BY EMILE LOUNSBERRY INQUIRER STAFF WRITER On July 3, 1982, a Philadelphia jury took just four hours to sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death for murdering Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Nearly a quarter-century later, Abu-Jamal has remained alive through a series of appeals. His bid to escape the death penalty is now at a critical stage. The case will be argued this week in the region’s federal appeals court, and if Abu-Jamal loses, Philadelphia’s most controversial death-row inmate will be in imminent peril of lethal injection.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia will hear legal argument on whether the death sentence should be upheld, or whether Abu-Jamal should get a new trial or a new sentencing hearing.
In 2001, after the case proceeded into federal court, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. upheld the conviction and rejected all but one of the 29 legal points raised by the defense. Yohn overturned the death sentence, ruling that the jury may have mistakenly believed it had to agree unanimously on any “mitigating” circumstance – a factor that might have caused the jury to opt for life.
As a result, Yohn said that Abu-Jamal should be sentenced to life in prison or get a new hearing only on the question of whether he should get death or life. The District Attorney’s Office appealed Yohn’s decision to vacate the death sentence; Abu-Jamal and his lawyers have appealed, contending that Yohn also should have granted a new trial on the question of guilt.
The Third Circuit panel will now review Yohn’s decision.
The court also will consider whether there was racial bias during jury selection and whether Abu-Jamal’s constitutional rights were violated by the prosecutor’s closing argument and by the alleged bias of the trial judge, Albert Sabo, during post-conviction review.
Bryan said the case boils down to the fundamental right to a fair trial, and that he believes there is plenty of reason for the Third Circuit to order a new trial. He said that if the Third Circuit reverses Yohn and upholds the death penalty, that would result in a “fast-track to the death chamber” for Abu-Jamal.
He said the Third Circuit also could:
Uphold Yohn and order a new sentencing hearing.
Grant a new trial.
INQUIRER: As The Mumia Turns