3rd Circuit Appeal Ruling Favoring Abu-Jamal Smacks Down US Supreme Court
The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, in a stunning smack at the U.S. Supreme Court, has issued a ruling upholding its earlier decision backing a new sentencing hearing in the controversial case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted killer of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The latest ruling, issued on Tuesday April 26, 2011, upholds a ruling the Third Circuit issued over two years ago siding with a federal district court judge who, back in 2001, had set aside Abu-Jamal’s death penalty after determining that death penalty instructions provided to the jury, and a flawed jury ballot document used during Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial, had been unclear.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the Third Circuit to re-examine its 2009 ruling upholding the lifting of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.
The nation’s top court had cited a new legal precedent in that directive to the Third Circuit, a strange order given the fact that the Supreme Court had earlier consistently declined to apply its own precedents to Abu-Jamal’s case.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said that, honoring a "campaign promise," he had asked Faulkner's widow Maureen Faulkner what her wishes were, and in response to her request was appealing the decision back to the US Supreme Court.
Abu-Jamal’s current lead attorney, Prof Judith Ritter of the Widener Law School, said of the decision, "Each of the four federal judges that has reviewed Mr. Abu-Jamal's case has found his death sentence to be unconstitutional. The Third Circuit's most recent opinion reflects a detailed analysis demonstrating that their unanimous decision is well-supported by Supreme Court precedent. We believe this carefully reasoned analysis will stand."
The Third Circuit’s ruling, if left standing, allows Philadelphia prosecutors to call for a whole new sentencing hearing if they want to try and reinstate the death penalty. That would require the impaneling of a whole new jury, to hear and consider evidence regarding mitigating circumstances and aggravating circumstances in the case, and then to decide for either execution of life-without-possibility of parole--the only two options legally available. Abu-Jamal has exhausted his avenues of appeal of his conviction, absent new evidence in the case.
If prosecutors opted against holding new hearing then Abu-Jamal’s sentence would be converted automatically to a life sentence, which in Pennsylvania means no chance of parole. Abu-Jamal would have to spending the remainder of his life behind bars, though not on death row.
Experts contend a new sentencing hearing would be problematic for prosecutors. Although the issue of guilt or innocence would not be on trial, the defense could bring in witnesses to explain exactly what they saw happen the night of the shooting--witnesses whose testimony could ultimately raise new questions about the validity of the underlying conviction.