Life for Mumia Abu-Jamal?

On Tuesday, a federal judge overturned the 1982 death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, and ordered the state of Pennsylvania to hold a new penalty hearing within 180 days or impose a life sentence. Abu-Jamal, perhaps the nation's best-known prisoner on death row, sought a new trial, but that motion was denied. He still faces a life sentence or the death penalty.

Angus Love is a Philadelphia-based attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and a longtime advocate for prisoner rights. Steven Rosenfeld asked Love to comment on the decision and to recall the crime, the case and trial.

Steven Rosenfeld: It's my understanding a court has thrown out Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. What do you know about this decision?

Angus Love: Yes. Judge William Yohn was the federal U.S. District Court judge who ruled today that he is entitled to a new trial on the penalty phase of his case. As we all know, he was given a death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. The court rejected his bid for a new trial, but accepted the argument that the penalty phase of the case, that determines whether or not he would get the death penalty or life in prison, was tainted, and threw that part out. And has ordered the state to retry him on the penalty phase within 180 days or give him a life sentence.

Rosenfeld: When you say tainted, for those that are not familiar with the details of this case, what did the court mean?

Love: From what I understand, from people working on the case, one of the strongest claims was that the jurors were prejudiced by use of Mumia's affiliation with the Black Panther organization as a youth. And that that sort of affiliation could inflame a jury beyond a proper balancing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, which is the state of the law for determining whether or not one gets a death penalty.

There was a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision, many years ago, where a white supremacist had his conviction, his death sentence overturned, because the prosecutor had inflamed the jury with references to white supremacy organizations. And it was the attorney's belief who worked on the briefs and on the case, that this ruling should have precedental value for Mumia. That if a white individual had his conviction thrown out because of associational references to white supremacy groups, then a black individual should also have his death sentence overthrown for associational references to the Black Panther organization. And that was my understanding was the strongest claim and that seems to have held sway today.

Rosenfeld: What do you think the decision means as far as its significance for death penalty opponents and for people who have been litigating, or trying to litigate this case over all these years?

Love: I think it's clearly a victory for opponents of the death penalty. Judge Yohn is a Republican appointee. He was a state court judge in Montgomery County, Penn. -- Court of Common Pleas. Before that he was a state legislator. He's by no means a liberal or an advocate against the death penalty. But those who have appeared in front of him believe that he's fair, and he wants to do the right thing, and it appears that he has followed the case law and did the appropriate thing in this instance.

Rosenfeld: You said earlier that you knew Mumia before the case. Can you tell us anything that might be relevant?

Love: Sure. Mumia was a radical black journalist in the '70s, and appeared on a lot of local radio venues. It was a different time and there was a number of more radical, independent media types than there are today. So he made a living out of that. But as the '80s rolled around, it was tougher and tougher to make a living as a black radical journalist. And he was moonlighting as a cabdriver, to make a buck, to make ends meet, and during a late-night run in a seedy section of Center City, Philadelphia, he encountered a police[man] holding his brother.

So he stopped and intervened on behalf of his brother. What happened next is subject to varying interpretations, but the end result was a police officer was shot five times, and he was shot once, and they were both laying in the street when other officers arrived. Mumia's gun, registered in his name, was laying next to him with five spent cartridges. So that's the beginning and the end of it, and what happened in between is subject to great debate.

The interesting thing then was he came to trial right after the MOVE confrontation with the Philadelphia Police Department [where the city bombed a building housing the black radical group] and as such, Philadelphians were enraged and somewhat prejudiced, in my opinion, against people with dreadlocks and people who sided with the MOVE organization, because they had just basically shot it out with the Philadelphia police and a fireman was killed in the shootout. So it was a very passioned time. And then Mumia decided to go to trial and take up the John Africa defense, with dreadlocks. I, myself felt he would be immediately found guilty and subject to the harshest penalty possible, in part because of the carryover from the MOVE situation, and the prejudice that existed at that time against individuals with dreadlocks espousing a Black Nationalist philosophy.

So I don't know if him choosing to represent himself, at least through portions of the trial, and allying himself with MOVE was the best of strategies for getting off on a lighter penalty. But he clearly was a man of his convictions and stayed true to those convictions, and as a result suffered the full weight of the judicial system.

Rosenfeld: You cautioned about either death penalty proponents or opponents reading too much into this decision. Why is that?

Love: Well, I think it's based on the law. This was a correct decision according to the law, that the death penalty should be decided by the balancing of the mitigating and aggravating factors. Pennsylvania has pretty tough death penalty statute where there's a multitude of aggravating factors that can be put forth to weigh against possible mitigating factors.

It's a tough statute. But the actions of the prosecutors and the inflamed times that existed then, seemed to have come forth and been seen by the judge as not allowing a fair and impartial decision to be made on the law, and rather a prejudicial decision which he's thrown out.

Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for, where this article originally appeared.

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