PHILADELPHIA — Prosecutors have called off their 30-year battle to execute former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal for murdering a white police officer, putting to an end the racially charged case that became a major battleground in the fight over the death penalty.
Flanked by the police Officer Daniel Faulkner’s widow, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced his decision Wednesday, just two days short of the 30th anniversary of the killing. He said continuing to seek death penalty would open the case to “an unknowable number of years” of appeals.
“There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner. I believe that the appropriate sentence was handed down by a jury of his peers in 1982,” said Williams, the city’s first black district attorney. “While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is where he belongs.”
Abu-Jamal was convicted of fatally shooting Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981. He was sentenced to death after his trial the following year.
Abu-Jamal, who has been incarcerated in a western Pennsylvania prison, has garnered worldwide support from those who believe he was the victim of a racially biased justice system.
The conviction was upheld through years of legal appeals. But a federal appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing after ruling the instructions given to the jury were potentially misleading.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in on the case in October. That forced prosecutors to decide if they wanted to again pursue the death penalty through a new sentencing hearing or accept a life sentence.
Williams said he reached the decision to drop the death penalty bid with the blessing of Maureen Faulkner, who said another sentencing hearing would undoubtedly be just the beginning of another long, arduous appeals process.
“Another penalty proceeding would open the case to the repetition of the state appeals process and an unknowable number of years of federal review again, even if we were successful,” Williams said. He also said that after nearly three decades, some witnesses have died or are otherwise unreliable.
Widener University law professor Judith Ritter, who represented Abu-Jamal in recent appeals, applauded the decision.
“There is no question that justice is served when a death sentence from a misinformed jury is overturned,” Ritter said. “Thirty years later, the district attorney’s decision not to seek a new death sentence also furthers the interests of justice.”
According to trial testimony, Abu-Jamal saw his brother scuffle with the young patrolman during a 4 a.m. traffic stop in 1981 and ran toward the scene. Police found Abu-Jamal wounded by a round from Faulkner’s gun. Faulkner, shot several times, was killed. A .38-caliber revolver registered to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene with five spent shell casings.
The officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, has tried to remain visible over the years to ensure that her husband is not forgotten. They were 25-year-old newlyweds when he died.
“My family and I have endured a three-decade ordeal at the hands of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys and his supporters, who in many cases never even took the time to educate themselves about the case before lending their names, giving their support and advocating for his freedom,” Maureen Faulkner said Wednesday. “All of this has taken an unimaginable physical, emotional and financial toll on each of us.”
Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, turned 58 earlier this year.
His writings and radio broadcasts from death row made him a cause celebre and the subject of numerous books and movies. His own 1995 book, “Live From Death Row,” describes prison life and calls the justice system racist and ruled by political expediency.
Abu-Jamal, a one-time journalist, garnered worldwide support from the “Free Mumia” movement. Hundreds of vocal supporters and death-penalty opponents regularly turn out for court hearings in his case, even though Abu-Jamal is rarely entitled to attend.
His message resonated particularly on college campuses and in the movie and music industries — actors Mike Farrell and Tim Robbins were among dozens of luminaries who used a New York Times ad to advocate for a new trial, and the Beastie Boys played a concert to raise money for Abu-Jamal’s defense fund.
Over the years, Abu-Jamal has challenged the predominantly white makeup of the jury, instructions given to jurors and the statements of eyewitnesses. He has also alleged ineffective counsel, racism by the trial judge and that another man confessed to the crime.
Maureen Faulkner railed against what she called the justice system’s “dirty little secret” — the difficulty of putting condemned killers to death. Pennsylvania has put to death three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, and all three had willingly given up on their appeals.
Faulkner lashed out at the judges who overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, calling them “dishonest cowards” who, she said, oppose the death penalty.
“The disgusting reality with the death penalty in Pennsylvania is that the fix is in before the hearing even begins,” she said.
Faulkner also vowed to fight anyone who tries to extract special treatment for Abu-Jamal, advocating instead that he be moved to the general population after being taken off death row.
“I will not stand by and see him coddled, as he has been in the past,” Faulkner said. “And 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.”
Both sides have events planned to mark the anniversary of Faulkner’s death and Abu-Jamal’s subsequent arrest.
Supporters of Abu-Jamal, including Princeton professor Cornel West, have a symposium planned Friday at the National Constitution Center for the man they call an “innocent revolutionary and celebrated journalist.”
Maureen Faulkner, Williams and others involved in the prosecution will gather in suburban Philadelphia to mark the anniversary this week for a screening of the anti-Mumia documentary by Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill.