On Tuesday, a U.S. appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who's currently sitting on Pennsylvania's death row on charges of murdering a police officer in a case that many of his supporters have long said was politically motivated. The court ruled that Abu-Jamal must have a new sentencing hearing within six months.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, was convicted in 1982 of murdering a white police offer. He has always professed his innocence and his case has been a cause celebre among police accountability activists for decades.
As it had before, Abu-Jamal's legal team argued that confusing instructions to the jurors encouraged them to choose death rather than a life sentence.
In capital cases, jurors first must check a box to declare whether they unanimously agree to a guilty verdict.
Then they must declare whether they find any mitigating circumstances favoring a life sentence rather than the death penalty. They need not agree unanimously which mitigating circumstances they will consider, only that such circumstances exist.
Abu-Jamal's attorneys say that written instructions in 1982 did not make that clear, and that jurors believed they could not debate mitigating circumstances.
This week's ruling came from the same court that suspended Abu-Jamal's death sentence in 2008, leading to a three year legal battle in which the Supreme Court ultimately became involved.
"Courts now use clear and unambiguous language to advise sentencing juries about their ability to consider evidence that favors a life verdict. Mr. Abu-Jamal is entitled to no less constitutional protection," Widener University law professor Judith Ritter told the Inquirer.