Myth # 11
Myths About Mumia
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s supporters regularly vilify Judge Albert Sabo — who presided over Jamal’s 1982 trial and his 1995, 1996 and 1997 PCRA hearings — by claiming that he orchestrated a sham trial that never afforded Jamal a chance for justice. They allege that Judge Sabo has sentenced more people to death — 31 — than any other judge in the United States. Of these 31 individuals, Jamal’s supporters claim that 29 were African American. They argue that this number is evidence that Judge Sabo is a “racist hanging-judge.”
Jamal’s lawyers argue that Judge Sabo should have never been permitted to hear the case because of his relationship with law enforcement in Philadelphia. They point out that before becoming a Judge in 1974, Sabo served as an “Undersheriff” (the Sheriff’s office transports prisoners to court and provides courtroom security) for 8 years, and he was also a member of the Fraternal Order of Police or “FOP” (a police union) during that time. Jamal’s supporters contend that Sabo’s past membership in the FOP should have precluded him from presiding over Jamal’s trial.
In his article, “The Trial of Mumia Abu Jamal”, Jamal’s lawyer Leonard Weinglass writes, “The case was tried before the Honorable Albert Sabo, notorious for having put more people on death row than any other sitting judge in the United States.” Weinglass has repeatedly stated that in 1982 Judge Sabo displayed clear and repeated bias against Jamal throughout the 1982 trial, as he continues to today, and that Sabo is a racist.
To further support their argument, Jamal’s supporters often point to an article written by the Philadelphia Inquirer in which it is stated that several criminal defense lawyers claimed that Sabo was, “a defendant’s worst nightmare” and that his courtroom was a “picnic for prosecutors.”
As a strategy to gain sympathy for Jamal, Weinglass and Jamal’s supporters regularly misrepresent Judge Sabo’s legitimate attempts to maintain order and proper decorum in his courtroom as evidence of bias against Jamal. Yet every legitimate news agency and periodical that has reviewed the case (ABC-TVs 20/20, KGO-TV in San Francisco, American Justice, Time, and Vanity Fair) has found that it was Jamal and his attorneys who acted improperly in their efforts to antagonize Judge Sabo at every turn. They also agreed that these combative actions by Jamal and his attorneys, which required the Judge to maintain order in the courtroom, have been misrepresented by Jamal.
The findings of these news organizations were echoed and confirmed by the Supreme Court in their 1998 decision when they wrote, “Upon review of the entire record, we cannot conclude that any of Judge Sabo’s intemperate remarks were unjustified or indiscriminate, nor did they evidence a settled bias against Appellant.”
As for Judge Sabo’s record, it is unquestioned that he has a well-earned reputation for being a “no-nonsense” or “law and order” type of judge. Due to the length of his tenure and the fact that he was assigned to preside over homicide cases exclusively, it would not be surprising to find that more murderers have been convicted by juries and sentenced to death in his courtroom than in any other.
But the 31 convictions mentioned by Jamal’s supporters were jury trials, in which the jury, not the judge, convicted and sentenced the defendants.
Further, it goes without saying, that a judge cannot select the race of the individuals that come before him. According to US Census Bureau statistics, Judge Sabo presided over trials in a city in which roughly 40% of the population were people of color. Given this simple demographic fact, it is not surprising that many of the defendants who appeared in Sabo’s courtroom were black men. These men committed brutal and vicious crimes, and were found guilty and sentenced by jurors of their peers. Was Judge Sabo supposed to override the jury verdicts and release them in order to demonstrate his racial sensitivity?
The alleged “statistic” that Judge Albert Sabo “has sentenced more black men to death than any other judge in America,” which is regularly thrown out as “fact” by Jamal’s lawyers, is not a statistic at all. It’s a piece of pure propaganda, invented by Jamal’s lawyers out of thin air. In fact, there is no known agency that keeps track of such statistics. Jamal’s lawyers have never bothered to cite the source for this supposed “fact,” because it simply doesn’t exist.
It is our feeling that the offensive label of “racist,” — which Jamal’s supporters so freely attached to Judge Sabo — should not be used lightly as to any individual. When challenged, Jamal’s pitiful, hate-filled lawyers and supporters cannot point to a single scrap of evidence for their horrendous accusations against this well-respected and hard-working jurist.
