The case of Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal took a surprising turn Tuesday when the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously declared his death sentence unconstitutional. It is the second time the court has agreed with a lower court judge who set aside Abu-Jamal’s death sentence after finding jurors were given confusing instructions that encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence. Now Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and journalist, could get a new sentencing hearing in court.
Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook on April 24, 1954) is an was found guilty of and sentenced to death for the December 9, 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has been described as “perhaps the best known Death-Row prisoner in the world”, and his sentence is one of the most debated today. Before his arrest, he was an activist, radio journalist, and part-time cab driver. He was a member of the Black Panther Party until October 1970.
Since his conviction, his case has become an international cause célèbre, and he has become a controversial cultural icon. Supporters and opponents disagree on the appropriateness of the death penalty, whether he is guilty, or whether he received a fair trial. During his imprisonment he has published several books and other commentaries, notably Live from Death Row (1995).
Since 1995, Abu-Jamal, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections #AM8335, has been incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s SCI Greene where most of the state’s capital case inmates are held. In 2008, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction, but ordered a new capital sentencing hearing over concerns that the jury was improperly instructed. Subsequently, the United States Supreme Court allowed his July 1982 conviction to stand, and ordered the appeals court to reconsider its decision to rescind the death sentence. On April 26, 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction as well as its decision to vacate the death sentence. The issue of the sentence was remanded for a new hearing. The death penalty may be imposed again or Abu-Jamal may receive a sentence of life without parole.
In his own writings, Abu-Jamal describes his adolescent experience of being “kicked … into the Black Panther Party” after suffering a beating from “white racists” and a policeman for his efforts to disrupt a George Wallace for President rally in 1968. The following year, at the age of 15, he helped form the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party, taking appointment as the chapter’s “Lieutenant of Information”, exercising a responsibility for writing information and news communications. In one of the interviews he gave at the time he quoted Mao Zedong, saying that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. He spent late 1969 in New York City and early 1970 in Oakland, living and working with BPP colleagues in those cities. He was a party member from May 1969 until October 1970 and was subject to Federal Bureau of Investigation COINTELPRO surveillance from then until about 1974.