On October 11, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from the Philadelphia District Attorney to overturn a federal appeals court decision declaring Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence unconstitutional. Abu-Jamal had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Now, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), "Mr. Abu-Jamal will be automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless the District Attorney elects to seek another death sentence from a new jury."
This development is good, but it's not enough.
For years, rights groups have been speaking out against Abu-Jamal's death sentence. A 2000 report by Amnesty International noted that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings." Amnesty expressed concerns about judicial bias and hostility, police misconduct, and the apparent withholding of evidence from the jury. Amnesty called for a new trial "in a neutral venue, where the case has not polarized the public as it has in Philadelphia."
Abu-Jamal's supporters insist that he is innocent, that he was set up, and that racial bias and witness coercion had played a big part in an unfair trial. They also point out that Faulkner was killed with a .44 caliber gun, while the gun found on Abu-Jamal was a .38 caliber.
This most recent court decision, however, concerns only the penalty, not the question of guilt or innocence. At this stage, the death penalty was challenged because of flawed jury instructions in the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal's original trial. The issue involves how jurors were to weigh various mitigating factors that may have resulted in a sentence other than the death penalty.
Professor Judith Ritter of Widener Law School, who, along with the LDF, represented Abu-Jamal in this phase of his case, weighed in on the new decision: "Like all Americans, Mr. Abu-Jamal was entitled to a proper proceeding that takes into account the many substantial reasons why death was an inappropriate sentence. Our system should never condone an execution that stems from a trial in which the jury was improperly instructed on the law."
Again, this latest development is good, but it's not enough.
Unless Abu-Jamal is granted a new - and fair - trial to address his guilt or innocence, I will not believe that justice has truly been served.
I shall not hold my breath.