A federal appeals court in downtown Philadelphia heard arguments Tuesday over the sentencing of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal has been on death row since his 1982 conviction for the shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Outside the courthouse, a heavy police presence mixed with hundreds of Abu-Jamal supporters, chanting for his release.
“Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal….”
But inside, three judges for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals heard complex legal arguments regarding jury instructions given almost 30 years ago by the original trial judge.
Back in 1982, the jury at Abu-Jamal’s original trial decided that the fact he killed a police officer outweighed the fact that he had no prior criminal convictions. So they sentenced him to death instead of life without parole.
Abu-Jamal’s attorneys say the instructions regarding that decision confused jurors and are asking for a new sentencing hearing.
“The jury instructions in our case, along with the verdict form made it very likely that the jury would not understand the way it was to consider the evidence at the penalty phase”, said Judith Ritter, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer.
But outside the courthouse, Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Hugh Burns defended the original trial judge.
“At the time that he gave the instructions, they were instructions that had been approved by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” Burns said.
The courts had already decided to grant a new sentencing hearing. But the U.S. Supreme Court this year ordered the court to reconsider its decision. The judges may take months before rendering a decision..