Jamal’s supporters complain that Jamal should not be stigmatized as a violent killer simply because he was a member of the Black Panthers. Then, in the same breath, they attack Judge Sabo, accusing him of bias against Jamal simply because Sabo was a member of the Fraternal Order of Police. Judge Sabo was, at one time, a member of the FOP. What Jamal’s supporters won’t tell you is that he last held this membership when he was an “Undersheriff” in 1974, eight years before he presided at Jamal’s trial.
FACTS SUPPORTING OUR REBUTTAL
WAS JUDGE SABO BIASED AND UNFAIR?
Anyone who reads the trial transcripts with an open mind will see that it was not Judge Albert Sabo who had a vendetta against Jamal, as Jamal’s attorneys contend. To the contrary, they will see that it was Jamal who engaged in an unrequited war with the entire legal system.
The 1982 trial record makes it eminently clear that Judge Sabo went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Jamal’s whims. Each time Jamal confronted the judge with one of his rambling tirades, the judge would ask the jury to be excused “so they will [would] not be adversely impacted by the defendants statements.” Judge Sabo repeatedly explained his rulings to Jamal and detailed the legal recourse available to Jamal to challenge these rulings. Prior to removing him from the courtroom for his obstructionist behavior, Judge Sabo gave Jamal repeated warnings and he repeatedly told him that his resulting absence from the courtroom would likely be to his own detriment.
A review of the transcript of June 17, 1982 — which was supposed to have been the first day of trial — shows that Judge Sabo pleaded in vain with Jamal to allow the trial to move forward. He gave Jamal repeated warnings and direction as to how to address the rulings he made. In turn, Jamal insulted the judge and suggested that his only intent was to deny him “counsel of my choice” — i.e., non-counsel John Africa — and to see him convicted:
Defendant: “Judge, I have a statement.”
Court: “If you have anything to say, say it at sidebar.”
Defendant: “I need a microphone.”
Court: “I don’t have one.”
Defendant: “You can get one.”
Court: “You should have asked for one earlier.”
Defendant: “I need one now.”
Court: “You have to speak up and if you can’t speak up then I may have to remove you and put in Mr. Jackson.”
Defendant: “I don’t care.”
Court: “You can do whatever you want.”
Defendant: “You can do whatever you want!”
Defendant: “I need a microphone.”
Court: “I don’t have a microphone.”
Defendant: “You can get one, judge.”
Court: “Lets go.”
Defendant: “I need a microphone, judge.”
Court: “I’m sorry.”
Defendant: “Your sorry?”
Court: “Mr. McGill, please. [Let’s proceed.]”
McGill: “Yes Your Honor.”
Defendant: “I’m not finished!”
Court: “Mr. McGill, please.”
Defendant: “I need a microphone.”
Court: “You don’t need a microphone now.”
Defendant: “I need one now!”
Court: “You’re speaking loud enough now, I can hear you.”
Defendant: “I need everyone in the courtroom to hear me. I want everyone in the jury to hear me.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.45-1.46
Court: “When I make a ruling you [Mr. Jamal] have an automatic exception to that ruling. It will be reviewed by the Appellate Court. I don’t want to stand here and argue with you all day long on every ruling, I’m going to make throughout this trial.”
Court: “I’m telling you now that if you continue that way I will have no alternative but to remove you as counsel, and you can sit in here.
Mr. Jackson will proceed. And if you continue to disrupt this court while you’re sitting here, I will then be forced to consider contempt proceedings against you.”
Defendant: “Again, those warnings of contempt are meaningless to me.”
Court: “I know that.”
Defendant: “You are threatening me with death and you think contempt means something to me?”
Court: “I don’t care, but I’m required by the law to advise you of this, what will happen.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.110-12
But Jamal said he didn’t care what Judge Sabo said or, for that matter, what the law said. He told the judge that he would continue to obstruct the progress of the trial by demanding to have Africa as his “counsel.” Even though Judge Sabo explained to Jamal that the law would not permit him to allow John Africa to pretend to be a lawyer, Jamal refused to accept his explanations.
The Court: [Sabo]: “I’m sorry, but the Court is bound by the law just as you are. I can’t change that.”
Defendant: “Well, I’m telling you that I cannot participate without John Africa, not in this trial. It’s my life on the line.”
McGill: “That surprises me. I didn’t think you would pull this one.”
