PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge threw out Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence Tuesday and ordered a new sentencing hearing for the former Black Panther alternately portrayed as a vicious cop-killer and a victim of a racist frame-up.
U.S. District Judge William Yohn cited problems with the jury charge and verdict form in the trial that ended with Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence in the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Yohn rejected all of Abu-Jamal’s other claims and refused to grant a new trial. But he ordered the state to either conduct a new sentencing hearing within six months or sentence Abu-Jamal to life in prison.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham said she will appeal. Abu-Jamal “has always been a remorseless, cold-blooded killer,” she said. “We believe that the judge’s decision is legally flawed.”
The ruling pleased neither side in a case that has pitted Faulkner’s family, police groups and others against death penalty foes who say Abu-Jamal, 47, is a political prisoner of a corrupt justice system.
“I’m angry, outraged, and disgusted,” said Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner. “I think Judge Yohn is a sick and twisted person, after sitting on this case for two years and making this decision just before Christmas. He wants to play the middle road and try to appease both sides and it doesn’t work.”
Abu-Jamal’s lawyers did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Pam Africa, leader of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, said Abu-Jamal should have been released from prison. “The only way it would be a good ruling is if the judge was honest and fair and released Mumia,” she said.
Abu-Jamal is perhaps America’s most famous death row inmate, drawing support from celebrities, foreign politicians and capital punishment opponents. He was recently made an honorary citizen of Paris and last year gave an audiotaped lesson in civil rights to Antioch College’s graduating class while Faulkner’s widow and others protested outside. Police groups and others convinced of his guilt say he should be executed.
Abu-Jamal, a cab driver and sometime radio reporter, was convicted of shooting Faulkner, 25, after the white officer pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother. According to testimony, Abu-Jamal was in his taxi across the street, saw the officer scuffling with his brother and ran toward the scene.
Faulkner was shot several times, and police found Abu-Jamal wounded by a round from Faulkner’s gun. Police also found a .38-caliber revolver registered to Abu-Jamal at the scene with five spent shell casings.
Defense attorneys say the bullet that killed Faulkner cannot be positively traced to the gun.
Yohn’s ruling had to do with how the jury was told to weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances in deciding whether to impose the death penalty.
The jury said it had found one aggravating circumstance (the victim was a police officer) and one mitigating factor (Abu-Jamal’s clean criminal record). In death-penalty cases, each juror is supposed to weigh aggravating factors against mitigating ones to decide if the defendant should be sentenced to death.
Yohn said the jurors should have been able to consider mitigating circumstances even if they did not unanimously agree that such circumstances existed. He said the jury instructions ran counter to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Temple University law professor David Kairys said the ruling identified “a very clear error” that prevented Abu-Jamal from getting a fair sentence.
“What really happened here is Mumia Abu-Jamal just got the same rules applied to him that apply to everybody else,” Kairys said. “They’re not technicalities; they really go to the heart of whether the jury meant to impose the death penalty or not.”
Abu-Jamal exhausted his state appeals two years ago, but a petition filed in September argued that the defense had new evidence to clear him, including a confession from a man named Arnold Beverly. In a 1999 affidavit, Beverly claimed he was hired by the mob to kill Faulkner because the officer had interfered with mob payoffs to police.
Abu-Jamal’s former lawyers, Daniel Williams and civil rights attorney Leonard Weinglass, said they thought the confession was not credible, and Yohn refused to order Beverly to testify on Abu-Jamal’s behalf.
On the Net:
Abu-Jamal supporters: http://www.mumia.org
Faulkner supporters: http://www.danielfaulkner.com