Philly DA reveals hidden Mumia files after court ruling

By Betsey Piette 
January 14, 2019

If Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner can be believed, on Dec. 28 while he and his staff were reportedly searching for an office desk in a remote, nearly inaccessible, locked storeroom, they “found” six banker boxes containing files related to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case.

The newly discovered boxes, supposedly stored under the desk, reportedly had “McCann” written on the visible side. Until 2015, Edward McCann served 26 years in the DA’s office, the last four as First Assistant District Attorney. Krasner and his assistants say when they pulled the boxes out, they found “Mumia” and “Mumia Abu-Jamal” on the hidden side.

This discovery allegedly took place one day after Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker’s historic Dec. 27 ruling that Abu-Jamal, imprisoned for over 37 years, had the right to new hearings on appeals previously denied by former PA Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille. In the ruling, Tucker cited evidence of Castille’s judicial bias.

Tucker also raised that prosecutors representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania failed to produce documents they were obligated to preserve while Abu-Jamal’s appeals were active. He noted that unavailability of the documents could be prejudicial to Abu-Jamal.

In a Jan. 3 letter to Tucker and Abu-Jamal’s attorneys Judith Ritter and Samuel Spital, Assistant DA Tracey Kavanagh wrote: “This [discovery of the boxes] means that the Commonwealth’s prior representations that it had produced the complete file for this Court’s review in this case were incorrect.”

Krasner’s office announced that the files are being reviewed, and will be turned over to Tucker. The office has volunteered to allow inspection by Abu-Jamal’s attorneys. The find was not made public until Jan. 9.

Potential grounds for new trial

Responding to an earlier order from Tucker in September 2017, prior to Krasner taking office, the district attorney’s office had delivered 32 boxes of acknowledged case-related files, sequentially labeled “1 of 32, 2 of 32, 3 of 32,” etc.

The newly reported boxes were labeled “18 of 29, 21 of 29, 23 of 29, 24 of 29, and 29 of 29,” with one box unlabeled. In his Jan. 3 letter Assistant DA Kavanagh wrote: “Nothing in the Commonwealth’s database showed the existence of these six additional boxes.” Kavanagh did not account for the other 24 boxes in the marked sequence.

That boxes of files on Abu-Jamal’s case were never accounted for in the DA’sdatabase, and were then buried in a remote storage area under office furniture, is no surprise to Mumia’s supporters who feel there are ample grounds for his case to be blown wide open.

The timing of the “discovery” — one day after Tucker’s favorable ruling — raises a serious question: Would the files have seen the light of day if Tucker had ruled for the Commonwealth and denied Abu-Jamal’s appeal?

If these boxes contain any evidence that prosecutors improperly withheld from Mumia’s defense in his first hearing — significant enough that the jury might have found a verdict of “not guilty” — that could be grounds for a retrial. Even less significant evidence could create an opening for a new Post Conviction Relief Act hearing before the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Krasner’s office has sole authority to appeal Tucker’s Dec. 27 ruling and must respond by Jan. 26. In recent court hearings in the case, Abu-Jamal supporters voiced concerns that Krasner, despite his background as a progressive attorney, appeared to be bending to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police — who were given preferential seating in Tucker’s courtroom.

Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, supporters of Abu-Jamal inundated Krasner’s office with thousands of petitions, phone calls, emails, letters — and a twitter storm. This support came from U.S. and international individuals and organizations, including prominent labor unions. All urged Krasner to allow Abu-Jamal’s appeals. One can only hope the concerted public pressure moved the DA to acknowledge the missing files.

Strong evidence of police and judicial misconduct

Whether or not these files contain “new evidence” about Castille’s involvement relating to the basis for Abu-Jamal’s 2017 appeal, the very existence of hidden files mirrors decades of police and prosecutorial misconduct in denying justice to Abu-Jamal.

After spending nearly 29 years in isolation on death row, since 2011 the 64-year-old political prisoner has been serving a life-without-parole sentence at Pennsylvania SCI Mahanoy. As a result of years of untreated hepatitis C, he suffers from unresolved skin rashes and cirrhosis of the liver, a potential precursor to liver cancer.

Convicted in 1982 for the death of a Philadelphia police officer, Abu-Jamal’s case stands as one of the most controversial in the history of Philadelphia, which is known for widespread corruption in both the police department and district attorney’s office.

Fifteen of the 35 police officers involved in collecting evidence in Abu-Jamal’s case in 1981 later went to jail for evidence tampering. Several witnesses in his case reported being pressured by police to change their testimony. Krasner’s predecessor Seth Williams, who delayed Abu-Jamal’s release from death row from 2001 until 2011, is currently in prison for five years for bribetaking.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the highly political, nationally honored Black journalist, was targeted by the state for his support of the MOVE organization; his public opposition to racist, neo-fascist former Philadelphia Mayor and one-time police commissioner Frank Rizzo; and his earlier membership in the Black Panther Party.