PHILADELPHIA – The lead lawyer for celebrated death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has quit the case days before a key appeals court hearing, amid a rift with his famous client over strategy.
Lawyer Robert R. Bryan stepped down after Abu-Jamal asked him to sit silent in court while another lawyer argues that jury instructions in his 1982 trial were flawed.
At Abu-Jamal's insistence, Widener University law professor Judith L. Ritter will now argue the issue.
Abu-Jamal, 56, has had about 10 lawyers represent him since his 1981 arrest, and another dozen or two work on his behalf through advocacy groups.
Bryan had taken over the case seven years ago and pushed to overturn both his client's death sentence and conviction in the 1981 slaying of a Philadelphia police officer.
"He and I had a very basic disagreement about this argument tomorrow," Bryan said Monday. "It finally got to the point where I just felt like, ethically, I was totally compromised."
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing in 2008 after finding the jury instructions flawed. But the U.S. Supreme Court this year ordered the court to reconsider after upholding similar jury instructions in an Ohio case.
That seemingly makes Tuesday's arguments an uphill battle for Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, radio reporter and taxi driver convicted of killing 25-year-old Officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal's writings and broadcasts from death row have helped make him an international cause celebre among death-penalty opponents and an array of other activists.
Two documentary films about Abu-Jamal debuted this year, offering rival views of his case.
Faulkner's widow, Maureen, has also worked to preserve her husband's memory, co-authoring a book and cooperating with one of the films.
Ritter has previously argued the jury-instruction issue before the 3rd Circuit, while Bryan handled other issues. She did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment Monday.
Abu-Jamal has argued in numerous appeals that racism by the trial judge and prosecutors corrupted his conviction at the hands of a mostly white jury. Those appeals have so far failed.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have fought a federal judge's 2001 decision to grant Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing because of the jury instructions.
The alleged flaw relates to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances in the death-penalty phase.
Bryan, based in San Francisco, said he met with Abu-Jamal about every six weeks over the years at a state prison in western Pennsylvania, and spoke to him by phone twice a week.
"I think this case can be won," Bryan said. "I still think that he can be saved."