ATLANTA (CN) – A former leader of the Black Panther Party and Atlanta civil rights activist fought Friday in the 11th Circuit for another chance at overturning his conviction and life sentence for murdering a sheriff’s deputy two decades ago.
In a courtroom packed with supporters, an attorney for Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim cleric formerly known as H. Rap Brown, asked a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court to overturn a federal judge’s denial of his petition for habeas relief, arguing that his constitutional rights were violated at trial.
Al-Amin, now 75, was convicted of murder and other offenses related to the March 16, 2000, shooting of Atlanta sheriff’s deputies Ricky Kinchen and Aldranon English.
When Kinchen and English arrived at Al-Amin’s home to serve him with a bench warrant related to a traffic stop, a shoot-out ensured between the officers and a man they believed matched Al-Amin’s physical description.
Kinchen died of his wounds the following day.
According to court records, English identified Al-Amin as the shooter from a series of photos while hospitalized. The deputy also said he believed he had shot Al-Amin during the altercation.
Al-Amin claimed he did not shoot the officers and testified at a state habeas hearing that he fled to White Hall, Alabama, immediately afterward because he thought he was being attacked by four men he had confronted earlier that day on suspicions they were selling drugs in the neighborhood.
Al-Amin was captured by FBI agents in White Hall four days after the shooting, wearing a bulletproof vest but showing no signs of having been shot.
A 9mm pistol and an assault rifle used during the shooting were found in the woods where Al-Amin was apprehended. The guns reportedly did not have Al-Amin’s fingerprints on them and he claimed they were planted in the area by an FBI agent as part of a conspiracy to frame him.
Al-Amin’s car was also found nearby with bullet holes from ammunition fired from the deputies’ handguns.
But during his 2002 trial, multiple eyewitnesses testified that the shooter did not match Al-Amin’s physical description.
Al-Amin did not testify, prompting the prosecutor to engage in a mock cross-examination of him during closing arguments, which Al-Amin’s attorneys argue violated his Fifth and 14th Amendment rights.
The prosecutor repeatedly made references to Al-Amin’s silence during closing remarks and twice told the jury, “Don’t stand for him,” a reference to Al-Amin’s religiously based and court-approved decision not to stand when the jury or judge entered the courtroom.
The former black militant was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In September 2017, a federal judge denied Al-Amin’s most recent habeas petition, finding that although the constitutional violations at his trial were “serious and repeated,” there is “weighty” evidence to support his conviction.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled that Al-Amin failed to offer evidence to support his theory that FBI agents planted evidence in Alabama to incriminate him, but conceded that the evidence presents a “mishmash of inconsistencies.”
But an attorney arguing on behalf of Al-Amin before the 11th Circuit on Friday said Totenberg’s ruling should be reversed, telling the judges that she overlooked the defense’s evidence and failed to give the violations of his client’s rights the proper weight.
“There was evidence supporting acquittal,” attorney C. Allen Garrett, Jr. of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton told the panel. “The district court segregated the crime scene evidence from the White Hall evidence – that was to ignore Al-Amin’s best acquittal evidence. There was nothing connecting Al-Amin to the gun[s].”
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Tallman, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Ninth Circuit, asked, “Other than that, they were found in the woods together. And there was evidence of flight, was there not?”
“And what’s the explanation for the bullet holes in
?” U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, another Clinton appointee, added.
“Al-Amin never disputed his gun was at the scene when the crime was committed. The evidence was still entirely circumstantial,” Garrett said, adding that the most important question is whether the jury “could have had reasonable doubt.”
“But the district court described that evidence as ‘weighty.’ So how did the district court err in its analysis?” Tallman asked.
Garrett acknowledged that the case is “unusual,” but argued that the lower court failed in its determination of the “level of evidence [necessary] to overcome egregious constitutional error.”
Senior Assistant Attorney General Paula Smith, arguing for the state of Georgia, asked the panel to affirm the district court’s decision.
“The jury got to hear all this. The jury got to decide whether to reject or credit the defense’s arguments,” Smith said.
But Judge Wilson pushed back against Smith’s arguments, repeatedly calling the prosecutor’s behavior “egregious” and asking whether Smith would agree that the comments were out of line.
“We’re not here on prosecutorial misconduct, we’re here on whether Mr. Al-Amin’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated,” Smith responded.
U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, a Barack Obama appointee, raised concerns about the state’s evidence, pointing to discrepancies which may have supported acquittal.
“I’m very troubled by evidence that both deputies said they shot the shooter but Al-Amin was never shot. That’s pretty strong evidence. Mr. Garrett said there was no damage to the [bulletproof] vest and Al-Amin had no bruising,” Pryor said.
“But the car had bullet holes in it. And Mr. Al-Amin’s ballistics expert was not called to refute the state’s evidence,” Smith responded.
After oral arguments concluded, Kairi Al-Amin, Jamil Al-Amin’s son, spoke with reporters outside the courthouse.
He acknowledged that “a lot of people have difficulties with the evidence” in his father’s case but said the jury did not have an opportunity to properly weigh the evidence due to the prejudices introduced by the prosecutor.
“The constitutional violations are undisputed,” Kairi Al-Amin said. “At this point we’re just trying to make sure that this court understands there was a harm associated with that constitutional violation. And I think that they do have that understanding.”
“We believe we have more than enough to not only get us a new trial but to get my father out at some point,” he added.
The panel did not indicate when it will issue a decision in the case.