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Mumia Abu-Jamal may get death penalty review

Latest update : 2008-03-28

Black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for killing a white policeman in the early 1980s. A US appeals court ruling has upheld the murder conviction but said the sentence may be reviewed.

A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the murder conviction of black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal for killing a white policeman in 1981, but said his death sentence may be reviewed by a lower court.

Abu-Jamal, on death row for 26 years, has become a prominent cause for the international anti-death penalty movement.

His supporters, including Amnesty International and South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, say his trial was tainted by racism on the part of the judge and prosecutors.

Some backers expressed outrage that his conviction was upheld in Thursday's ruling, handed down by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, while prosecutors asserted he deserved no sympathy.

"He is no victim. He is just a stone cold murderer, remorseless, unrepentant," Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said.

The panel ruled 2-1 that Pennsylvania can either commute Abu-Jamal's sentence to life imprisonment or hold a new sentencing hearing within 180 days that could either affirm the death sentence or change it to life in prison.

Abu-Jamal's attorneys, led by Robert Bryan of San Francisco, had sought a new trial, but Bryan said he was encouraged that Judge Thomas Ambro dissented and raised concerns about the racial composition of the jury.

Bryan said he would ask the full appeals court to rehear the matter of whether to overturn the conviction or grant a new trial. If that fails, he vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is not a slam dunk by any means whatsoever," Bryan said.

Abraham said she would decide whether to appeal, agree to a life sentence for Abu-Jamal, or agree to a new sentencing hearing once the defense declared its next move.

JURY MISLED BY INSTRUCTIONS

The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court's opinion in 2001 that Abu-Jamal's sentencing had been unconstitutional because jurors -- all but two of whom were white -- had been led to believe they were not permitted to find mitigating circumstances unless they could agree on them unanimously.

"The jury instructions and the verdict form created a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed it was precluded from finding a mitigating circumstance that had not been unanimously agreed upon," the court wrote.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner during a traffic stop on Dec. 9, 1981.

Abu-Jamal, who as a radio reporter covered corruption in the Philadelphia police force, has always maintained his innocence. Defense lawyers say prosecutors used unreliable witnesses and unfairly excluded some blacks from the jury.

Abu-Jamal's backers argue that he was the victim of racism in the police force, and of a judge, the now-deceased Albert Sabo, who was quoted by a court worker as saying, "Yeah, and I'm going to help them fry the nigger."

Maureen Faulkner, the officer's widow who has pressed for execution, called the decision a "victory" because it would at least put Abu-Jamal in prison for the rest of his life.

"The Third Circuit has made a decision that Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered my husband," she said.
 

Date created : 2008-03-28

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