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Philly DA to drop challenge in Mumia Abu-Jamal case, clearing appeal to reach high court

The decision marks the latest chapter in a long-running appeals battle that has gained renewed attention in recent years

Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in the 1990s.
Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in the 1990s.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / File Photograph

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Wednesday that his office would drop its challenge of a judge’s ruling in convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, clearing the way for Abu-Jamal to again argue his appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The long-running appeals battle has gained renewed attention in recent years, as Abu-Jamal’s lawyers contend he deserves another shot before the high court due to a recusal issue involving former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.

Krasner said in a statement that his office decided to withdraw its challenge in response to an opinion last month from Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker. Expanding on a ruling he made in December, Tucker said Abu-Jamal was entitled to reargue his appeal because Castille — who was Philadelphia’s district attorney during the early portions of Abu-Jamal’s post-conviction efforts — did not recuse himself when Abu-Jamal’s case came before the high court.

Krasner’s office challenged that initial decision, saying it believed Tucker’s ruling was overly broad and could require any top prosecutor who becomes a judge to be recused from any case that had been pending before joining the bench — something Krasner’s office believed could impact an untold number of already-decided cases.

Last month, Tucker issued an opinion saying prosecutors’ reading of his ruling was a “mischaracterization of the facts” and should not be taken in such a broad manner. Krasner said in his statement, “Given that the trial-level court has now addressed the concerns that led us to appeal in the first place, we have withdrawn the appeal.”

Abu-Jamal, 64, a former Black Panther and radio reporter, is serving a life sentence for the Dec. 9, 1981, shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, at 13th and Locust Streets.

His case is one of the most closely watched and controversial in city history. Earlier this year, Krasner, elected on a reform-oriented platform, was uninvited from speaking at a Rebellious Lawyering conference at Yale Law School due to his handling of Abu-Jamal’s appeal. Some supporters on Wednesday, such as the Amistad Law Project, an advocacy group, applauded his decision to withdraw the appeal.

But Faulkner’s widow, Maureen, said she was “devastated” by Krasner’s change of heart. She also said that although she spoke Tuesday with Krasner and two of his prosecutors, none of them indicated the office had reached a final decision.

A prosecutor texted her Wednesday to say the office had made up its mind, Faulkner said, but she did not receive it until after a news release had been issued because she had been walking her dog in an area with poor cell phone service.

Faulkner said the first call she received Wednesday was from a spokesperson for the police union. She said she didn’t understand why the office couldn’t have spoken with her before publicizing the decision.

“It could’ve been handled differently,” Faulkner said.

One of Abu-Jamal’s lawyers, Judith Ritter, said in an email Wednesday that she and her colleagues were “very pleased” by the decision.

“The DA’s decision is in the interests of justice,” she said. “We look forward to having our claims of an unfair trial heard by a fair tribunal.”