Why Mumia Abu-Jamal's second chance at life matters

OPINION - Anti-death penalty advocates have long argued that Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial was unfair, and that the application of the death penalty has been racially biased...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Yesterday, a federal Court of Appeals upheld a 2001 ruling that sentencing instructions given to a jury in the 1982 trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal were confusing and potentially misleading.

In 1981, Daniel Faulkner, a white 25-year-old officer, pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother on a downtown street around 4 o’clock in the morning for a driving infraction. Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and Black Panther Party member, was working as a cab driver at the time. Reports and trial testimony reveal that when Faulkner made the stop, Abu-Jamal observed a scuffle from his taxicab across the street, and ran toward the scene.

Later, police found Abu-Jamal wounded by a round from Faulkner’s gun. Faulkner, who had been shot several times, was dead; and a .38-caliber revolver registered to Abu-Jamal, and which had been fired five times, was found at the scene.

Though convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, Mumia Abu-Jamal has long maintained that he should not be on death row and now he may have a second chance at life.

The U.S. federal court found that the sentencing form used by the jury in 1982, along with instructions it received at the time, may have led the jury to incorrectly believe that they had to unanimously agree that there were no mitigating circumstances to deter them from issuing a death sentence to Abu-Jamal. Under Pennsylvania law, if a single juror thought there might have been “aggravating factors” in Faulkner’s death then a life sentence should have been issued, as opposed to a death sentence.

Prosecutors disagree. In response to the most recent decision, District Attorney Seth Williams said he would consider mounting another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We continue to maintain that granting this new sentencing hearing is contrary to clearly established precedent of the United States Supreme Court,” read a statement from the District Attorney Williams’ office.

Anti-death penalty advocates have long argued that Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial was unfair, and that the application of the death penalty has been racially biased and often unconstitutional. Research has confirmed that the race of the victim largely influences the likelihood of a defendant being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty — in other words, those who murder whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder blacks.

Racial disparities like these that suggest sentencing has to do with factors other than whether the defendant was actually guilty of a crime, and under what circumstances that crime was committed, lead many to call for an end to capital punishment, or at the very least, a moratorium. Though a part of a larger anti-death penalty movement, the “Free Mumia” campaign has resonated with criminal justice reform advocates and a number of legal scholars.

Judith Ritter, a Widener University law professor recently argued, “Pennsylvania long ago abandoned the confusing and misleading instructions and verdict slip that were relied on in Mr. Abu-Jamal’s trial in order to prevent unfair and unjust death sentences…Mr. Abu-Jamal is entitled to no less constitutional protection.”

While federal judges have ordered prosecutors to conduct a new sentencing hearing within six months or agree to a life sentence for Abu-Jamal, the greater implications of this saga remain to be seen. For reform advocates, this is a critical step toward upholding the integrity of our criminal justice systems; and may also serve as an opportunity to raise new questions about the fairness of decision-making processes associated with the administration of justice, along the entire continuum, in our democracy.