A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the death sentence imposed nearly two decades ago on Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former journalist and Black Panther held up by activists worldwide as a political prisoner of a racist justice system.
U.S. District Judge William Yohn cited problems with the jury charge and verdict form in the trial that ended with Abu-Jamal's first-degree murder conviction in the death of a Philadelphia police officer. The judge denied all of Abu-Jamal's other claims and refused his request for a new trial.
The judge said that jurors should have been able to consider mitigating circumstances during sentencing even if they did not unanimously agree those circumstances existed.
The judge ordered the state of Pennsylvania to either conduct a new sentencing hearing within 180 days or sentence Abu-Jamal to life imprisonment.
"The district attorney is outraged and we will appeal the order" to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Cathie Abookire, spokeswoman for District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
"I'm angry, outraged, and disgusted," said officer Daniel 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."
Former Abu-Jamal lawyer Leonard Weinglass, who worked on his post-conviction appeal, said the trial judge wrongly led jurors to believe they had to be unanimous on both aggravating and mitigating circumstances, contrary to the findings of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said they only have to be unanimous on aggravating.
Defense lawyers say a handful of death-penalty sentences in Pennsylvania have been overturned because of the error.
"We're obviously very gratified by the result, but we're disappointed in the narrowness of the ruling. We felt we had put together a very strong case for Mumia's innocence," said another former Abu-Jamal lawyer, Daniel Williams.
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, 47, is a political activist whose two-decade imprisonment has won him comparisons among supporters with South Africa's Nelson Mandela as a political prisoner victimized by a racist criminal justice system. But prosecutors say his is nothing more than a violent common criminal.
Abu-Jamal was convicted of shooting Faulkner, 25, during the early-morning hours of Dec. 9, 1981, after the officer pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother in a downtown traffic stop.
Both sides marked the 20th anniversary weekend this month. Faulkner's supporters ddicated a plaque on the spot where he was gunned down and Abu-Jamal's supporters held a mass rally at City Hall. He was also recently made an honorary citizen of Paris.
Abu-Jamal exhausted the state appeals process two years ago, but a petition filed in September argued that the defense had new evidence to clear him, including a confession by 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.
Weinglass and Williams, Abu-Jamal's former lawyers, said they thought the confession was not credible and Yohn refused to order Beverly to testify on Abu-Jamal's behalf.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe ruled Nov. 21 that she did not have jurisdiction over Abu-Jamal's petition for a new trial, scuttling his hopes for another round of state-court appeals.
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