A status report conference is scheduled this week for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1982 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, the Philadelphia Tribune reported.
Abu-Jamal, an activist, former member of the Black Panther Party and former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, was convicted of shooting Officer Daniel Faulkner during a traffic stop.
The upcoming hearing focuses on possible bias and conflict by Justice Ronald Castille, a former district attorney who later became a judge on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.
Abu-Jamal’s lawyers have argued that Castille showed bias toward Abu-Jamal because of his early affiliation with the Black Panther Party at the age of 15.
As a prosecutor, Castille prevailed in getting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to uphold Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence in 1989 and preventing the U.S. Supreme Court from considering his case.
Then as a justice, Castille participated in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s deliberations, agreed with the arguments he had made as district attorney, and denied numerous new legal challenges made in Abu-Jamal’s appeals from 1998 to 2012.
Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker previously ordered the Philadelphia district attorney’s office to produce testimony regarding a missing memorandum written by Castille, the Tribune reported.
Abu-Jamal, born in Philadelphia on April 24, 1954, as Wesley Cook, took the name Mumia (“Prince”) in high school while taking a class on African cultures, according to his biography.
In 1971, he added Abu-Jamal (“father of Jamal”) after the birth of his first son, Jamal.
He has been married three times.
Abu-Jamal’s first encounter with police came at age 14, when he was beaten by a White Philadelphia police officer for disrupting a “George Wallace for President” rally in 1968.
He dropped out of high school and joined the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. Later, he was appointed as the Panther’s “Lieutenant of Information,” putting him in charge of the organization’s media relations and placing him on the FBI’s radar for surveillance. He eventually earned his graduate equivalency high school degree and briefly attended Goddard College in Vermont.
In 1975 Abu-Jamal began working for a series of radio stations, using his commentary on issues of the day to advocate for social change. With his popularity soaring, Abu-Jamal was elected president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
On Dec. 9, 1981, Faulkner was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop involving Jamal’s brother, William Cook. During the scuffle between Faulkner and Cook, Abu-Jamal also was shot and taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He was treated and then arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
In June 1982, Abu-Jamal, despite conflicting testimony from key witnesses, was found guilty and sentenced to death. Prosecutors later dropped their pursuit of the death penalty in the case.
Rachel Wolkenstein, an attorney and advocate for Abu-Jamal, said if he prevails this week in court, the Pennsylvania state court appeal denials will be vacated and his appeal rights restored.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found bias in Castille from a 2016 case, ruling that Castille had violated the rights of defendant Terry Williams, according to the Tribune.
Castille was district attorney when he signed off on Williams’ death sentence, and approximately 30 years later he was on the court that voted unanimously for his death sentence to be reinstated after a judge tossed it out.
“The case Williams vs. Pennsylvania says that if a judge has previously been a prosecutor in a case with personal involvement in a significant political prosecutorial decision, that he should have recused himself from sitting as a justice,” Wolkenstein said. “In Mumia’s case we tried to get Justice Castille to recuse himself several times and he refused to do that.”
The case is currently being reviewed by the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“My only update is that our office is still reviewing the files,” Ben Waxman, the district attorney’s spokesperson, said in an e-mailed statement to the Tribune. “We have not reached the conclusion of our search yet and that will be reflected at the update provided at the status hearing. Given this is a pending case, I don’t have any additional comment at this time.”
A full court hearing will be held April 30.