Protesters raise placards during an emergency demonstration in New York City called March 28 by the Partisan Defense Committee and Labor Black League on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Over 100 people picketed in front of the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan in support of the death row inmate, whom many believe was wrongfully convicted. (Photo courtesy of the Partisan Defense Committee)
If prosecutors don’t want to give the former Black Panther a new death penalty hearing, Abu-Jamal would be sentenced automatically to life in prison, according to the decision by a three-judge panel of 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Abu-Jamal’s lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan of San Francisco, said he was glad the judges did not reinstate the death sentence, but added that he will continue fighting to get his client a new trial. The appeals panel upheld Abu-Jamal’s conviction.
“I’ve never seen a case as permeated and riddled with racism as this one,” Bryan said. “I want a new trial and I want him free. His conviction was a travesty of justice.”
Prosecutors are weighing their options, but said they were expecting Abu-Jamal to request a hearing before the full appeals court.
A Philadelphia jury convicted Abu-Jamal, who is black, of killing white police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 after the patrolman pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother in an overnight traffic stop.
Prosecutors say Faulkner, 25, managed to shoot Abu-Jamal during the confrontation. A wounded Abu-Jamal, his own gun lying nearby, was still at the scene when police arrived, and authorities consider the evidence against him overwhelming.
Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, has argued in numerous appeals that racism by the judge and prosecutors corrupted his 1982 conviction at the hands of a mostly white jury. Prosecutors, meanwhile, had appealed a federal judge’s 2001 decision to grant Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing because of the allegedly flawed jury instructions.
The flaw related to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances that might have kept Abu-Jamal, 53, off death row. Under the law, jurors did not have to unanimously agree on a mitigating circumstance.
“The verdict form together with the jury instructions were misleading as to whether unanimity was required in consideration of mitigating circumstances,” the appeals court wrote in last Thursday’s decision.
Since Abu-Jamal’s trial more than 25 years ago, activists in both the United States and Europe have rallied in support of his claims that he was the victim of a racist justice system. Abu-Jamal has kept his case in the spotlight through books and radio broadcasts.
At the same time, the officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, has kept her husband’s memory alive through countless public appearances, a foundation and a recent book, “Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain and Injustice.”
Last Thursday, Faulkner said she was gratified that the court upheld Abu-Jamal’s conviction, but noted that the case’s 26-year odyssey is still not over.
“In a way I do feel a victory,” she said. “In another way … it’s like a thorn in my side that is still there that cannot be pulled out.”
The ruling came after the appeals court heard arguments in May that focused on several constitutional issues, including whether prosecutors improperly eliminated black jurors in the 1982 trial.
Ten whites and two blacks served on the jury. Prosecutors struck 10 blacks and five whites from the pool, while accepting four blacks and 20 whites, according to Bryan, who argued that prosecutors at the time fostered “a culture of discrimination.”
However, the court indicated there is no record of the makeup of the approximately 150-person jury pool, making it impossible to determine the total percentage of blacks excluded.
In dismissing the bias claims last Thursday, the court also noted Abu-Jamal did not allege improper exclusions until an appeal that was rejected in 1989.
Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns Jr. said the dismissal fell in line with other federal court decisions that maintain such claims need to be raised in a more timely fashion.
But in a partially dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Ambro disputed the timeliness standard and said that Abu-Jamal presented enough evidence to warrant further investigation of the exclusion claims.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham said she was pleased Abu-Jamal’s conviction had been upheld and believes the ruling should dispel some myths about him.
“For all those here who believe that the system might have went awry, the 3rd Circuit has finally decided … that Mr. Jamal is guilty when he was convicted and he’s still guilty today,” she said. “So don’t shed any tears for Mr. Jamal; he’s where he ought to be, at least in prison for the rest of his life.”
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale and JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report.