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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Federal appeals court backs new sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal
Joshua Pantesco at 11:54 AM ET

[JURIST] Journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal [advocacy website; Philadelphia Inquirer archive], convicted in 1982 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner [advocacy website] after a traffic stop, may escape the death penalty after the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Thursday issued an opinion [PDF text] affirming a federal judge's allowance of a new sentencing hearing in the case. If prosecutors decline to seek a new sentencing hearing, Abu-Jamal will automatically receive life in prison.

The Third Circuit considered four issues on appeal:

(1) whether the Commonwealth's use of peremptory challenges violated Abu-Jamal's constitutional rights under Batson v. Kentucky [opinion text]...; (2) whether the prosecution's trial summation denied Abu-Jamal due process; (3) whether Abu-Jamal was denied due process during post-conviction proceedings as a result of judicial bias; and (4) whether the jury charge and sentencing verdict sheet violated Abu-Jamal's constitutional rights under Mills v. Maryland ... and Boyde v. California ... [opinion texts].
The Third Circuit agreed with the district court ruling [PDF text] on every issue:
  • Abu-Jamal did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges established a pattern of selecting jurors on the basis of race, which is constitutionally impermissible.
  • Abu-Jamal's due process rights were not violated by the prosecutor's closing arguments at trial, during which the prosecutor said "of course there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final." Abu-Jamal contended that this statement undermined the juror's sense of responsibility to arrive at the correct verdict. The Third Circuit disagreed, saying instead that the comments "did not rise to the sort of egregious misconduct that amounts to a denial of constitutional due process...and they did not have a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict" (internal quotations and citations omitted).
  • The Third Circuit did not consider the merits of Abu-Jamal's claim that judicial bias deprived him of due process during the post-conviction proceedings, as such a claim is not cognizable on habeas appeal.
  • Finally, the Third Circuit agreed that the jury instructions and verdict form used at trial were constitutionally deficient, as they did not clearly explain that jurors did not have to unanimously agree on mitigating circumstances that would preclude application of the death penalty.
The case has become a notorious cause celebre for death penalty opponents, attracting the attention of artists, civil rights activists, and politicians. It is unclear whether Abu-Jamal will appeal the Third Circuit decision to the US Supreme Court. AP has more. The Philadelphia Inquirer has local coverage.

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