2 days of debate in Abu-Jamal case

Attorney Michael Coard (left) and D.A. Seth Williams
Attorney Michael Coard (left) and D.A. Seth Williams
Posted: November 08, 2010

Tonight, defense attorney and activist Michael Coard and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams are expected to share a stage at the National Constitution Center to discuss/debate or present facts of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. The verb varies depending on who is asked.

Tomorrow, lawyers for the commonwealth and for the convicted killer of police Officer Daniel Faulkner will debate before a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals whether a jury should again decide if Abu-Jamal should live or die.

Both events, with attendant rallies, are expected to be packed.

Abu-Jamal's lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, of San Francisco, withdrew from the case Friday, contending in a motion that associate counsel Judith L. Ritter, a Widener University law professor, "has demanded that only she argue the case before this court."

Bryan, who had represented Abu-Jamal since 2003, wrote that he had to withdraw after receiving notice that Abu-Jamal was discharging him as counsel and because he could not "remain mute" at the hearing as Ritter wanted.

He said in an e-mail to the Daily News yesterday that his reason for withdrawing "was not because of threats, even though there have been many from both side[s] including death threats."

Ritter did not respond to an e-mail by the Daily News. In her filing to the 3rd Circuit, she wrote that "much in" Bryan's motion to withdraw "is inaccurate." She added that "these inaccuracies are not relevant to any issue before the court."

Tonight's discussion with Coard and Williams will follow a second screening of filmmaker Tigre Hill's documentary "The Barrel of a Gun" in the Constitution Center's Kirby Auditorium. The event, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., is sold out.

Lynn Doyle, host of Comcast Network's "It's Your Call," will host the discussion, which she expects to be balanced and thought-provoking.

Coard and other Abu-Jamal supporters have promoted the event as a "debate." Hill, whose film was endorsed by the local Fraternal Order of Police, also said that his original idea was for Coard and Williams to have "a debate."

But Tasha Jamerson, Williams' spokeswoman, told the Daily News yesterday that it would "not be a debate." She said the district attorney "will only be stating the facts of the case" after the film's showing.

Williams will "not be engaging in any sort of debate, not taking any questions," she said.

Of Jamerson's remarks, Coard said: "I don't know why the D.A. would not want to debate this issue. Both sides are going to be there. . . . You make your argument, I make a rebuttal. You ask hard questions, I ask questions. Why wouldn't anybody agree with that?"

Hill said that, to his understanding, about 170 of the 200 seats in the auditorium have been bought by Abu-Jamal supporters.

Michael Lutz, a past president of the local FOP, said yesterday that he was not immediately aware of anyone from the FOP attending the screening and discussion "simply because of the fact that they've already seen" Hill's film, in September during the first screening at the Merriam Theater.

After Coard and Williams share the stage, Hill and Johanna Fernandez, a Baruch College professor who has made a competing film, "Justice on Trial," considered to be pro-Abu-Jamal, will debate their documentaries.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January tossed out a 2008 ruling by the 3rd Circuit that Abu-Jamal deserved a new sentencing hearing. Abu-Jamal, 56, has been on death row since his 1982 conviction in the Dec. 9, 1981, shooting death of Faulkner at 13th and Locust Streets in Center City.

The high court said it was sending the case back "for further consideration" in light of a ruling in an Ohio death-penalty case. That case - which involved convicted murderer and neo-Nazi Frank Spisak - raised similar sentencing issues cited by the appeals court in the Abu-Jamal case.

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