Time to Write Last Chapter of This Death-Row Epic
Monday, December 24, 2001, p. 11A
For 20 years, the former journalist has argued that he was
wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of
Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. During his time on
death row, Abu-Jamal has become a cause celebre for
death-penalty opponents —and a haunting symbol of a failed
justice system for capital-punishment supporters.
Twice —once in 1995 and again in 1999 —execution dates were
set for Abu-Jamal. Both times, his legal maneuvers stopped them
from being carried out. He's managed to get appeals before
Pennsylvania's highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court,
although in 1999 the Supreme Court declined, without comment, to
review the appeal. With each delay, law enforcement officials
and Faulkner's family have voiced their displeasure, while
Abu-Jamal's supporters found a glimmer of hope in the fact that
he was still alive. Last week, a federal judge handed down a
ruling that left both sides crying foul.
U.S. District Judge William Yohn said the instructions jurors
were given during the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial
contained errors. He ordered that a new sentencing hearing for
the death-row inmate be held within six months, or Abu-Jamal's
sentence will be changed to life in prison. Those who think
Abu-Jamal is guilty worry that a new jury —empaneled two
decades after the murder —may reduce his sentence anyway.
Abu-Jamal's supporters, on the other hand, complain that Yohn
didn't go far enough. They criticize him for not forcing
prosecutors to start from scratch and retry the controversial
More than a new beginning, this story needs a believable end.
The new legal proceeding Yohn ordered may propel this case in
that direction. Abu-Jamal has become a larger-than-life symbol
of the tug of war between death penalty advocates and opponents.
Last year, while thousands of people rallied inside New York's
Madison Square Garden for Abu-Jamal, off-duty cops protested
outside. Recently, Paris officials made him an honorary citizen
of the City of Lights. Six years ago, Abu-Jamal's defiant book,
Live from Death Row, became a hot seller. All the while,
Faulkner's wife has pined for the day when the man she believes
brutally murdered her husband is put to death. But before Yohn
handed down his ruling, Abu-Jamal's case had no end in sight.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is either a coldblooded killer or a wrongly
He didn't offer much of a defense at his trial. He contends that
his lawyer was incompetent. But every court that has heard his
appeals has found no reason to reverse his conviction or order a
new trial, even though a series of defense lawyers claim to have
uncovered evidence that raises serious doubts about Abu-Jamal's
Yohn's ruling could drive this case closer to a final
resolution. If prosecutors appeal and block a new sentencing
hearing, or if the hearing goes forward and Abu-Jamal's death
sentence is affirmed, he may not be able to stave off execution
much longer. If, however, prosecutors take no action within the
six-month time frame, or a jury reduces his sentence to life in
prison, Abu-Jamal's long fight to avoid his death sentence will
be over —and his star status will diminish when he is reduced
to just one of the thousands of men in this country who have
been jailed for life.
What's certain is that Abu-Jamal's "last stand" has lasted too
If he is innocent, Abu-Jamal has spent nearly half of his 47
years on death row, tormented by the possibility that he might
be executed for a crime he didn't commit. If he's guilty, he has
abused the protections of this nation's criminal justice system
and the sympathies of the many people who have rallied to his
Either way, it's time to write the final chapter to his story.
DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA Today.