Myth #9

Mumia Abu-Jamal and his supporters argue that he was not permitted to represent himself at trial, supposedly in violation of his civil rights. They also argue that, once Jamal was denied this right, he asked to have John Africa assist him in as “co-counsel” and that the “bias” Judge Albert Sabo improperly refused this request.



The argument that Mumia Abu-Jamal was “denied his right to represent himself” is made in absolute contradiction to the record. It is undeniable that Jamal began by representing himself on May 13, 1982. According to his own attorney, Jamal continued to represent himself until what was supposed to have been the first day of trial — June 17, 1982. But after repeated warnings that his incessant disruptions would cause him to forfeit this right, he was removed from “pro se” status.

While it is true that the law affords individuals the right to represent themselves, that right is not unlimited. The law requires one who represents himself to conduct himself appropriately, and states that the right to self-representation may be forfeited by persistent improper conduct.

The record shows that Judge Albert Sabo went to extraordinary lengths to see that Jamal was given ample opportunity to conduct himself appropriately in order to retain his “pro se” status. But Jamal repeatedly chose to disrupt the proceedings. After the entire first day of trial was halted and replaced with pointless delays, inane arguments, and contemptuous acts by Jamal, Judge Sabo instructed Anthony Jackson, Jamal’s co-councel, to assume control of Jamal’s defense.
Some argue that it was Judge Albert Sabo’s “plan” all along to find a reason to remove Jamal.

They contend that it is Sabo who is to blame for somehow inciting Jamal to commit his disruptions in response to his extreme bias in favor of the prosecution. Yet to those who attended the 1982 trial, it was clear from the outset that Jamal never really intended to “represent” himself. Instead, Jamal planned to have John Africa join him in defiantly presenting himself as the victim of an illegitimate legal system, turning Judge Sabo’s courtroom into a forum for dispensing their own brand of political ideology to the press.



Jamal’s supporters are fond of stating that Jamal was “denied the right to represent himself.” They do so with complete ignorance of the record. A review of the court record clearly shows that on May 13, 1982, just 2 weeks before the trial began, Mumia Abu-Jamal was permitted to begin functioning as his own lawyer. He carried on in this capacity throughout the initial stages of the trial, most notably during the Motion to Suppress and in the early stages of jury selection (voir dire). During the motion to Suppress, he personally questioned witnesses and personally addressed the Court. He was given the opportunity to personally participate in the selection of the jury that heard his case. And, he was given every reasonable opportunity to continue representing himself for the duration of the trial.

But Jamal clearly had no intention of actually representing himself throughout the trial. Instead, early in Jury Selection, he began to incessantly make the bizarre demand to have non-lawyer John Africa, the leader of a radical, violent anti-government group, “represent” him as his “lawyer.” Jamal’s constant harping on this theme became increasingly disruptive, and he was repeatedly warned that it would eventually result in his losing his right to represent himself.

For reasons that are unclear (but probably because he knew that a guilty verdict was inevitable), Jamal chose to throw his right to represent himself away.



In his book, “Race for Justice,” Leonard Weinglass claims that the only reason Jamal was removed as his own counsel was because of his demand to have John Africa sit beside him and offer advice. This is another one of Mr. Weinglass’s falsehoods. The record of the 1982 confirms that Jamal regularly disrupted the proceedings by flying from his seat with loud outbursts and insults, in which he insisted that Africa be allowed to act as his lawyer. Jamal’s own sister, Lydia Wallace, has acknowledged her brother’s courtroom misconduct in the HBO-TV docudrama “A Case for Reasonable Doubt,” as does his friend, Lynn Washington, in his 1995 National Public Radio interview. The local Philadelphia newspapers regularly commented on Jamal’s antics in Judge Albert Sabo’s courtroom in 1982. (Each of these is posted at The record reflects that Jamal was removed from the courtroom no less than 13 times because of his intentionally disruptive actions.

To counter Jamal’s actions in 1982, his supporters argue that Jamal’s background as a “black revolutionary” caused him to believe that the legal system wouldn’t afford him a “fair trial,” and that he couldn’t trust his own hand-picked lawyer, because he was “reluctant to represent Jamal” and “ill-prepared” for trial. Therefore, they argue, Jamal correctly demanded to represent himself. They further argue that Judge Sabo wrongly denied Jamal the opportunity to be “represented by,” or at least “assisted by” John Africa.

Anthony Jackson did ask to be relieved, but his reluctance had one, and only one cause — Jamal wanted him out of the case. In the 1982 trial, Jamal never claimed that there was anything wrong with Jackson, or that he was unprepared, or that he was incompetent. Rather, his reason for asking to be removed was Jamal’s repeated insistence that he did not want to be represented by “any lawyer in the whole world.”

Further, Jamal continually accused Jackson of colluding with the judge and prosecutor to convict him.

