Supreme Court: Mumia Abu-Jamal Can Get New Sentencing

Supreme Court clears the way for one of the country's most widely known inmates to get new sentencing.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 11, 2011

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Mumia Abu-Jamal to have a new jury decide his fate. 

Abu-Jamal, a renowned writer and former Black Panther, was convicted in 1982 of first degree murder in the death of Daniel Faulkner. But his lawyers contend his trial was unfair, and point to what they call contradictory and incomplete evidence that they say failed to meet international standards.

Philadelphia prosecutors will now have to pursue a new sentence, though many observers think it’s unlikely Abu-Jamal will again be sentenced to death. The Los Angeles Times reports that Abu-Jamal’s guilt is no longer at issue under U.S. law, since a series of lower courts have upheld his conviction. But a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia set aside his death sentence because of a flaw in jury instructions.

Widener University law professor Judith Ritter and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund represented Abu-Jamal in the latest appeal.

"At long last, the profoundly troubling prospect of Mr. Abu-Jamal facing an execution that was produced by an unfair and unreliable penalty phase has been eliminated," said John Payton, president of the NAACP told the AP. "Our system should never condone an execution that stems from a trial in which the jury was improperly instructed on the law."

More details via The Associated Press:

Tuesday’s decision upholds a 2001 ruling by U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., who first ruled that Abu-Jamal deserved a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions on aggravating and mitigating factors.

Philadelphia prosecutors fought the decision, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them in 2008.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard an Ohio case involving similar sentencing issues last year, but rejected the inmate’s claim — and ordered the 3rd Circuit to revisit its Abu-Jamal decision.

However, the Philadelphia-based court stood its ground in April, insisting the two cases were different.

Under Pennsylvania law, Abu-Jamal should have received a life sentence if a single juror found the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating factors in Faulkner’s slaying. The 3rd Circuit found the verdict form confusing, given its repeated use of the word "unanimous," even in the section on mitigating circumstances.

Williams has conceded that courts in Philadelphia and the U.S. "have had a history of problems and racism," while adding of the Faulkner case, "This is not a whodunit."

Abu-Jamal’s writings and radio broadcasts from death row have helped make his case international news. His case has generated more controversy and received more attention, both national and international, than that of any other inmate currently on death row in in the United States.