A federal appeals court on Thursday said former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal cannot be executed for murdering a Philadelphia police officer without a new penalty hearing.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction, but said he should get a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions. If prosecutors don't want to give him a new death penalty hearing, Abu-Jamal would be sentenced automatically to life in prison.
Prosecutors are weighing their options, Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns Jr. said Thursday.
Abu-Jamal's lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, said he was glad the court did not uphold the death sentence, and said he wants a new trial.
"I've never seen a case as permeated and riddled with racism as this one," Bryan said Thursday. "I want a new trial and I want him free. His conviction was a travesty of justice."
Backed by activists
Abu-Jamal, 53, once a radio reporter, has attracted a legion of artists and activists to his cause in a quarter-century on death row. A Philadelphia jury convicted him in 1982 of killing Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, after the patrolman pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother in an overnight traffic stop.
He had appealed, arguing that racism by the judge and prosecutors corrupted his conviction at the hands of a mostly white jury. Prosecutors, meanwhile, had appealed a federal judge's 2001 decision to grant Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing because of the jury instructions.
Hundreds of people protested outside the federal building in Philadelphia where arguments were heard in May and an overflow crowd — including legal scholars, students, lawyers, the policeman's widow and Abu-Jamal's brother — filled the courtroom. Abu-Jamal's writings and taped speeches on the justice system have made him a popular figure among activists who believe he was the victim of racism. Abu-Jamal is black; Faulkner was white.
The flaw in the jury instructions related to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances that might keep Abu-Jamal off death row. Under the law, jurors did not have to unanimously agree on a mitigating circumstance.
'Culture of discrimination'
"The jury instructions and the verdict form created a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed it was precluded from finding a mitigating circumstance that had not been unanimously agreed upon," the appeals court wrote.
Arguments before the 3rd Circuit focused on several constitutional issues, including whether prosecutors improperly eliminated black jurors.
Ten whites and two blacks served on the jury. Prosecutors struck 10 blacks and five whites from the pool, while accepting four blacks and 20 whites, according to Bryan, who argued that prosecutors of the day fostered "a culture of discrimination."
Burns argued in court that Abu-Jamal was raising issues on appeal that he had not raised during a lengthy 1995 review of the case.
The officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner, has kept her husband's memory alive over the years, and recently co-wrote a book about the case. The book, "Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain and Injustice," written with radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish, came out in December.