WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the murder conviction against Mumia Abu-Jamal, but ruled the death-row campaigner cannot be executed without undergoing a new sentencing hearing.
The three-judge panel rejected Abu-Jamal's request for a new trial but ruled the former radio journalist and Black Panther civil rights activist should either face a new hearing or have his sentence commuted to life in jail.
The 118-page ruling upheld a district court decision from 2001, which stated that jurors in the original trial were given faulty instructions.
"We will affirm the judgement of the District Court," the appeals panel said in its ruling. It said Pennsylvania could only execute Abu-Jamal if prosecutors decide to re-submit him to a new death penalty hearing.
Abu-Jamal, 53, born Wesley Cook, was sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer the year before. While in jail, he became a figurehead for anti-death penalty activists.
Reacting to the decision, the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, who have campaigned for Abu-Jamal to be granted a fresh trial, described the ruling as a "devastating decision" and called for mass protests on Friday.
Only one of the three appeal court judges, Thomas Ambro, said he would have granted Abu-Jamal a new hearing to present his claim that the original trial was tainted by racial bias.
"I believe that Abu-Jamal presents a case that, at first sight, infers a reasonable possibility that the prosecutor excluded potential black jurors because of race," Ambro wrote in the decision.
"This inference requires courts to look further. To move past the prima facie case is not to throw open the jailhouse doors and overturn Abu-Jamal's conviction," he added.
"It is merely to take the next step in deciding whether race was impermissibly considered during jury selection in his case.
"No matter how guilty one may be, he or she is entitled to a fair and impartial trial by a jury of his or her peers," he added.
Abu-Jamal's lawyer, Robert Bryan, said ahead of an earlier appeals hearing last year that his client's trial was marked by racial prejudice and legal inconsistencies.
"Racism and politics are threads that have run through this case since his 1981 arrest," he added.
Abu-Jamal's supporters say he was denied the right to due process of law and a fair trial, alleging the trial judge was a racist and the prosecution made sure that there were no black jurors in the case.
At the time, Judge Albert Sabo, the trial judge in the 1982 hearing, is alleged to have told three people in his chambers: "I'm going to help 'em fry the nigger."
Court stenographer Terri Maurer-Carter made the charged allegation in a 2001 affidavit. Sabo died in 2002.
Since his conviction, Abu-Jamal has written several books and records a regular radio show from prison. His case has united anti-death penalty activists from around the world, notably a number of Hollywood stars.
However, a similarly vocal group consider him a cop killer wrongly elevated to the status of political prisoner.
"Mumia is nothing but a cold-blooded murderer," the dead police officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner, said in an interview with the ABC network in 1998. His supporters, she said, "have been duped."
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »