Journalist’s Death Sentence Has People Judging the Judge

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During recesses in his Philadelphia trials, Judge Albert F. Sabo would sit in a small antechamber off his courtroom and play solitaire.

Defense lawyers remember it well because if they stepped inside to complain about a ruling, Sabo--a diminutive man with a mane of white hair who some say resembles Ross Perot--would say nothing. He would just look up from his playing cards and smile.

“It’s the most chilling thing,” said one criminal defense lawyer.

Observers say the same cool disdain hangs over the court case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black journalist and convicted cop killer whose plea for a new trial has fired the passions of grass-roots supporters, black leaders, death penalty foes and left-leaning celebrities worldwide.


Jesse Jackson led the Los Angeles-contingent of a five-city demonstration last month for Abu-Jamal. Personalities as varied as Nelson Mandela, New York writers E.L. Doctorow and William Styron, leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Republican Sen. (and former Philadelphia Dist. Atty.) Arlen Specter, O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Ivy League academicians and actress Whoopi Goldberg have helped stoke the bonfire of protest.

At its center is this 74-year-old jurist of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, who has sent more people to Death Row than any U.S. judge. In separate analyses, the Philadelphia Inquirer tallies 31 Death Row defendants, the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice puts it at 32. Either way, it’s a record.

One of the condemned was Abu-Jamal, 41, who was to have been executed last month. But Sabo, who presided at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial, granted an indefinite stay of execution to hear Abu-Jamal’s argument for a new trial. Grounds for reversal, his lawyers say, include allegations that prosecutors withheld evidence and that Abu-Jamal’s trial lawyer was ineffective. Sabo heard closing arguments on the issue Monday and his decision is pending.

Some fear that in the hearing, with accusations of police frame-up and conspiracy flying, the hard facts that won a conviction have been obscured by the clash between Sabo and such star-crossed defense attorneys as Leonard Weinglass.

“Everybody’s got to be good at something,” said Temple University Law Prof. Edward D. Ohlbaum, “and there’s got to be somebody who leads the league [in death sentences]. The question is, why is it this particular guy?”

Off the bench, Sabo is almost universally described as a genial, back-slapping joy to be around. They say he’s not afflicted with “black-robe disease”--a tendency by some judges to keep their distance. But on the bench, defense lawyers bluntly describe Sabo as a nightmare.


“It is generally said that the Constitution dies a little bit each time Judge Sabo walks onto the bench,” said lawyer Bruce A. Franzell, former chairman of the Philadelphia Bar Assn.’s criminal justice section and current head of the bar commission that rates judicial performances. Such candor is exceedingly rare in the legal community.

But Sabo seems to have as many staunch defenders as detractors.

The Rev. Francis Lendacky of St. Agnes-St. John Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia describes Sabo as an active member of the parish who regularly attends socials with his wife of 34 years, Helen. The couple has two sons. Lendacky said Sabo contributes “according to his own generosity.”

Law enforcement officials, to whom Sabo was a brother officer as county undersheriff for 16 years before being elected to the bench, portray him as the innocent victim of an ever-widening hate campaign.

“I’ve never seen a judge who has been abused and slandered so much,” said Richard Costello, president of the 12,000-member Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, to which the judge once belonged. “I think Sabo should be elected to the judicial hall of fame.”

Sheriff’s officials have provided the judge with around-the-clock bodyguards since he became the target of threatening letters, faxes and phone calls as well as two protests outside his suburban Mount Airy home. They say Sabo remains very calm under fire.

“He’s a cool customer,” said Chief Inspector Jerry Sanders of the Philadelphia sheriff’s office. “I think he just considers [the controversy] part of life at the office.”


Sabo’s official court biography describes him as the “first judge of Slovak heritage elected to the bench in Philadelphia.” Seated in 1974, Sabo was forced into mandatory semi-retirement when he turned 70.

Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham said it’s unfair to single out Sabo as a purveyor of death sentences because the jury, not the judge, sets the penalties.

But Philadelphia lawyers who have appeared before Sabo, including prosecutors who later became defense attorneys, point out that a judge can steer a trial and ultimately a verdict.

“When you are a defense lawyer and you are in [Sabo’s] courtroom, you are playing an away game. You are not with the home team,” Ohlbaum said.

The Inquirer, in a Sunday editorial, called the jurist’s conduct in the high-tension Abu-Jamal hearing for a new trial “injudicious . . . with his body language, baleful stares, barely concealed contempt, [Sabo] has telegraphed an impression of hostility to the defendant.”

Lawyer Mark E. Gottlieb, who once served as head of homicide prosecutors, said that within the district attorney’s office Sabo was the favorite judge to draw for assignment.


“I don’t think there was anyone you would be happier with,” Gottlieb said.

Sabo has walked out of the courtroom in the middle of a defense lawyer’s argument, stripped a defendant’s statement before a jury of all but the most damaging phrases and handed out prosecution-slanted jury instructions that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court described in one 1989 trial as an “outright misstatement of the law.”

Sabo declined to return phone calls for this story. He told the Inquirer in a 1992 interview: “I’m a tough judge.”