Defendant: “Pull what? Pull what?”
McGill: Pull out of this case. You’re saying you want to be tried, you want to be tried.”
Defendant: “Did you hear what I said?”
McGill: “Why don’t you do it [proceed pro se]?”
Defendant: “Did you hear what I said?”
McGill: “You said you don’t want to participate.”
Defendant: “Unless John Africa is here. Did you hear the whole statement?”
McGill: “I heard what you said.”
Defendant: “Don’t put words in my mind.”
McGill: “Let’s see you stay here and represent yourself and don’t try to chicken out.”
Defendant: “I’m not chickening out. That’s unimportant to me. What I want is a representative of my choice, not your choice, not of his choice, he’s court appointed.”
The Court: “You don’t understand, I’m bound by the law as well as you are, and the law is clear on this; that John Africa cannot represent you. You can represent yourself.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.59-60
Judge Sabo continually warned Jamal that he would lose his right to act as his own lawyer if he persisted. Yet, Jamal refused to heed these warnings and continued to demand to have John Africa as his attorney.
Court: “And if you keep acting that way, you have to be removed from the courtroom.”
Defendant: “That’s absolutely meaningless to me. I am not –“
Court: “That’s unfortunate that it’s meaningless to you.”
Defendant: “Let me make a point.”
Court: “It’s unfortunate –“
Defendant: “Let me make a point!”
Court: “I want it on the record so that you understand that I have advised you that our United States Supreme Court has spoken on this question [i.e., “representation” by a non-lawyer], the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has spoken on this question, and I’ve ruled on the law and that’s it. And if you don’t like it, take me up –“
Defendant: “Judge, you have ruled on procedure. You have not ruled on law because there is no law.”
Court: “I have no choice. As long as Mr. Jackson —“
Defendant: “Mr. Jackson –“
Court: “–can represent you.”
Defendant: “He cannot represent me because I’m representing myself!”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.110- 1.112
It wasn’t until an entire day had been wasted arguing with Jamal that Judge Sabo’s patience finally wore thin:
Court: “My position is that Mr. Jamal has been intentionally disrupting the orderly progression of this trial —“
Court: “— and what I said in the very beginning, when I make a ruling that’s it, you don’t argue with the Court about the ruling —“
Defendant: “Judge, fine!”
Court: “You have certain rights but what I said is this: My position is that you have deliberately disrupted the orderly progression of this trial. Therefore, I am removing you as primary council and I am appointing Mr. Jackson to take over as primary counsel.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.122
While the jury — who had lives of their own that they had put on hold — sat waiting in an adjacent room, Sabo, McGill and Jackson spent the better part of an entire day arguing with Jamal about John Africa. In an extraordinary effort to get the trial started, McGill (who prosecuted the case alone) and Sabo actually agreed to allow Jamal to have John Africa, and anyone else he wanted to bring in, to sit in the gallery directly behind the defense table. This was the very same place that McGill’s support staff occupied on the prosecution side of the room. They further agreed to allow Africa to confer with Jamal during the trial and Judge Sabo even agreed to make arrangements to have Africa visit Jamal is his cell while the trial was not in progress. In short, the only thing Sabo refused to do was allow Africa to pretend that he was Jamal’s attorney.
McGill: “If I may say to the Court, the Commonwealth has no objection if Mr. Jamal wants to bring in John Africa, wants to bring in anyone who is not incarcerated that is, into the courtroom and place them in the chairs back there behind the barriers there, exactly where my officers are. Detective Bill Thomas, Officer Gwen Thomas, right there, I have stated to the Court that I will be here at this table alone during the course of the trial. I have stated that Detective Bill Thomas will be in the room; however, he will be back where he is now, which is second row or someplace there. I have no objection and unless the Court has an objection of John Africa or anybody else sits in those chairs back there providing an opportunity for Mr. Jamal at recess or in between witnesses to go and discuss matters and that would include discussing matters before the Court. We could have Mr. Jamal down here at quarter after nine instead of 9:30, or some kind of arrangement consistent with the administrative needs of the Sheriff’s Department so that he can discuss with them there anything he wishes about his defense.
I also, Your Honor, would have no objection if, along with Mr. Jackson, there would be times when Mr. Africa would go up to his cell room; that is, consistent with the needs of the Sheriff’s Department. I do not want to go necessarily against the regulations there.
…There will be no one up here. It may cause me a little problem in terms of getting all the exhibits but there will be no one here except me. Mr. Jamal can be there and bring in anybody.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 193-6
McGill: “Your Honor. Your honor has not really ruled as far as my, at least, suggestion was before.”
The Court: “Look, anybody can be in this courtroom.”
McGill: “You have no objection to Africa being here?”
The Court: “During breaks and all that.”
McGill: “How about visiting upstairs?”
The Court: “Well, take it up with the Sheriff. If he can visit up there and they are able to accommodate, fine, he can visit him in the prison.
As far as I’m concerned he can visit him anywhere he wants. I’m not holding back on that.”
McGill: “You have no objection if his name was placed on a list for him to be able to visit Mr. Jamal at the prison?”
The Court: “Certainly not. What difference does that make?”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.114-5
To make Jamal appear victimized by Judge Sabo, his supporters regularly point to Judge Sabo’s decision to remove Jamal from self-representation as evidence of his supposed “clear cut bias against Jamal.” But this is exactly what the law required Sabo to do. Legal precedent clearly establishes that:
“When a defendant’s obstreperous behavior is so disruptive that the trial cannot move forward, it is within the trial judge’s discretion to require the defendant to be represented by counsel.” (United States vs. Brock, 159 F.3d 1077, 1079) (7th Cir. 1998)
On two occasions, the Supreme Court has been asked to review and rule on Judge Sabo’s actions. They found that Sabo displayed admirable patience with Jamal and that his decision to terminate his “pre se” status was both within the law and timely.
JUDGE SABO’S ACTIONS AND
RULINGS DURING THE TRIAL
One of the decisions made by Sabo that Jamal’s supporters like to throw up as “evidence” of “bias” is Judge Sabo’s decision to remove a black juror, Jeannie Dawley, from the jury after she violated sequestration. According to Jamal’s supporters, Juror Jennie Dawley, supposedly “requested” to be allowed to go home to take care of her pet cat. The record shows that Ms. Dawley didn’t request anything — she just left, violating the court’s sequestration order, saying, “I don’t care what Judge Sabo or anybody says, I do what I have to do. Nobody is going to stop me” (N.T. 6/18/82, 2.35-2.39). She was therefore removed from the jury, with the full agreement of Jamal’s lawyer (N.T. 6/18/82, 2.40-2.46) who had noted that Dawley had been “belligerent” towards Jamal from the start.
How on earth would this display Sabo’s bias against Jamal? Well, Amnesty International explains that Dawley was replaced by one of the alternates, who was white. Now who’s being racist? The law required replacement of a dismissed juror with the first alternate, who happened to be white. Was the Judge supposed to violate the law and find an alternate juror of a different color in order to satisfy the racial preferences of Jamal’s supporters? Apparently so, according to Jamal’s friends.
Jamal’s followers also like to point to Judge Sabo’s decision not to allow evidence of Robert Chobert’s arson conviction (Chobert plead no contest to having thrown a Molotov cocktail into an empty school yard when he was 18 years old. He was in the final year of a five-year probation when he witnessed Officer Faulkner’s murder.) Jackson wanted to argue to the jury that, because Chobert had committed this crime, he could be considered an untruthful person. After lengthy argument, Judge Sabo decided not to allow this because, under the law, arson is not a “crimen false” crime — that is, it is not a crime which implies dishonesty or a tendency to testify falsely. As with all the other alleged “evidence” of Judge Sabo’s bias, this decision has been reviewed twice by the Supreme Court and found to be proper. Yet, Jamal’s supporters freely throw it out as clear evidence of Sabo’s rampant bias against Jamal.
Jamal’s followers often pointed to Judge Sabo’s decision not to grant Jamal’s request for a delay in the trial so that he could call police Officer Gary Wakshul as a witness. Jamal’s more devious supporters, like Amnesty International, select a comment made by Sabo and take it out of context to make it appear that Sabo was biased against Jamal. Once again, when the entire situation and Judge Sabo’s comment are reviewed in their entirety, we find Jamal and his attorneys distorting the record to fabricate “evidence” that simply does not exist.
