Philadelphia D.A. Drops Pursuit of Death Penalty for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Prosecutors will no longer continue a 30-year quest to see the former journalist, convicted in a policeman's slaying, put to death.

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Lisa Terry

Mumia Abu-Jamal in a 1995 photo.

Philadelphia prosecutors will no longer pursue the death penalty against Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for the 1981 shooting death of police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal later became a case that garnered worldwide attention and evolving into a cause celebre. He will instead serve a life sentence, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a petition to reinstate the death penalty against Abu-Jamal, 58, upholding a 2001 U.S. District Court ruling that he deserved a new trial because of flawed jury instructions, among other problems. The ruling forced the Philadelphia district attorney to either pursue another sentence or continue the lengthy process of appeals that have already taken three decades.

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“Every reviewing court has found the trial fair and the guilty verdict sound,” Williams said. “…Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal die in prison.”

The incident in question took place 30 years ago this Friday, when Faulkner pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook. Abu-Jamal, a local radio journalist who was moonlighting as a cab driver, saw two fighting and ran toward them, according to witness testimony. A gunfire exchange ensued, resulting in the critical wounding of Abu-Jamal and the death of Faulkner. A gun registered in Abu-Jamal’s name was found at the scene with spent shell cases nearby.

Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death the next year, but his supporters upheld that prosecutorial misconduct and procedural and racial issues marred the sentencing of the former Black Panther. Over his years on death row in a western Pennsylvania prison, he has continued his activism from behind bars while fighting his sentence, becoming an author and continuing broadcasting. A “Free Mumia” movement has grown amid hundreds of backers including many celebrities who oppose capital punishment.

Faulkner’s widow remains staid in her belief in Abu-Jamal’s guilt, along with the city’s police union. In the past she has called the judges who blocked his execution “cowards” but says she now wants to see him given no special treatment.

“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,” she said.

But Judith Ritter, a Widener University law professor who represented Abu-Jamal in his appeals case, was pleased with the decision.

“There is no question that justice is served when a death sentence from a misinformed jury is overturned,” Ritter told the Associated Press. “Thirty years later, the district attorney’s decision not to seek a new death sentence also furthers the interests of justice.”

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