Defendant: “I want counsel of my own choice no matter whether he’s a member of the ABA, because members of the ABA have represented people that are at Holmsburg Detention Center and you know, prisons throughout the country.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.55-6

Defendant: “I do not want to be backed up or represented by Attorney Jackson or any other lawyer of the ABA anywhere in America. I want John Africa as my counsel.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.59

Defendant: “I need counsel of my choice, someone I have faith in, someone I have respect for; not someone paid by the same pocket that pays the D.A., not a court-appointed lawyer, not a member of the ABA, not an officer of this court, but someone I can trust and I have faith in. Your warnings are absolutely moot, they’re meaningless to me.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.73



Jamal’s supporters argue that Sabo displayed bias against Jamal when he did not allow him to represent himself during the jury selection process. Yet, despite the fact that several prospective jurors stated that they feared being questioned by Jamal, (N.T. 6/2/82, 2.138), Judge Sabo did not remove Jamal at that time, but instead took over the questioning (not the actual jury selection) for both sides. Later, he allowed Jamal the choice of having the Judge continue to ask the questions or allowing Mr. Jackson to do so, while Jamal chose the jurors. Jamal freely chose the latter course, and he continued to make the decisions, including how to use the defense peremptory challenges. Leonard Weinglass, Jamal’s own attorney, has admitted as much:

Mr. Weinglass: “What the Court did on June 7th [jury selection] is, as the record reveals, was not to remove Mr. Jamal as his own Counsel. The Court exercised its prerogative under the local rule to take over the voir dire, which it can do with any attorney. Mr. Jamal remained as Counsel while the Court took over voir dire. Mr. Jamal was not removed as counsel until June 18th.
N.T. 7/28/95, 67



Despite the fact that he disrupted the proceedings repeatedly during jury selection, Judge Sabo permitted Jamal to continue representing himself on the first day of trial (6/17/82). Jamal was clearly and politely told by Judge Sabo that he would be permitted to proceed “pro se” only if he would “behave” himself and conduct his defense by the rules of the court. Jamal pretended to agree. Then within a matter of minutes, he again began his loud outbursts, demanding to have John Africa “represent” him. Jamal specifically refused to act under the rules of the court because, according to him, the system wasn’t meeting his personal standard of justice.

A review of the record shows that Judge Sabo repeatedly gave Jamal lengthy warnings:

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.”

Defendant: “Judge…”

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

Yet despite these warnings, throughout the entire first day of trial, Jamal relentlessly demanded to have a microphone and to have his pal, John Africa, a non-lawyer, “represent him.”

These are only a few examples of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s daily routine in the 1982 courtroom while he “represented himself”.

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

This game continued for hours, until Joe McGill, who had been barred from making his opening statements by Jamal, stated:

“That’s the point, Judge. This trial is not a political platform for all the people and the media to hear what Mr. Jamal has to say. The purpose for a public trial is that this man get a fair trial and people be able to observe it.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.44-48

Moments after this statement by McGill, and before he could make his opening remarks to the jury, Jamal again disrupted the proceedings.

Defendant: “I want a microphone and counsel of my choice.”

Court: “I’m sorry, I have already ruled to all those points.”

Defendant: “You have ruled judge? This is not to my satisfaction.”

Court: “I don’t care.”

Defendant: “This is my life and my trial.”

Court: “If you step out of line …”

Defendant: “That warning doesn’t mean anything to me.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 149

Then moments later:

Defendant: “I am going to renew my motion, Judge.”

Court: “I already ruled on your motion.”

Defendant: “You haven’t ruled on it before I’ve spoken about it. I want John Africa to represent me.”

Court: “I already ruled on that.”

Defendant: “You haven’t ruled on it to my satisfaction Judge.”

Court: “That may be unfortunate. But I ruled on it.”

Defendant: “Say what?”

Court: “I ruled on it.”

Defendant: “You have not ruled on it to my satisfaction, Judge. This man [Mr. Jackson] can’t represent me. I don’t want him sitting there in a position of defense, in defense of my life. I want you to speak to the issue, Judge, about my right to counsel of my choice, not your choice.”

Court: “Let’s proceed.”

Defendant: “I’m not finished! I’m not finished speaking Judge!”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.70- 1.71

Like all defendants who choose to represent themselves, Jamal was required to conduct himself appropriately. Yet, while the jury sat waiting, the entire first day of trial was wasted by his refusal to abide by the rules of the court. Thus, to state that Jamal was “denied” his right to represent himself is simply absurd. In doing so, Jamal’s supporters simply deny the record, which shows that throughout Jamal’s insane discourse, both Sabo and McGill actually pleaded with him to conduct himself properly so that he might continue on as his own attorney, and that Jamal refused to do so:

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

In direct contradiction to the allegation that Jamal was “refused” the opportunity to represent himself, Prosecutor McGill went so far as to ask Jamal to proceed as his own lawyer a second time.

Then, Jamal changed direction and began to demand that John Africa sit as his “backup” counsel.

McGill: “Well, if he wishes to participate he can, if he doesn’t I encourage him to do so. He said he was going to live up to that. I’m very anxious to try the case with Mr. Jamal, but let’s do it and don’t try to get out of it.”

