The death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal took a surprising turn this week, as a federal appeals court declared, for the second time, that Abu-Jamal's death sentence was unconstitutional. The third US circuit court of appeals, in Philadelphia, found that the sentencing instructions the jury received, and the verdict form they had to use in the sentencing, were unclear. While the disputes surrounding Abu-Jamal's guilt or innocence were not addressed, the case highlights inherent problems with the death penalty and the criminal justice system, especially the role played by race.
Early on 9 December 1981, Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over a car driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal's brother. What happened next is in dispute. Shots were fired, and both Officer Faulkner and Abu-Jamal were shot. Faulkner died, and Abu-Jamal was found guilty of his murder in a court case presided over by Judge Albert Sabo, who was widely considered to be a racist. In just one of too many painful examples, a court stenographer said in an affidavit that she heard Sabo say, in the courtroom antechamber, "I'm going to help them fry the n****r."
This latest decision by the court of appeals relates directly to Sabo's conduct of the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal's court case. The Pennsylvania supreme court is considering separate arguments surrounding whether or not Abu-Jamal received a fair trial at all. What the court of appeals unanimously found this week is that he did not receive a fair sentencing. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has decided to appeal the decision to the US supreme court, saying:
"The right thing for us to do is to ask the US supreme court to hear this and to make a ruling on it.
As a result of this ruling, Abu-Jamal could get a new, full sentencing hearing, in court, before a jury. In such a hearing, the jury would be given clear instructions on how to decide between applying a sentence of life in prison as opposed to the death penalty – something the court found he did not receive back in 1982. At best, Abu-Jamal would be removed from the cruel confines of solitary confinement on Pennsylvania's death row at SCI Greene. John Payton, director counsel of the NAACP legal defence fund, which is representing Abu-Jamal in court, said:
"This decision marks an important step forward in the struggle to correct the mistakes of an unfortunate chapter in Pennsylvania history ... and helps to relegate the kind of unfairness on which this death sentence rested to the distant past."