by Michael D’Onofrio, Tribune Staff Writer
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has abandoned his efforts to stonewall Mumia Abu-Jamal from re-arguing his 1981 conviction for killing a city police officer.
In a turnaround, the city’s top prosecutor withdrew his challenge to a December ruling from Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker that granted Abu-Jamal a rehearing of his conviction for the murder of Daniel Faulkner while on duty.
The decision does not grant Abu-Jamal a new trial. Instead, he can proceed with a rehearing of his appeals before the state Supreme Court, effectively resetting the appeals process.
The district attorney revoked his appeal after Tucker elaborated on his opinion in late March, settling a technical issue that had the potential to affect hundreds of other settled cases.
“The result will be that long-settled convictions in other cases will not be disturbed,” Krasner said, “and that decisions made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the legal issues raised decades ago in the Abu-Jamal matter will no longer be tainted by the appearance of bias.”
“We look forward to having our claims of an unfair trial heard by a fair tribunal,” she said.
Judith Ritter, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer, said in an email that the district attorney’s “decision is in the interests of justice.”
“It means that if we keep fighting, like we’ve done, we will win,” Ross said. “Mumia will be free – it’s taking much too long, but he will be free.”
In prison since 1982, Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence.
Tucker reinstated Abu-Jamal’s appeal rights in December, citing new evidence that allegedly showed that former state Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille’s decision to deny the former Black Panther’s appeal was biased.
Born Wesley Cook, Abu-Jamal was on death row until 2011 and since has been serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania.
Castille was Philadelphia District Attorney during some of the time Abu-Jamal appealed his conviction. Later as a state Supreme Court judge, Castille was among the justices who presided over and rejected Abu-Jamal’s final appeal in 2012.
Suzanne Ross, a spokeswoman for the Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, said Krasner’s decision was unexpected, noting the reversal was the culmination of two years’ worth of work.
The new evidence that revived Abu-Jamal’s case was a 1990 letter Castille wrote to then-Gov. Robert Casey urging the governor to issue death warrants, especially in cases involving those who have killed a police officer, in order to “send a clear and dramatic message to all police killers that the death penalty actually means something.”
Although Castille’s letter does not mention Abu-Jamal or his case by name, Abu-Jamal’s case was one of three at the time involving a conviction for killing a cop that was pending.
Abu-Jamal filed a motion in 2016 to re-argue his conviction due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that same year, Williams v. Pennsylvania, where Castille was found to have failed to recuse himself as a state Supreme Court judge in deciding another death sentence case that he was involved in while he was district attorney.
In his opinion, Tucker agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Williams case applied to Abu-Jamal’s case, and he should be given another chance to appeal his case before the state Supreme Court.
Castille is no longer a sitting judge.
Krasner said he originally appealed Tucker’s opinion because of the “overly broad language of the opinion” that had the potential to affect hundreds of long-settled cases.
But after Tucker elaborated on his decision in March and limited the scope of his opinion, Krasner reversed course.
“Given that the trial-level court has now addressed the concerns that led us to appeal in the first place, we have withdrawn the appeal,” Krasner said.
Rachel Wolkenstein, a former lawyer for Abu-Jamal, expected the Superior Court, where Abu-Jamal’s case currently resides, to transfer his case to the state Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
If that happens, Abu-Jamal could re-argue his case before the state’s highest court later this year, Wolkenstein said.
“His case is now open to reversal,” she said. “This is the legal path to Mumia’s freedom.”
Philadelphia Tribune staff writer Michael D’Onofrio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.