PHILADELPHIA — A federal appeals court yesterday ordered a new sentencing hearing for convicted police killer and death-row activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, finding for a second time that the death-penalty instructions given to the jury at his 1982 trial were potentially misleading.
The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit told prosecutors to conduct the new sentencing hearing within six months or agree to a life sentence. Abu-Jamal’s first-degree murder conviction still stands in the fatal shooting of Officer Daniel Faulkner.
District Attorney Seth Williams pledged to mount another appeal to the US Supreme Court, at the urging of Faulkner’s widow, Maureen.
“Yes, the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, the criminal justice system in America, have had a history of problems and racism,’’ said Williams, the city’s first black district attorney. “[But] this is not a whodunit.’’
Defense lawyers for the former Black Panther, meanwhile, said the ruling addresses “an unfortunate chapter in Pennsylvania history.’’
“Pennsylvania long ago abandoned the confusing and misleading instructions and verdict slip that were relied on in Mr. Abu-Jamal’s trial in order to prevent unfair and unjust death sentences,’’ said Widener University law professor Judith Ritter, who argued the most recent appeal in November. “Mr. Abu-Jamal is entitled to no less constitutional protection.’’
Yesterday’s ruling is the latest in Abu-Jamal’s legal saga.
A federal judge in 2001 first granted him a new sentencing hearing because of the trial judge’s instructions on aggravating and mitigating factors. Philadelphia prosecutors have been fighting the order since, but the Third Circuit ruled against them in 2008.
In rejecting a similar claim in an Ohio death-penalty case last year, the Supreme Court ordered the Philadelphia appeals court to revisit its Abu-Jamal decision.
Yesterday, the Third Circuit judges stood their ground and noted differences in the cases.
Under Pennsylvania law, Abu-Jamal should have received a life sentence if a single juror found the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating factors in Faulkner’s slaying. The three-judge appeals panel found the verdict form confusing, given its repeated use of the word “unanimous,’’ even in the section on mitigating circumstances.