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Time to Write Last Chapter of This Death-Row Epic
DeWayne Wickham

USA Today
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 murder case.

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 jailed man.

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 guilt.

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 long.

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 defense.

Either way, it's time to write the final chapter to his story.

DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA Today.

Last modified on Saturday, March 2, 2002 at 10:24:56 PM EST