A federal judge threw out the death sentence yesterday of Mumia Abu-
Jamal, the former journalist and Black Panther who is perhaps the world's best-
known death row inmate, but upheld his murder conviction.
Finding that the instructions to the jury were unconstitutional, District
Judge William H. Yohn Jr. ordered that Pennsylvania conduct a new sentencing
hearing within 180 days or impose a sentence of life imprisonment.
Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of the fatal 1981 shooting of a white
Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, after the officer pulled over
Abu-Jamal's brother, who was driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
Few death-penalty cases have garnered as much attention or rallied
supporters and opponents in the United States and abroad. A former public
radio journalist and author of the widely read book "Live from Death Row," Abu-
Jamal contends he was shot by Faulkner and railroaded because he was a black
political activist. He has never voiced regret over the officer's death.
For more than a decade, the lines have been drawn sharply over whether Abu-
Jamal was wrongly imprisoned after a stormy, racially tinged trial, or whether
he was merely a highly articulate killer.
Numerous protests have been held in the Bay Area and the nation to
publicize his case. Last year, a crowd of more than 6,000 showed support for
the 47-year-old activist during a rally at Madison Square Garden as off-duty
police officers picketed outside.
Faulkner's widow, Maureen, expressed disgust and outrage at the judge's
ruling yesterday, calling Yohn a "sick and twisted person . . . who wants to
appease both sides."
Richard Costello, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police,
called the ruling "a hell of a Christmas present" and said it "increases the
already significant danger that officers must face on a daily basis by sending
a clear message that those who assault police and murder them need no longer
fear the death penalty."
NOT ALL THEY WANTED
Meanwhile, Yohn's ruling was greeted as only a partial victory by Abu-
Jamal's supporters, who have been fighting for the reversal of his conviction.
"All of the errors that occurred in Abu-Jamal's trial clearly warrant a new
hearing on the question of guilt or innocence," said Steven Hawkins, the
executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Elliot Grossman, one of four attorneys defending Abu-Jamal, said the team
was only somewhat pleased with the ruling. "We have a confession from the man
who actually killed Faulkner," Grossman said. "It's outrageous that an
innocent man can be on death row and that the confession of the real killer
can be ignored."
That confession was made in a 1999 affidavit by Arnold Beverly, who claimed
he had been hired by the mafia to kill Faulkner because the officer had
interfered with mob payoffs to police.
Abu-Jamal's former defense team had said they did not consider the
admission credible, and Yohn had refused to order Beverly to testify in the
case. Abu-Jamal fired his old defense team after one of the lawyers wrote a
book about the case.
COMPLEX, DETAILED RULING
The district attorney of Philadelphia, Lynne Abraham, a staunch supporter
of the death penalty, said she would appeal Yohn's ruling to the U.S. Court of
Appeals in Philadelphia. "There's not going to be any (penalty) hearing . . .
unless all appeals that we are permitted to pursue are totally exhausted," she
The 272-page ruling, which legal experts described as dispassionate and
meticulous, was a response to Abu-Jamal's habeas petition. Repeatedly
affirming the state court's review of the issues, the judge dismissed all of
Abu-Jamal's claims alleging constitutional defects in the guilt phase of the
trial and refused to grant him a new trial.
The one area where the judge did grant relief was to find that the
instructions the jury received regarding mitigating factors, together with the
verdict forms the jury was given, produced a "reasonable likelihood that the
jury has applied the . . . instruction (and form) in a way that prevents the
consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence."
As in most death penalty states, Pennsylvania allows the consideration of
mitigating factors that would favor a life sentence, such as the defendant's
age, lack of a serious criminal record, duress and mental disturbance. State
law says jurors can also consider anything else about the defendant that calls
Reversals in death penalty cases more often involve errors during
sentencing than at the conviction phase, said Elisabeth Semel, who directs the
Boalt Hall School of Law's death penalty clinic at the University of
California at Berkeley. Because of the lengthy review required by law,
reversals after more than a dozen years are not uncommon, she added.
If the judge's decision to throw out the death sentence ultimately stands,
the state would have to select a new jury for the penalty phase of the trial
and present evidence of Abu-Jamal's guilt.
"It's obviously a complicated process for both sides because of the passage
of time," Semel said. "Who knows what witnesses are lost, what evidence is
lost, what is not available to both sides that should have been presented when
this case was tried."
HARSH FEELINGS LINGER
Abu-Jamal's celebrity and continuing court battle invoke bitter feelings
among police officers and residents in Philadelphia. Many of them joined
Maureen Faulkner downtown on Dec. 9, the 20th anniversary of Faulkner's death,
to dedicate a plaque in his honor at the spot where he fell.
On that day 20 years ago, Faulkner pulled over a car driven by Abu-Jamal's
brother, William Cook. Calling for backup, Faulkner got into a scuffle with
The jury found that Abu-Jamal, who had been nearby, ran to the scene and
shot Faulkner in the back. Faulkner fired at Abu-Jamal, wounding him in the
chest. Then, as Faulkner lay bleeding, Abu-Jamal shot him four more times.
Abu-Jamal acknowledges that he was at the scene, but has steadfastly
maintained his innocence. He says that someone else, whom he does not identify,
was the killer.
19 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
Developments in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case:
-- -- Dec. 9, 1981: Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, is
slain after pulling over William Cook, the brother of former Black Panther
Mumia Abu-Jamal, for driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
-- 1982: Abu-Jamal, a taxi driver and sometime radio reporter, goes on
trial. According to testimony, he was in his cab when he saw the officer
scuffling with his brother. Police found Abu-Jamal wounded by a round from
Faulkner's gun and a .38-caliber handgun registered to Abu-Jamal at the scene
with five spent shell casings. Abu-Jamal is convicted and sentenced to death.
-- 1989: Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirms the conviction.
-- 1995: Judge denies Abu-Jamal's request for a new trial. Abu-Jamal's book,
"Live from Death Row," argues the justice system is racist and ruled by
political expediency. His jailhouse writings and his effort to win a new trial
attract supporters around the world.
-- 1999: U.S. Supreme Court declines to review Abu-Jamal's appeal.
-- 2000: Some 6,000 people show up at New York's Madison Square Garden to
show support for Abu-Jamal, while off-duty New York police officers hold
-- 2001: Abu-Jamal fires his longtime defense team after one of them
publishes a book about the case. His new defense team releases a videotape of
a man who says he killed Faulkner as part of a mob hit.
-- Yesterday: A federal judge throws out Abu-Jamal's death sentence, citing
problems with jury instructions and the verdict form.
The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report.