On April 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Pennsylvania inmate who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer 30 years ago in 1981. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a previous grant of sentencing relief handed down by the same court in order to allow consideration of a recently decided Supreme Court case with related facts (Smith v. Spisak). Both cases involved the question of whether the jury was incorrectly instructed on evaluating mitigating factors in determining the proper sentence. The Court of Appeals considered the Spisak ruling, but found the jury instructions to be sufficiently different from those in Abu-Jamal’s case. Judge Anthony Scirica, writing for the Third Circuit panel, held that the jury instructions at Abu-Jamal’s trial in 1982 violated Mills v. Maryland, which said that findings on mitigating factors do not have to be unanimous. Judge Scirica wrote, “We conclude the verdict form and jury instructions in this case likewise created a substantial probability the jury believed it was precluded from finding a mitigating circumstance that had not been unanimously agreed upon.”

Although Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence, his conviction in the murder remains. The state may appeal the Circuit Court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999.

(B. Leonard, “Convicted Cop Killer Can Appeal Death Sentence,” Courthouse News Service, April 26, 2011). See also U.S. Supreme Court.