The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] on Tuesday ordered [opinion, PDF] a new sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal [Philadelphia Inquirer backgrounder], a former member of the Black Panthers who was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981. The three-judge panel concluded that the jury that sentenced Abu-Jamal to death was given an improper jury instruction regarding the use of mitigating factors. According to the court, the instructions could have indicated to the jury that there must be unanimous agreement among the jury in order for mitigating factors to be considered, and that the jury could have concluded that they must unanimously agree that the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating factors in order to sentence Abu-Jamal to life in prison. The court concluded that both the verdict form and jury instruction indicated that unanimity was required when considering mitigating circumstances, which is inconsistent with state law. Under Pennsylvania state law, mitigating circumstances are to be considered regardless of agreement among the jury, and the law only requires one juror to find that mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating factors to result in a life sentence. The court noted that the Pennsylvania sentencing form has been changed since Abu-Jamal's sentencing, that it now "reflects the requirement that jurors not be prevented from considering all evidence in mitigation," and that it "makes explicit that unanimity is not required in determining the existence of mitigating circumstances." According to the court, the clarifications "highlight the ambiguity at issue in this case and on their own serve at least to suggest the substantial probability that some jurors were prevented from considering factors which may call for a less severe penalty" The court ordered Pennsylvania to conduct a new sentencing hearing within 180 days, or the sentence of life in prison would stand. The district attorney representing the state in the case indicated that he would consider an appeal [AP report] to the US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive].
The Supreme Court has considered Abu-Jamal's case in several previous rulings. The court remanded the case to the Third Circuit [JURIST report] in January 2010 for further consideration in light of the ruling in Smith v. Spisak [opinion, PDF; JURIST report]. In 2008, the Third Circuit affirmed [JURIST report] a district court ruling overturning the sentence in Abu-Jamal's case, and the only issue to be determined on remand was whether the court erred in allowing the new sentencing hearing. The Supreme Court declined to review [JURIST report] Abu-Jamal's conviction in April 2009. Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner [advocacy website] after Faulkner pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother for a traffic violation. The case has become a focal point for death penalty opponents, attracting the attention of artists, civil rights activists and politicians.