A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered a new sentencing hearing for convicted police killer and death-row activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, finding for a second time that the death-penalty instructions given to the jury at his 1982 trial were potentially misleading.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered prosecutors to conduct the new sentencing hearing within six months or agree to a life sentence. Abu-Jamal's first-degree murder conviction nonetheless stands in the fatal shooting of Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Prosecutors said they were considering another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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“We continue to maintain that granting this new sentencing hearing is contrary to clearly established precedent of the United States Supreme Court,” District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement.
Abu-Jamal's lawyer, Widener University law professor Judith Ritter, did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press.
Tuesday's ruling is the latest in Abu-Jamal's long-running legal saga.
A federal judge in 2001 first granted the former Black Panther a new sentencing hearing over the trial judge's instructions on aggravating and mitigating factors. Philadelphia prosecutors have been fighting the order since, but the 3rd Circuit ruled against them in a pivotal 2008 decision.
In rejecting a similar claim in an Ohio death-penalty case last year, the Supreme Court ordered the Philadelphia appeals court to revisit its Abu-Jamal decision.
On Tuesday, the 3rd Circuit judges stood their ground and noted differences in the two cases.
Under Pennsylvania law, Abu-Jamal should have received a life sentence if a single juror found the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating factors in Faulkner's slaying. The three-judge appeals panel found the verdict form confusing, given its repeated use of the word “unanimous,” even in the section on mitigating circumstances.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court failed to evaluate whether the complete text of the verdict form, together with the jury instructions, would create a substantial probability the jury believed both aggravating and mitigating circumstances must be found unanimously,” Judge Anthony J. Scirica wrote in the 32-page ruling.
Tuesday's decision upholds the 2001 ruling by U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., who first ruled that the flawed jury instructions warranted a new sentencing hearing. While prosecutors were fighting that ruling, Abu-Jamal has been fighting unsuccessfully to have his conviction overturned.
Faulkner, a white 25-year-old patrolman, had pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother on a darkened downtown street in 1981. 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 found at the scene when police arrived.
Abu-Jamal is now 58. His writings and radio broadcasts from death row have made him a cause celebrity and the subject of numerous books and movies. Hundreds of vocal death-penalty opponents and supporters typically turn out for hearings in his case.
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