Officer Gary Wakschul was one of the police officers that heard Jamal confess to the murder (For more information on Gary Wakschul and Jamal’s confession see Myth #7). Jamal had received a copy of Officer Wakshul’s statements to that effect prior to trial. Jackson acknowledged that he too had seen Wakshul’s report before the trial began. Judge Sabo had reminded McGill, Jackson and Jamal to list every witness they intended to call during the trial. The defense never mentioned any desire to call Officer Wakshul. On the last day of the trial, while in the midst of offering character witnesses, Jackson abruptly told Judge Sabo that he and Jamal had both “forgotten” to call Wakshul; who was allegedly their “most important witness”. (N.T. 7/1/82, 32). By this time, Officer Wakshul had concluded that he would not be needed, and had left on a previously-scheduled vacation. Rather than permit a delay that would have caused the trial to run into the 4th of July holiday, requiring the sequestered jury to sit waiting in a hotel room for several days, Judge Sabo denied Jackson’s request for a continuance. Jamal, as usual, argued about this decision. Judge Sabo said in response, “Your attorney and you goofed.”
And so they had. Not that it made any difference — Wakshul testified in 1995 that he had indeed heard Jamal confess to the murder, and so his testimony would not have been helpful to the defense. But the circumstances of Jamal’s “goof” concerning Wakshul demonstrate no bias or impropriety on the part of the Judge. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected this claim in 1998.
JUDGE SABO’S RECORD
Judge Sabo began hearing cases as a judge in 1974. During his tenure he heard almost exclusively murder cases in a city that, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, was composed of nearly 40% “non-whites.” Judges are obviously not permitted to choose the ethnicity of the defendants that come before them. And according to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershewitz, nearly 90% of all defendants who go to trial are in fact guilty. If it were true that — as Jamal’s supporters claim — Judge Sabo has presided over trials where the jury has “sent more people to Death Row than any other sitting judge,” that would say absolutely nothing about Judge Sabo’s quality as a judge, or his bias or lack of bias.
SO WHOSE STATISTIC IS THIS ANYWAY?
But is it even true? The supposed statistic that Judge Sabo has “sentenced more people to death than any other sitting judge” is constantly repeated by Jamal’s lawyers, but the factual basis for this assertion — if any — has never been identified. At times, Leonard Weinglass will suggest that this supposed statistic was developed by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). However, we contacted the NAACP’s national legal department and they told us that this statistic did not come from them, because they “do not have the facilities or the resources to track such a statistic.” Jamal’s lawyers nevertheless represent it as if it were a fact.
ANYTHING BUT THE FACTS
In the end, Jamal’s supporters clearly feel no need to present any actual evidence to support their accusations of judicial bias. It is our belief that the most open-minded and legally enlightened opinion regarding Judge Sabo’s alleged bias and misconduct in the courtroom, would come from the seven Justices charged with reviewing this matter on behalf of all the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Therefore, we have included the unanimous opinion rendered by the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in October 1998, regarding the issues of misconduct and bias, leveled against Judge Albert Sabo, by Leonard Weinglass. Justice Cappy, who is a former defense attorney, wrote the Court’s decision.
“Our careful review of the proceedings reveals that none of the challenged behavior on the part of Judge Sabo evidences an inability to preside impartially.
While there are certain instances in the record where the judge displays displeasure and/or impatience, those instances were, in large part, a direct result of obstreperous conduct on the part of Appellant’s counsel. The record reveals instances where defense counsel refused to accept a particular ruling offered by the court, relentlessly urging the court to reconsider. Although we certainly don’t condone unjustified or indiscriminate rhetoric on the part of the presiding judge, we are nevertheless mindful of the fact that judges, too, are subject to human emotion. It simply cannot be denied that this particular case was one that was not only highly publicized, but also highly emotionally charged. As a result, the judge’s duty to maintain the judicial decorum of the proceedings, was, at times, met with great resistance. Upon review of the entire record, we cannot conclude that any of Judge Sabo’s intemperate remarks were unjustified or indiscriminate, nor did they evidence a settled bias against Appellant.”
Opinion of the Court, Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 10/29/98, 9-10
As we’ve seen over and over again as we have reviewed the Free Mumia campaign, the truth means little to Jamal’s supporters. In order to shift the focus of the case from the real criminal, Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys launch a baseless character assassination campaign against Judge Albert Sabo. But as the Supreme Court did, anyone who actually reviews the court record will see that it was Jamal, not the judge, who acted improperly.
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