PHILADELPHIA — Prosecutors on Wednesday abandoned their 30-year pursuit of the execution of convicted police killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther whose claim that he was the victim of a racist legal system made him an international cause celebre.
Abu-Jamal, 58, will instead spend the rest of his life in prison. His writings and radio broadcasts from death row had put him at the centre of an international debate over capital punishment.
Flanked by Officer Daniel Faulkner’s widow, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced his decision two days short of the 30th anniversary of the white policeman’s killing.
He said continuing to seek the death penalty could lead to “an unknowable number of years” of appeals, and that some witnesses have died or are unavailable after nearly three decades.
“There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner. I believe that the appropriate sentence was handed down by a jury of his peers in 1982,” said Williams, the city’s first black district attorney. “While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is where he belongs.”
Abu-Jamal was originally sentenced to death. His murder conviction was upheld through years of appeals. But in 2008, a federal appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing on the grounds that the instructions given to the jury were potentially misleading.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in two months ago, prosecutors were forced to decide whether to pursue the death penalty again or accept a life sentence without parole.
Williams said he reached the decision with the blessing of Faulkner’s widow, Maureen.
“Another penalty proceeding would open the case to the repetition of the state appeals process and an unknowable number of years of federal review again, even if we were successful,” the district attorney said.
Widener University law professor Judith Ritter, who represented Abu-Jamal in recent appeals, welcomed the move.
“There is no question that justice is served when a death sentence from a misinformed jury is overturned,” Ritter said. “Thirty years later, the district attorney’s decision not to seek a new death sentence also furthers the interests of justice.”
According to trial testimony, Abu-Jamal saw his brother scuffle with the patrolman during a 4 a.m. traffic stop in 1981 and ran toward the scene. Police found Abu-Jamal wounded by a round from Faulkner’s gun. Faulkner, shot several times, was killed. A .38-calibre revolver registered to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene with five spent shell casings.
Over the years, Abu-Jamal challenged the predominantly white makeup of the jury, the instructions given to the jurors and the accounts of eyewitnesses.
He also said that his lawyer was ineffective, that the judge was racist and that another man confessed to the crime.
The one-time journalist’s own 1995 book, “Live From Death Row,” depicts prison life and calls the justice system racist.
He got worldwide support from the “Free Mumia” movement, with hundreds of vocal supporters and death-penalty opponents regularly turning out for court hearings in his case.
His message resonated on college campuses and in Hollywood. Actors Mike Farrell and Tim Robbins were among dozens of luminaries who used a New York Times ad to call for a new trial, and the Beastie Boys played a concert to raise money for Abu-Jamal’s defence.
Faulkner’s widow laboured to ensure her husband was not forgotten.
“My family and I have endured a three-decade ordeal at the hands of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys and his supporters, who in many cases never even took the time to educate themselves about the case before lending their names, giving their support and advocating for his freedom,” she said Wednesday. “All of this has taken an unimaginable physical, emotional and financial toll on each of us.”
Amnesty International, which maintains that Abu-Jamal’s trial was “manifestly unfair and failed to meet international fair trial standards,” said the district attorney’s decision does not go far enough. Abu-Jamal still has an appeal pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over the validity of ballistics evidence.
“Amnesty International continues to believe that justice would best be served by granting Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial,” said Laura Moye, director of the human rights group’s Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Members of Philadelphia’s police community stood with Williams and Maureen Faulkner as the decision was announced. Former police union president Rich Costello criticized the courts for ordering a new sentencing hearing.
“Where do Maureen and the Faulkner family go for a reduction in their sentence?” Costello said. “For 30 years now, they have been forced to suffer grief, anguish, abuse, insults, intimidation, threats and every other sort of indignity that can be visited on a family already in grief.”
Faulkner lashed out at the judges who overturned the death sentence, calling them “dishonest cowards” who, she said, oppose the death penalty. The widow also vowed to fight any special treatment for Abu-Jamal behind bars, saying he should be moved to the general population after being taken off death row.
“I will not stand by and see him coddled, as he has been in the past,” Faulkner said. “And I am heartened that he will be taken from the protective cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind — the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons.”