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Mumia Abu-Jamal Receives Opportunity for New Sentencing
The "Free Mumia" campaign hasn't succeeded, but he'll remain off death row for now
After decades of public and media attention, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s planned execution may be heading for a reversal. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court granted the convicted murderer the opportunity for a new jury to decide whether or not his original sentence was constitutional.
In 2008, a panel of three judges of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Abu Jamal’s conviction, but ordered a new capital sentencing over fears that the original jury were given false instructions.
The Philadelphia district attorney, Seth Williams, then submitted a request to the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty. This week’s denial of that request paves the way for a new sentence and, perhaps, a penalty short of death. Pennsylvania still allows capital punishment, but a new jury could instead choose to keep Abu-Jamal behind bars for life.
Abu Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, and has since spent 30 years as a resident of Pennsylvania’s death row.
The Los Angeles Times reports on the controversy that led the federal court to re-open the sentencing debate in 2008:
The judges concluded that jurors may have thought they could not give leniency to Abu-Jamal unless they agreed unanimously on a particular “mitigating circumstance.” The Supreme Court had ruled in 1988 that jurors may give leniency based on any mitigating factor, and they need not agree unanimously on the same factor.
The jurors in Abu-Jamal’s case decided that killing a police officer was an “aggravating circumstance” that warranted a death sentence. But a federal judge and the federal appeals court ruled that the death sentence in this case violated the Constitution because of the flawed jury instructions.
Prosecutors are now tasked with the formation of a new jury to decide on the case. If they choose not to empanel a new jury to re-sentence Abu-Jamal, he would remain imprisoned for life.
The online advocacy group freemumia.com responded postively to the Supreme Court's ruling. The organization has a rally planned for December 9 outside Philadelphia's Constitution Center in support of Abu-Jamal and to honor the death of Georgia's Troy Davis. Speakers scheduled to attend include Cornel West, Mark Lamont Hill and Immortal Technique.
John Payton, supporter of Abu-Jamal and director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, responded to the descison:
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. Like all Americans, Mr. Abu-Jamal was entitled to a proper proceeding that takes into account the many substantial reasons why death was an inappropriate sentence.
A one-time Black Panther and radio reporter, Abu-Jamal has continued his journalism behind bars. His books include Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience and All Things Censored. He has contributed reporting and opinion pieces to media organizations including Democracy Now! and, in 2006, In These Times.
This post was updated on October 13, at 11:45 AM.