race.

Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook and grew up in a low-income black neighborhood of Philadelphia. He became involved in black resistance as a teenager in the late 1960s after he came across the Black Panther party’s newspaper.

“A sister gave me a copy of the Black Panther newspaper and I was dazzled. I made up my mind to become one of them,” he told the Guardian in 2018.

As part of his work with the Panthers he was one of the first to visit the house in Chicago in December 1969 shortly after one of the movement’s leaders, Fred Hampton, was shot and killed by police as he was sleeping in bed. “We saw the bullet holes, which raked the walls. We saw the mattress, swollen with Fred’s blood. I was 15,” he told the Guardian.

He left the Black Panthers in 1970, thereafter working as a journalist. He was a prominent supporter of Philadelphia’s black liberation group, Move.

Abu-Jamal is the author of several books, including a collection of prison writings, Live from Death Row.

Ed Pilkington is chief reporter for Guardian US. He is the author of Beyond the Mother Country. Twitter @edpilkington. Click here for Ed's public key