By Maryclaire Dale
A federal judge today threw out the death sentence imposed nearly two decades ago on Mumia Abu-Jamal, revered by supporters worldwide as a crusader against racial injustice but reviled by others as an unrepentant cop-killer.
U.S. District Judge William Yohn cited problems with the jury charge and verdict form in the trial that ended with the former journalist and Black Panther's first-degree murder conviction in the death of a Philadelphia police officer. The judge denied all of Abu-Jamal's other claims and refused his request for a new trial.
The judge said jurors should have been able to consider mitigating circumstances during sentencing even if they did not unanimously agree that those circumstances existed.
Yohn ordered the state to either conduct a new sentencing hearing within 180 days or sentence Abu-Jamal to life imprisonment.
The ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
"I'm angry, outraged, and disgusted," said Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain police officer, Daniel Faulkner. "I think Judge Yohn is a sick and twisted person, after sitting on this case for two years and making this decision just before Christmas. He wants to play the middle road and try to appease both sides and it doesn't work."
Lawyers for Abu-Jamal, 47, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Abu-Jamal, perhaps America's most famous death-row inmate, was convicted of shooting Faulkner, 25, early in the morning of Dec. 9, 1981, after the officer pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother who was driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
A scuffle ensued and Abu-Jamal, who was sitting in his taxicab across the street, ran over. Prosecutors said Abu-Jamal drew his .38-caliber revolver and fired, hitting the officer in the back. They said that Faulkner turned and fired, hitting Abu-Jamal in the chest, and that Abu-Jamal then shot Faulkner in the face.
Abu-Jamal has said he was shot by police as he ran to the scene and was then beaten.
Abu-Jamal's book, Live From Death Row, describes prison life and argues that the justice system is racist and ruled by political expediency. His jailhouse writings attract supporters around the world, and his effort to win a new trial becomes a rallying point for death penalty opponents.
Abu-Jamal exhausted the state appeals process two years ago, but in a petition filed in September he argued that the defense had new evidence to clear him, including a confession by a man named Arnold Beverly. A judge ruled in November that she did not have jurisdiction, scuttling his hopes for another round of state court appeals.
In a 1999 affidavit, Beverly contended that he was hired by the mob to kill Faulkner because the officer had interfered with mob payoffs to police.
Abu-Jamal's former lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and Daniel R. Williams, said they thought the confession was not credible. Yohn refused to order Beverly to testify on Abu-Jamal's behalf.