Weinglass Delivers Case Talk
Mumia's Lawyer Provokes Thought From Studentsby Eva Owens
Oberlin students traveled to Cleveland Tuesday night to hear civil rights attorney Leonard Weinglass speak at Case Western University. Weinglass is most notable for his current role as lead defense counsel for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. While most students came to hear him elaborate on the current status of Abu-Jamal's case in the federal courts, Weinglass spent a significant portion of his lecture addressing the recent legislation affecting all cases involving the death penalty.
The decision of the US Supreme Court last week to effectively endorse Congress' action in the 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act in placing "a new restriction" and "a new constraint on the power of a federal courts to grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus" constitutes the most recent legal news pertaining to Abu-Jamal's case. The Supreme Court's decision limits the authority of federal judges to order new trials where the defendant's rights were violated. According to Weinglass, the Supreme Court has now ruled that state court decisions can be found to be "incorrect" in light of their interpretation of the Constitution, but only in cases where the state's findings are deemed "unreasonable" can the defendants be eligible for a retrial.
Weinglass commented on the recent court decision, saying, "Look how subjective this is. When is an incorrect decision by a state court 'unreasonable' - as opposed to being merely incorrect?" The four dissenting judges in the recent case said, "The authority of federal judges should not be diminished by the new law and...if state judges decided constitutional issues incorrectly then federal judges should have the time honored, unfettered right to conduct an independent review and order a new trial."
"It's important to understand the impact of the recent legislation, especially when you think about very public cases such as Hurricane Carter's and others who have been on death row and been released due to appeals," said junior Kyoko Aoki. "If Hurricane Carter's defense had to operate under the new legislation, he would have never received a new trial and he would have been executed."
The recent decision affects Abu-Jamal's case for a new trial as well. "Judge Yohn [the federal judge in the case] is free to call any of the decisions by the Pennsylvania Courts on federal constitutional issues 'incorrect' and deny relief - or label them 'unreasonable' and order a new trial," said Weinglass. However, Weinglass offered a ray of hope to Abu-Jamal's supporters, deeming Judge Yohn a reasonable man. "He has afforded us more respect that we have been given up to this point by the courts of Pennsylvania," he said.
Weinglass also noted that Judge Yohn is not an elected judge and serves for life. This is in contrast to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the original trial judge, Judge Albert Sabo, who are all subject to re-election.
Many of the students seemed astounded by the various statistics pointed out by Weinglass concerning the application of the death penalty in this country. Weinglass noted that there have been more executions in 1999 than there were in the last 100 years in the U.S. He also spoke about the refusal of the U.S. government to sign the International Treaty on the Child because of the objection to a clause which barred the execution of minors under the age of 18. The U.S. and Somalia were the only countries in the world refusing to sign the treaty.
"[Weinglass] broke things down for me. The case became a lot clearer," said first-year Jessie Wright.
While this seemed to be the opinion of many of the Oberlin attendees, there were a few students who were unsatisfied with Weinglass' presentation. First-year Tom Angel, a member of Oberlin's new organization of "Intellectual Activists," said, "It seemed to me he really skirted or avoided the direct point of our questions."
Abu-Jamal's case is the latest in a virtual laundry list of political dissidents Weinglass has defended in his 30 years of practice, including Angela Davis, Pentagon Papers defendant Anthony Russo, and the Chicago Seven (seven radicals accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago). Interestingly enough, he even defended Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, who in 1987 was charged with seizing a University of Massachusetts building in protest of on-campus recruitment by the CIA.
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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