PHILADELPHIA – A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld Mumia Abu-Jamal's conviction for murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 but refused to reinstate his death sentence.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Abu-Jamal's conviction should stand, but agreed with a lower court that he should get a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions.
If prosecutors don't want to give him a new death penalty hearing, Abu-Jamal would be sentenced automatically to life in prison.
The former Black Panther had appealed his conviction, arguing that racism by the judge and prosecutors corrupted his 1982 conviction at the hands of a mostly white jury. Prosecutors, meanwhile, had appealed a federal judge's 2001 decision to grant Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing because of the allegedly flawed jury instructions.
A Philadelphia jury convicted Abu-Jamal of killing Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, after the patrolman pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother in an overnight traffic stop.
Since his trial, Abu-Jamal's name has become a rallying cry for activists of many stripes to take to the streets in both the United States and Europe.
Hundreds of people protested outside the federal building in Philadelphia in May and an overflow crowd — including legal scholars, students, lawyers, the policeman's widow and Abu-Jamal's brother — filled the courtroom when the appeals court heard arguments about the case.
The officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner, has kept her husband's memory alive over the years, and recently co-wrote a book about the case. The book, "Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain and Injustice," written with radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish, came out in December.
Few expect the fervor that permeates the case on both sides to die down, even with the appeal court's decision.
"Regardless of the decision, if anything it will heat up the outcry from people in the public," Mumia's lawyer, Robert R. Bryan of San Francisco, said in March. "I think the support from people not only here, but all across Europe will escalate."
Messages left for Bryan on Monday were not immediately returned.
In May, the 3rd Circuit heard extended arguments in the case that focused on several constitutional issues, including whether prosecutors improperly eliminated black jurors. The slain officer, Daniel Faulkner, was white.
Ten whites and two blacks served on the jury. Prosecutors struck 10 blacks and five whites from the pool, while accepting four blacks and 20 whites, according to Bryan, who argued that prosecutors of the day fostered "a culture of discrimination."
However, there is no record to suggest the makeup of the approximately 150-person jury pool, a gap lamented by the appellate judges.
Prosecutor Hugh J. Burns Jr. argued in court that Abu-Jamal was raising issues on appeal that he had not raised during a lengthy 1995 review of the case.
Nonetheless, Burns recently said he was satisfied with the 3rd Circuit arguments.
"I thought we were able to cover everything that we needed to," he said.
Prosecutors say Faulkner managed to shoot Abu-Jamal, who was still at the scene when they arrived. They consider the evidence against him overwhelming.
The flaw in the jury instructions related to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances that might keep Abu-Jamal off death row. Under the law, jurors did not have to unanimously agree on a mitigating circumstance.
"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 appeals court wrote.