PHILADELPHIA – A U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia, acting on orders from the Supreme Court, will again review the death sentence of death-row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal.
The Nov. 9 hearing could prove a setback for the convicted police killer who has become an international cause celebre as he awaits execution.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 granted the one-time radio reporter and former Black Panther a new sentencing hearing based on what it deemed were flawed jury instructions. But the Supreme Court this year upheld a death sentence in an Ohio case with similar jury issues — and ordered the Philadelphia court to revisit its Abu-Jamal ruling.
"The case is indistinguishable from the Ohio case, which is why the Supreme Court sent it back," Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Hugh J. Burns Jr. said Wednesday.
Defense lawyer Robert Bryan does not believe the Ohio case seals Abu-Jamal's fate. He argues that they involve different facts that will enable the three-judge appeals panel to reach a different conclusion.
The appeals court on Tuesday agreed to hear arguments again on the issue, a decision Bryan saw as positive. The judges could have ruled solely based on written briefs.
Abu-Jamal "was humbled by the good news. We are cautiously encouraged that the federal court has taken this step," Bryan said in an e-mail to supporters.
Abu-Jamal has argued in numerous appeals that racism by the trial judge and prosecutors corrupted his 1982 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 flawed jury instructions.
The flaw relates to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances that might have kept Abu-Jamal from being executed. Under state law, jurors did not have to unanimously agree on a mitigating circumstance.
Abu-Jamal, 56, has been on death row since his 1982 conviction for killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner the year before.
The white 25-year-old patrolman had pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother on a darkened downtown street. Prosecutors say Abu-Jamal saw the traffic stop and shot Faulkner, who managed to shoot back. A wounded Abu-Jamal, his own gun nearby, was still at the scene when police arrived.
On Tuesday, the officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner, attended the Philadelphia premiere of a new film about the case. The movie, "The Barrel of a Gun," discusses Abu-Jamal's brushes with the Black Panther movement and the radical Philadelphia group MOVE, which had deadly clashes with city police in 1978 and 1985.
Also Tuesday, Abu-Jamal himself called into a discussion that followed the screening of a starkly different take on his case called "Justice on Trial." That film, which debuted across town, argues that evidence was suppressed or tampered with.