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Abu-Jamal gets a partial legal win

His death sentence is voided, but he is refused a new trial.

March 28, 2008|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case has been an international cause celebre, had his death sentence overturned by a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia on Thursday, but his bid for a new trial was rejected.

The 25-year legal battle over Abu-Jamal's fate showed no sign of ending, however: Both the prosecutor and defense said they saw grounds for appealing.

"We will not consider making a deal. That is not on the table," said Robert R. Bryan, a San Francisco defense lawyer for Abu-Jamal. "We want an entirely new trial."

Prosecutors say that nothing about the case has changed in a quarter-century. On Dec. 9, 1981, Abu-Jamal shot officer Daniel Faulkner shortly after Faulkner stopped William Cook, Abu-Jamal's brother, on a Philadelphia street.

Abu-Jamal was arrested at the scene, and a revolver he had purchased two years earlier was found next to him. A jury of 10 whites and two blacks convicted him of first-degree murder in 1982 and voted unanimously to impose a death sentence.

Since then, his case has gone through a series of appeals in the state and federal courts. Thursday's decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that overturned the death sentence in 2001.

Abu-Jamal's case has been championed by a legion of activists who say his trial was stained by racism.

Abu-Jamal, now 53, was a radio reporter and a social activist in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. While in prison, he has written several books and has done radio commentaries on the justice system and the death penalty.

His case and his possible execution have drawn outrage and condemnation from some in Canada and Western Europe. Many of his champions consider Abu-Jamal a political prisoner.

Maureen Faulkner, the officer's widow, has fought to keep her husband's memory alive during the long legal battle. Last year, she co-wrote a book with a Philadelphia journalist, "Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Pain, Loss and Injustice."

In Abu-Jamal's latest appeal, his lawyers hoped the judges would overturn his conviction on the grounds that prosecutors had wrongly excluded several blacks from the jury. Recent Supreme Court decisions overturned death sentences in Texas and Louisiana in which all-white juries convicted black defendants.

"We believe there was a prima facie case of racism in the jury selection," Bryan said.

The appeals court panel, in a 2-1 decision, disagreed, noting that Abu-Jamal's trial lawyers did not object at the time to the seating of the jury.

But Abu-Jamal's lawyers won a reversal of the death sentence on the grounds that jurors may have been confused by one aspect of the jury instructions.

They were told they could weigh "any mitigating circumstances" as reason to spare Abu-Jamal's life.

For example, jurors were told that Abu-Jamal had no significant prior criminal record and that he had been a journalist and activist.

The appellate judges worried that jurors may have thought that all 12 of them had to agree on a particular mitigating circumstance.

Six years after Abu-Jamal's trial, the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence in a 1988 case from Maryland because of the possibility jurors were confused on this point.

Applying that logic to this case, the appellate judges said there was "a reasonable likelihood" the jurors believed they all had to agree on a mitigating factor before they could use it to spare Abu-Jamal's life.

The district attorney's office in Philadelphia could ask the full U.S. appeals court to reconsider this ruling, or it could ask the Supreme Court to reverse it.

Defense lawyers could ask the full appeals court to reconsider the ruling upholding Abu-Jamal's conviction and rejecting the claim of racism in the jury selection.

Failing that, they could ask the Supreme Court to take up the case and accord Abu-Jamal a new trial.

Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham said Thursday that the ruling by the appeals court affirmed that justice was done when Abu-Jamal was found guilty of murdering Faulkner.

"So don't shed any tears for Mr. Jamal," she told reporters. "He's where he ought to be, at least in prison for the rest of his life."

--

david.savage@latimes.com

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