Mumia Abu-Jamal spared death penalty in officer's slaying

Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Seth Williams announces that Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of murdering a policeman in 1981, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

December 07, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves a Philadelphia court in 1995. His supporters, who contend that he was framed by police, said Wednesday they would continue to push for his release.
Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves a Philadelphia court in 1995. His supporters, who… (Cris Gardner, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Former Black Panther and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal will be spared the death penalty, the Philadelphia district attorney announced, bringing a quiet end to a racially charged case that spanned 30 years.

Seth Williams, the city's top prosecutor, said Wednesday that Abu-Jamal would spend the rest of his life in prison. He said the "decision to end this fight [over a death sentence] was not an easy one to make" and that he remained convinced that Abu-Jamal was guilty as charged and deserved to die for his crime.

But he said he also had concluded that prosecutors were not likely to win another death sentence for the 57-year-old convicted murderer in the face of steady opposition from the federal courts. And he said he did not want to put the widow of slain Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner through another sentencing hearing.

"The survivors of Officer Faulkner have suffered enough, and the best remaining option is to allow his murderer to die in prison," Williams said in a statement.

Maureen Faulkner, the widow, said she accepted the decision reluctantly.

"My family and I have endured a three-decade ordeal at the hands of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys and his supporters," she said. "After 30 years of waiting, the time remaining before Abu-Jamal stands before his ultimate judge doesn't quite seem so far off as it once did when I was younger. I look forward to that day."

Abu-Jamal's unyielding supporters said they were not satisfied with the outcome. "This is not an ending, it is a new beginning for the movement supporting Abu-Jamal's quest for release," said a statement on the website

Johanna Fernandez, a professor at Baruch College in New York, said there "was strong and concealed evidence of his innocence" that courts had not considered. "We are also calling for his release on the basis that he was held barbarically on death row," she said. She said activists would meet at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Thursday to plan the next steps.

A radio reporter and a black activist, Abu-Jamal had been a fierce critic of the Philadelphia police, which he accused of brutality, and his trial, conviction and death sentence turned his case into an international cause celebre. Supporters asserted that he had been framed by police.

But over many years and multiple appeals, state and federal courts upheld his guilt for the murder.

On Dec. 9, 1981, Faulkner stopped a car driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal's young brother. Seated in a taxi nearby, Abu-Jamal saw what happened and ran to the scene. Witnesses said he exchanged gunfire with the officer, who was hit multiple times and died at a hospital. Abu-Jamal was arrested at the scene, and his revolver was found next to him.

Federal judges, however, questioned the process that led to his death sentence. Ten years ago, a federal judge said the jury may have been confused over whether it could grant leniency, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia affirmed that decision in several rulings.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the district attorney's appeal, leaving Williams the option of convening a new jury to weigh a death sentence or accepting the lesser sentence of life in prison without parole for Abu-Jamal.

"While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is exactly where he belongs," Williams said of his decision.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said he agreed with the district attorney's conclusion. "It is time for this struggle to end," he said.

Death sentences in Pennsylvania are heavily litigated and rarely carried out. In January, Pennsylvania had 219 murderers on death row, the fourth-highest total among the states. However, only three inmates have been put to death since 1976.

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