Phila. District Attorney opts not to seek new sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal

By Jon Campisi | Dec 8, 2011

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has opted not to seek a new death sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the man convicted in the Dec. 9, 1981, murder of city police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

Abu-Jamal, who has since become a cause celebre and internationally known figure revered by death penalty opponents, has existed in mostly solitary conditions in a western Pennsylvania prison since his 1982 conviction of gunning down Faulkner on a Center City, Philadelphia street after the cop pulled over a vehicle driven by Abu-Jamal’s brother.

The convict, born Wesley Cook, has always maintained his innocence.

On Wednesday, Williams announced that he arrived at his decision not to seek a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal because the fight would mean many more years of legal appeals and no guarantee that Abu-Jamal would actually be executed during his lifetime.

Hundreds of inmates currently sit on death row in Pennsylvania’s prisons, but actual executions are rarely carried out.

The last person to be put to death in the Keystone State was infamous South Philly torture-murderer Gary Heidnik, who met his fate by lethal injection on July 6, 1999.

“The decision to end this fight was not an easy one to make,” Williams said about his decision to not seek a new sentencing hearing in Abu-Jamal’s case. “There has never been a doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner and I believe the appropriate sentence was handed down in 1982.”

The decision means Abu-Jamal will spend the rest of his days behind bars, “and that is exactly where he belongs,” Williams said.

The decision didn’t sit well with Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, although she seemed to be more upset with the judiciary than with the district attorney.

Faulkner issued a tirade against the jurists who she believes have enabled her husband’s killer to live out the rest of his life in prison.

During a news conference Wednesday, the widow called judges from the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia and the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals “dishonest cowards” who imposed their personal opposition to the death penalty on the public, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The judges who received Faulkner’s ire were those she holds responsible for allowing Abu-Jamal to escape his death sentence, which was originally imposed after his conviction in the early 1980s.

According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death by a jury back in 1982, but his legal team went on to bring numerous appeals challenging the sentence.

In 1995, then-Gov. Tom Ridge actually signed Abu-Jamal’s death warrant, but the capital sentence was never carried out.

Abu-Jamal’s team filed a federal habeas corpus motion in 1999, contesting the fairness of his death sentencing hearing.

The argument was that the judge who conducted the hearing issued instructions to the jury that were heavily weighed toward a death sentence.

In 2001, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Yohn, Jr., rejected most of the 29 claims filed in the 1999 habeas corpus motion, but upheld the death sentencing jury instruction issue.

In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which sits in Philadelphia, agreed with Yohn and ordered a new sentencing hearing to be conducted.

But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reconsider its decision after the high court’s ruling on a similar death penalty case in Ohio, according to news reports.

This past spring, Third Circuit Court judges stood by their original ruling, sending the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Yohn, who gave the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office six months in which to decide whether or not prosecutors would push for a new death penalty hearing or simply let Abu-Jamal die in jail. The office opted for the latter.

The decision received mixed reviews.

“Over the past few months, we have anguished over the two terrible options we are presented with,” widow Maureen Faulkner said in a statement. “After 30 years of waiting, the time remaining before Abu-Jamal stands before his ultimate judge doesn’t seem quite so far off as it once did when I was younger.

“I look forward to that day, so I can finally close the book on this chapter of my life and live with the gratification and assurance that Mumia Abu-Jamal has finally received the punishment he deserves for all eternity.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said he agreed with Williams’ decision not to seek a new sentencing hearing, saying it was “time for this struggle to end.”

“I want to take this opportunity to salute Maureen,” Rendell said in a statement. “Danny Faulkner could not have had a better partner in life, nor could he ever have had a better advocate than Maureen. The courage, grace and dignity with which she has displayed during this long, hard fight was truly remarkable.”

Despite his conviction, Abu-Jamal has become something of an international celebrity, with Hollywood actors and others rallying behind his cause.

Faulkner was 25 years old when he was murdered at 13th and Locust streets in downtown Philadelphia. He had been newly married to Maureen at the time of his death. He, too, has garnered his share of support far and wide.

In his statement, Williams said given the passage of time since the crime, and the fact that many witnesses “have died or become otherwise unavailable,” it only made sense to end the fight for Abu-Jamal’s death.

“In addition to subjecting the family members of Officer Faulkner to the renewed anguish of reliving the horror of so many years ago, another penalty proceeding would open the case to repetition of the state appeals process, followed by an unknowable number of years of review in federal court again,” Williams’ statement said. “The enforcement of the death sentence imposed by the jury would have been the most just result in this tragic case. The federal courts have prevented that, though every reviewing court has ruled that the trial was fair and the verdict of guilt sound. The survivors of Officer Faulkner have suffered enough, and the best remaining option is to allow his murderer die in prison.”

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