Where Meek Overshadowed Mumia

In Philly, the local DA engages in selective criminal justice reform

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by Charles Ellison | @ellisonreport

He doesn’t live in Philly, but criminal justice reform advocate Mark Lewis Taylor, a coordinator of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal and a Princeton Theological Seminary professor, spoke for many two weeks ago when he reacted to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner uncharacteristically appealing  a recent court decision that allowed for a Mumia re-trial.

“When you cave on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, you are siding with the F[raternal] O[rder] of P[olice],” argued Taylor on WURD’s Reality Check. “This case has been a target of the FOP all along, since they have made Mumia, unjustly, Public Enemy #1. We're not going to be able to sustain progress on reforms, you can’t have real criminal justice reform, if you’re not taking a stand on Mumia.”

These days, Taylor’s not the only one feeling that way. No one expected someone like Krasner to do such a thing. Confidence in the Philly DA’s image as criminal justice reform Justice Leaguer seems to erode when Mumia comes up.

Since his election as a fresh, new, smart-on-crime kind of prosecutor in 2017, Krasner has enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon among admirers in politics and pop culture. He’s been widely cheered as a crusading anti-incarcerationist who is the face of how modern 21st century DAs should prosecute. To discuss him as anything else occasionally invites rebukes and side-eyes from a phalanx of progressive elites who charge critics as not being down with the cause. Openly question him too much, and he’ll make certain to avoid media interviews as much as Donald Trump avoids White House briefings. Platforms, outlets or journalists who are suspicious of a new prosecutorial religion which seems to proselytize a focus away from community public safety concerns, are sniffed at as out-of-touch with the times.

But the almost cult-like draw of Krasner dissipated recently when he decided to appeal a recent ruling by Judge Leon Tucker that would allow Mumia to re-litigate his case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  

Reformist Wolf Tickets?

Some, like Taylor, feel as if they were sold a bag of wolf tickets with that appeal. An invitation to have Krasner spread reform gospel at the upcoming Rebellious Lawyering Conference (RebLaw) at Yale Law School was abruptly rescinded after law students and lawyers couldn’t stomach what he did. “The so-called progressive Larry Krasner is hell-bent on keeping [Mumia’s case] out of the appellate process,” read a joint letter from detractors, including Taylor. “Larry Krasner was voted into office by the Black, working-class people of Philadelphia, but in the hour of truth he has upheld the rulings of racist judges [in this case] and is doing the bidding of one of the country's most corrupt and homicidal police forces.”

It’s a fair question: If Krasner had put this much effort, since running for DA, to portray himself as the most reformist and just of big city prosecutors then why is he not supporting a re-trial for someone who is, arguably, the most iconic representation of Philadelphia’s racially oppressive criminal justice system? Krasner, in many respects, ran on a vision of the “anti-prosecutor.” He was the DA who would spotlight and eliminate ugly, lasting disparities afflicting Philly’s black community. It’s how he won the election.

Yet, interestingly enough, he seemed to sail through both primary and general election without much public scrutiny of where he would stand on the Mumia case … if it came down to that.  Philly-based community organizer Russell “Maroon” Shoatz III, who represents the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, told WURD’s Reality Check that there were conversations about that.  “We worked to get Krasner elected, but there was a clear signal sent to us that big name cases like Mumia's and others weren't going to receive legal favoritism.

“Ultimately, it's up to us, the community, to maintain pressure," added Shoatz.

Shoatz admits that nowadays there is just not enough awareness around the issue. But, it may force uncomfortable questions on the activists who catapulted the longtime civil rights lawyer into office with near fanatic zeal.

Could that have to do with the fact that former DA Ron Castille served as a key advisor to Krasner’s campaign? That was the same Castille serving Philly’s top prosecutor during Mumia’s original appeals in a case that has come to symbolize, to many, both police and prosecutorial misconduct. Castille went on to become Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court,  presiding over that same case on its subsequent appeals—despite concerns that it may have been a conflict of interest.

Judge Tucker referred to Castille’s involvement in his decision to grant Mumia a retrial. “There is no evidence that Justice Castille was directly involved with the case as a prosecutor,” wrote Tucker, “but it would be difficult for a judge in his position not to view a case being reviewed on appeal that was handled by his office when he was the District Attorney, as a criticism of his former office and perhaps of his own leadership.”

Advocates have struggled for some time to make that connection. A potential break could have been in the sudden discovery of mysterious case file boxes in the DA’s office, three of which had Castille’s name on them. Krasner’s office contends that the boxes didn’t reveal any direct Castille involvement in the case. But advocates ask a fair question: Why trust the same office that locked Mumia up in the first place to take the first look? Those representing Mumia complain that some files appear redacted, while worrying other files could be permanently (and conveniently) missing.    

Why would a pro-transparency DA like Krasner wait two weeks  before releasing evidence on one of the most sensitive criminal justice cases in the nation to the former Black Panther’s legal team? That’s a fundamental question. .  

Mumia or Meek?

Another question looms: How did Meek Mill become more important than Mumia Abu-Jamal?

It’s a tale of two Ms: one relatively wealthy, urban radio spun rapper with enormous modern name ID, and the other viewed, perhaps, as an activist relic who is no longer on death row and has therefore slipped from view.  There is an entire new generation of young people in the now who don’t know the latter as their generation of parents and grandparents did. He has no album. He has no ringtone. He has no LP for crowds to nod heads to in unison or for club floors to shake when the DJ spins it. He has no dance, no millions following him on Twitter.

There was a discernible, sharp minstrelsy in the way Meek Mill was lifted—or selected— onto public stage as emblematic of everything wrong with the system. After all, one can argue that much of Mill’s predicament is, largely, of his own making; Mill’s hard life is a stream of run-ins, scraps, and probation violations, a diary of knuckleheaded choices that have somehow rose to mythical movement status. There are glimpses of the case that show miscarriages of justice here and there, from legitimate questions about the arresting cops to concerns the judge mishandled the case.  But, it’s not a defining social justice moment as its been carefully packaged and sold.

Krasner has asked for patience while his office files its official appeal of Judge Tucker’s ruling on Mumia. In the meantime, he told The Intercept last week that the case is “a narrow, technical decision in one sense, but incredibly complex and nuanced and affects many other cases ... The opinion that was written by the court contained language that, potentially, could result in having to rehear possibly thousands of cases.”

But how did this particular DA, criminal justice reformer that he is, suddenly become so concerned with these issues just as this case pops up? Krasner’s DA office has appeared to go to great lengths not to seem punitive in a wide range of cases. What makes this case different?

It’s difficult for Krasner to transition from campaign expectations to, now, the realities of official position and governance.  Even when there is a certain level of general agreement that Mumia should have never been on death row, there is still foginess around the question of whether or not he did, indeed, kill Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Did he do it or didn’t he?  That question lingers, the confusion that surrounds it aggravated by Mumia as a symbol of various political agendas from those who praise him and those who clearly do not. Rumors have circulated for years that he may have been protecting someone, perhaps his younger brother William Cook. And there are advocates who have argued for years that there was both police and criminal wrongdoing here.

Meanwhile, as Mill afforded himself a squad of famous, entertaining surrogates who took to airwaves and social media threads with pleas for his release, Mumia’s name, until now, has disappeared from the public discourse. Watching the painted charter buses circling Center City and a team of well-resourced lawyers on high retainer, Krasner obliged with a recommendation to overturn Mill’s conviction. This had the effect of giving Krasner instantaneous urban folk hero status.

But, if the decision to recommend overturning Mill’s conviction implies agreement with his legal team that Common Court of Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley should have recused herself, why is there no agreement with Judge Tucker’s reasoning that Castille should have been recused in the Mumia case? Mumia’s legal advocates, like Rachel Wolkenstein, argued on Reality Check that, after all, a relatively conservative Supreme Court drew a similar conclusion in Williams v. Pennsylvania (2016), a case in which another black man, Terrance Williams, was repeatedly prosecuted by Castille when he was DA and when he was Chief Justice on the PA Supreme Court.

Ultimately, do Mill fans –even Mill himself – know anything about the history of Mumia Abu-Jamal? Would Philadelphians forget or remember the decades of warring over human rights issues between the Philadelphia police and black political revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers and MOVE?

In an exploratory comparison, the DA reveals a tightrope attempt to have it both ways when he, probably, understands that he can’t. There’s safety in selecting Mill as a high profile way to burnish his reformist bona fides as part of a pony show for protesters. Safe since the political ramifications in the Mill case are much less threatening than those in the Mumia case. There is no substance to the Mill case in the way that there is substance and real political depth to Mumia’s current imprisonment.  But, in terms of PR value, the narrative that White DA saved incarcerated Black pop-star is what’s trending. The contours of the Mumia case, however, are much murkier and ugly: Saving the one who could have been victimized by a politically-motivated abdication of justice is a lot more complicated. The other might inspire momentary feelings of euphoria as if justice has been served. But it might show that it has not. And if that former case were ever resolved, there will be demands for a level of structural change that no one – including Krasner himself – can really swallow.