Defendant: “No trying to get out of it. I want to try this case with John Africa as my backup lawyer, that’s all. Not Anthony Jackson.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.69

Pro-Jamal propagandists consistently fail to explain how a non-lawyer like John Africa could legally have been allowed to represent Jamal.

Also strategically omitted from the pro-Jamal rhetoric is the fact that to appease Jamal and get the trial moving again, Joe McGill offered to allow Jamal to have Africa assist him from the seats behind counsel table, in the same manner in which police detectives support the prosecutor. Judge Sabo agreed to this offer.

Jamal refused it.

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

The end of the first day of trial saw Mumia Abu-Jamal reject the good faith attempt to accommodate his bizarre demands made by the prosecutor and the Judge. Judge Sabo finally grew tired of Jamal’s disruptions and formally removed Jamal from self-representation. He assigned Anthony Jackson, who had been serving as co-councel, to function as Jamal’s defense counsel from that point forward.

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 [of Mr. Africa], 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

Court: “My position is that Mr. Jamal has been intentionally disrupting the orderly progression of this trial —“

Defendant: “How!”

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 councel and I am appointing Mr. Jackson to take over as primary counsel.”
N.T. 6/17/82, 1.122

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).

What Jamal’s supporters simply choose to deny, is that Judge Sabo was faced with the fact that the law prohibited him from allowing John Africa from acting as counsel. A compromise, that would have allowed Africa to assist Jamal, though not while sitting at the defense table, had been declined by Jamal. Judge Sabo had also seen that Jamal would not properly conduct himself as his own lawyer. He had been told by Jamal himself that Jamal would refuse to cooperate with any lawyer, not just Jackson. But Jackson was the only lawyer who had worked on the case and was prepared to proceed. Faced with these facts, the Judge acted properly in removing Jamal and re-instating Anthony Jackson.

Organizations like Amnesty International like to dishonestly suggest that Judge Sabo’s decision was part of his plot to torpedo Jamal’s defense by intentionally saddling him with an “ineffective” attorney who did not want to defend him. But Jamal’s supporters never mention that Jackson was not forced upon Jamal by the Court. Rather, Jamal had hand-picked Jackson, only to irrationally refuse to be represented by him, then refuse to be represented by any alternative “legal trained lawyer” who was a “member of the ABA”.

To gain support for Jamal, Leonard Weinglass and Jamal’s supporters regularly misrepresent Judge Albert Sabo’s legitimate efforts to maintain order in his courtroom as evidence of Sabo’s alleged bias against Mumia Abu-Jamal. When the record is reviewed, it is clear that Sabo displayed remarkable patience and went to great lengths to accommodate Jamal’s unending demands. To any objective viewer it should be evident that Jamal was not “denied his right to self representation” because of Judge Sabo’s bias against him. To the contrary, Mumia Abu-Jamal intentionally squandered his right to represent himself with his ceaseless demands to have John Africa sit with him and play politics in the courtroom.

Even after Jackson was re-instated as lead counsel, Jamal continued to disrupt the proceedings. So relentless were his disruptions that the Philadelphia Inquirer said that Jamal’s actions “border[ed] on suicidal.” Jamal became so disruptive that he had to be removed from the courtroom no less than thirteen times.

Amnesty International claims that because of his numerous forced removals from the courtroom Jamal was in effect tried “in absentia” throughout most of his trial. This remark is as absurd as it is wrong, and it fails to point the finger of blame for these expulsions where it clearly belongs: squarely at Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Every legitimate news agency (20/20, KGO-TV in San Francisco, American Justice) and periodical (Time and Vanity Fair) that has honestly reviewed this case has reported that Jamal intentionally disrupted the 1982 proceedings on a daily basis. Leonard Weinglass regularly claims that these news organizations have it all wrong, arguing that the only reason Jamal disrupted the court proceedings was Judge Sabo’s refusal to allow him to have John Africa as his “co-counsel.” (Weinglass has never explained how the court’s refusal to meet that absurd demand justified Jamal’s misconduct, but reason has never been a priority in any of the arguments he has made in Jamal’s behalf).

But the record shows something altogether different. The prosecutor and the Judge actually attempted to meet Jamal half way so that he could be assisted by Africa (N.T. 6/17/82, 1.114-5). Yet Jamal continued to disrupt the proceedings by demanding to have Africa “represent” him.
In their unbiased review of this issue, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, in their unanimous 1998 affirmation of Jamal’s conviction and the fairness of his original trial, stated that Judge Sabo had demonstrated considerable patience in accommodating Jamal’s courtroom antics regarding his “pro se” rights.




If one reviews the record honestly it becomes eminently clear. Mumia Abu-Jamal was never “denied” his right to represent himself. By virtue of the fact that he was given numerous opportunities to continue “pro se” and still repeatedly refused to cooperate with the court in order to retain his “pro se” status, it is clear that Mumia Abu-Jamal freely chose to forfeit that right.

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