A death-penalty case that has been in the appeals process for nearly two decades has prompted a judge to criticize federal defenders for “gaming” the system in capital cases.
In a memorandum issued April 24, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said lawyers for Seifullah Abdul-Salaam “are at bottom gaming a system and erecting roadblocks” in an effort to stop the death penalty from being carried out.
Jones last week denied Abdul-Salaam’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Abdul-Salaam was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing of New Cumberland, Pa., police officer Willis Cole.
Abdul-Salaam’s case, which has seen numerous petitions for relief, stays of execution and has been sent to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court several times for different issues since 1996, is a symptom of a larger problem, according to Jones.
“The case at bar amply demonstrates that there is something grievously amiss in both our laws and jurisprudence as they relate to federal habeas practice,” Jones said. “For while we admire zealous advocacy and deeply respect the mission and work of the attorneys who have represented Abdul-Salaam in this matter, they are at bottom gaming a system and erecting roadblocks in aid of a singular goal—keeping Abdul-Salaam from being put to death.”
Jones called the course the case has taken “meandering and even bizarre” and noted that it has spent 12 years on the federal docket.
“We have given Abdul-Salaam every courtesy and due process, perhaps even beyond what the law affords. And yet for the family of Willis Cole, and indeed for Abdul-Salaam and his family as well, there has been no closure,” Jones said. “Rather, they have endured a legal process that is at times as inscrutable as it is incomprehensible.”
But Jones said that process isn’t over yet: The case’s next destination is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is set to review the denial.
“It is right and proper to [e]nsure that criminal defendants are given fair and open trials that fully comport with the protections afforded to them in the Constitution,” Jones said. “But we fear that a process has evolved that in reality is based on the goal of perfection rather than constitutionality.”
There is no such thing as a perfect trial, Jones said, and the case of Abdul-Salaam was no exception.
“However, at the end of the day, this court is fully convinced that Abdul-Salaam was afforded a trial and sentencing that did not violate the Constitution of the United States in any single respect,” Jones said.
Cumberland County District Attorney David J. Freed said his office was pleased with Jones’ ruling.
“It’s been a long haul in this case. In August it’ll be 20 years since Will Cole was murdered,” Freed said. “We’re not naive enough to think it’ll end here, but we’re happy to have cleared this hurdle.”
Freed also said that Jones was on point in his critique of the defenders, adding that “federal defenders are absolutely trying to game the system and they can say they’re doing it to save lives,” but their tactics need to be reviewed.
Federal defender David L. Zuckerman represented Abdul-Salaam and did not return a call seeking comment.
The sentiments expressed by Jones in his memorandum are similar to statements state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille made in May 2011.
In a concurring opinion in the case Commonwealth v. Spotz, Castille had accused the defenders of engaging in “abusive” litigation tactics that are designed to create delay in order to pursue a “global strategy to obstruct capital punishment in Pennsylvania at all costs.”
But unlike Jones in his memorandum, Castille had critical words for the federal judiciary. When the families of murder victims and other citizens ask why there is no effective death penalty in Pennsylvania, Castille had said, “The dirty, secret answer is: Ask the federal court.”
The brunt of Castille’s criticism, however, remained focused on the Federal Defender’s Office.
“The defender has the resources and the luxury to pursue a more global agenda, and its conduct to date strongly suggests that, if once engaged in mere legitimate zealous defense of particular clients, it has progressed to the zealous pursuit of what is difficult to view as anything but a political cause: to impede and sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania,” Castille wrote.
Citing the state Supreme Court’s description of the case, Jones explained that Abdul-Salaam was attempting to flee the scene of a robbery he had committed with an accomplice when Cole arrived. Cole subdued Abdul-Salaam’s accomplice, but was shot through the heart while exchanging gunfire with Abdul-Salaam.
Jones said in his memorandum that the evidence against Abdul-Salaam was “overwhelming” and, citing the state Supreme Court, added, “No less than four eyewitnesses identified [Abdul-Salaam] as Officer Cole’s shooter at trial.”
(Copies of the 183-page opinion in Abdul-Salaam v. Beard, PICS No. 14-0618, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •