Court Rules Mumia Abu-Jamal's Death Sentence Unconstitutional, Again
An Pennsylvania appeals court unanimously declared Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence unconstitutional yesterday, upholding a 2008 ruling that his 'sentencing jury was misled about the process for considering evidence supporting a life sentence.'This morning Judith Ritter, a lawyer who has represented Abu-Jamal since 2002, appeared on Democracy Now to discuss the significance of the ruling, which she called 'literally a life-or-death decision':
You know, death penalty law is very clear that a jury has to be very free to consider any possible evidence that would suggest the death penalty is inappropriate. And Supreme Court case law, all federal case law, has been consistent that nothing can suggest to the jury that they have restrictions with regard to the consideration of mitigating evidence.
And what happened here—and this is not that uncommon in Pennsylvania at the time—is that the jury was led to believe, because the instructions were incorrect, that unless they all agreed that a particular mitigating circumstance existed, they couldn’t consider it. And that’s not the law. The law is that an individual juror may find a mitigating circumstance and considerate it, in weighing it, in determining whether to vote for death or not. And so, because this jury was misled, because the instructions and the verdict sheet were highly misleading—not even close, actually—the district court judge originally said that it was unfair, the Third Circuit said it was unfair in 2008, and again yesterday the Third Circuit said, "Despite recent Supreme Court cases, we’re confident that this was an unfair death sentence."
Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1981, but it's widely held that he did not receive a fair trial based largely on the racism of the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Ritter noted in her interview that if new evidence to support his innocence was revealed -- like, for instance, key witnesses may have lied during his trial -- they would have to file an entirely separate, post-conviction action in the state court.