Abu-Jamal Death Sentence Overturned
Judge Orders Hearing on New Punishment
Philadelphia -- 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 said.
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 for leniency.
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 Cook.
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 counter rally.
-- 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.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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