Appeals court orders new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal

PHILADELPHIA Tue Apr 26, 2011 3:11pm EDT

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that high profile death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal should get a new sentencing hearing.

Abu-Jamal, convicted of shooting and killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in December 1981, was sentenced to death and has since become subject of wide debate over his guilt and conviction.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the sentencing form the jury used in 1982, as well as instructions it received, could have inaccurately led jurors to believe they needed to be unanimous in deciding if there were mitigating circumstances that would spare Abu-Jamal's life.

The court let stand the first degree murder verdict.

Abu-Jamal's supporters argue he did not get a fair trial and say the evidence does not support his conviction. Those who maintain his guilt also have been vocal, and a major Philadelphia boulevard is named in Faulkner's honor.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's office said it is considering appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We continue to maintain that granting this new sentencing hearing is contrary to clearly established precedent of the United States Supreme Court," a statement from the district attorney's office said.

Pennsylvania has used the death penalty only sparingly in recent times. The last person to executed in the state, in 1999, was Gary Heidnik, convicted of killing two of six women he kept captive in his basement.

He was one of three men executed in the state since 1976. Newly elected Governor Tom Corbett has recently signed death warrants for two others.

(Reporting by Dave Warner; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

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