November 10, 2010 / 3:47 AM / 9 years ago

U.S. court hears arguments over fate of death row inmate

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A man languishing on Pennsylvania’s death row for 28 years should be spared execution because jurors at his trial were given faulty instructions, the man’s lawyer told a U.S. appeals court on Tuesday.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black former journalist and taxi driver, was convicted in 1982 of killing white Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.

He was sentenced to death and has been on death row ever since, but says he is innocent. Abu-Jamal argues he was framed by police, who he says fabricated evidence and coerced witnesses to testify against him to avenge the death of a fellow policeman.

At a hearing attended by Faulkner’s widow Maureen, a three-judge panel heard arguments over whether jurors at the original trial had been given the wrong instructions. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year instructed the appeals court s to consider whether the jury had been wrongly instructed.

Judith Ritter, an attorney for Abu-Jamal, argued that trial jurors had been given a wrong instruction that they had to be unanimous in deciding on any “mitigating” circumstances. These are things that might mitigate against jurors recommending he get the death penalty, such as his prior work as a journalist.

“I can’t imagine anyone on this jury would think that they would have to be anything other than unanimous,” Ritter said of the instructions to jurors.

But Hugh Burns, a Philadelphia prosecutor, said the Abu-Jamal case was similar to one in which the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled there was no violation of the standard for jury instructions, and that therefore the jury had been properly instructed.

Those arguing that he should be executed, including the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, city prosecutors, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, say his guilt was established by four eyewitnesses from the murder scene on December 9, 1981, and ratified by almost three decades of court hearings.

About 200 Abu-Jamal supporters including a delegation from France held a noisy demonstration outside the court house, calling for Abu-Jamal to be freed.

If the appeals court rules that the instructions to the jury were faulty, and prosecutors continue to argue for the death penalty, there will be a new trial on Abu-Jamal’s sentencing. His lawyers could then introduce evidence they hope would convince a jury that he never received a fair trial.

There are 222 people on Pennsylvania’s death row but no one has been executed since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Reporting by Jon Hurdle, editing by Greg McCune

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