By Austin Nolen
Thirty seven years ago, after an extended confrontation between Philadelphia radical group MOVE and their neighbors and city authorities, Philadelphia police and firefighters massed in the Powelton neighborhood to evict the group from their house at 307-309 N 33rd Street. In the firefight that followed, police officer James Ramp was killed and several more officers were wounded. Nine members of the group were later convicted of third degree murder, criminal conspiracy, attempted murder and aggravated assault for the shootout.
The trial has been a source of controversy for some time. MOVE members and supporters have long made the intuitively appealing claim that it is unjust to convict nine people of one murder. For the anniversary of the first (but not the last) major armed confrontation between MOVE and the City of Philadelphia, I explored the historical record for these murder convictions.
In MOVE’s version of the story, Judge Edwin Malmed found the nine guilty (they waived a jury trial) to punish them for being MOVE members. Reportedly, when Malmed gave a radio interview about the case, then-reporter Mumia Abu-Jamal called in and asked which group member shot Ramp. In answer, Malmed apparently said “‘I have the faintest idea’ [sic] and went on to say that since MOVE members wanted to be tried as a family, he convicted them as a family!”
Was this conviction of nine people for one murder unjust, especially considering that no one seems to know which MOVE member fired the fatal shots? The record shows that Judge Malmed convicted the nine members based on a well-established legal principle, as accomplices.
In his opinion denying motions made by the members after their conviction and sentence, Malmed wrote that “defendants place great reliance on the admitted inability… to prove the precise identity of the defendant or defendants who fired the fatal shots.” In other words, the District Attorney’s Office never attempted to prove exactly who fired the gun that killed Ramp.
As Judge Malmed then explained, under Pennsylvania law, such proof wasn’t needed: “Under either the conspiracy or accomplice theory, it is irrelevant for the purpose of determining criminal liability to prove which of the conspirators or accomplices attained this highest guilt.” While conspiracy liability no longer exists in this state, an accomplice to a crime (legally, one who aids in the commission of a crime) can still be punished as if he or she committed it directly. This rule exists nationwide in various forms.
The entire opinion is worth reading for more background on the 1978 MOVE confrontation and its aftermath.
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