Saying he wanted to avoid another three decades of appeals - and a new public forum for Mumia Abu-Jamal - Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said today he will not seek a new death penalty hearing for the convicted killer of Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Flanked by Faulkner's widow, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, officials of the Fraternal Order of Police and a cadre of prosecutors past and present who were involved with the case, Williams said he believed his office could successfully impanel a new jury and get a new death sentence against Abu-Jamal.
But the tortuous legal process ahead for a newly-imposed death sentence - and the likelihood that Abu-Jamal, 57, will die in prison before it could be carried out - made that route seem futile.
"Every reviewing court has found the trial fair and the guilty verdict sound," Williams said at a press conference. ". . . Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal to die in prison."
Still, Williams called the decision "not an easy one to make" and it was clear from the news conference that the key human factor was Maureen Faulkner's concurrence.
Faulkner spoke for about five minutes, an angry, at times emotional tirade against the federal appeals courts and judges who have reviewed Abu-Jamal's multiple appeals.
She denounced the former Black Panther and radio reporter for "operating a cottage industry in prison. The money has poured into his defense fund and it's a disgrace."
Judith L. Ritter, the lawyer who has represented Abu-Jamal in his most recent appeals, said she was pleased with Williams' decision.
"No one benefits from an execution based on a jury's verdict and deemed by the federal appeals court to be unfair," said Ritter, who is also a professor at the Widener University School of Law.
Ritter, who has worked on the case with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund in New York, said she still hopes there will be "new developments" that will allow the legal team to revive Abu-Jamal's bid for a new trial.
From an inmate's standpoint, Williams' decision could bring about a qualitative change in Abu-Jamal's life. As a death-row inmate at the state prison at Greene in Western Pennsylvania, he is in solitary, locked in his cell 23 hours a day. Nicknamed "Pops" by some inmates, Abu-Jamal will now be transferred into the general population live with other inmates.
Faulkner said she was "heartened by that prospect."
"Rest assured, I will now fight with every ounce of energy I have to see that Mumia Abu-Jamal receives absolutely no special treatment when he is removed from death row," Faulkner said. "I will not stand by and see him coddled as he had been in the past, and I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind - the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons."
Today's announcement came two days before the 30th anniversary of Faulkner's slaying.
Faulkner, 25, and newly married, was on patrol in Center City the night of Dec. 9, 1981 when, according to trial testimony, the officer pulled over a car driven by Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, at 13th and Locust Streets.
Abu-Jamal, moonlighting as a cabdriver, recognized his brother's car, ran toward them and shot Faulkner, witnesses testified. A gunfight followed and Abu-Jamal was hit by a bullet from Faulkner's gun. He was found slumped on a curb.
Witnesses said that during the encounter, Abu-Jamal stood over the wounded officer and shot him in the face. Court records say Faulkner was shot between the eyes.
Neither Abu-Jamal nor his brother has testified about what happened, though in a 2001 affidavit Abu-Jamal denied shooting Faulkner.
Since then, Abu-Jamal's vocal supporters have grown to include chapters in France and Germany, countered by equally vocal supporters of the slain officer and his widow.
Those supporters remained undaunted by Williams' decision to let Abu-Jamal serve life.
"The D.A. may think that the case can be laid to rest by sending Mumia off to life in prison," said a statement by We the People, which supports Abu-Jamal and believes he is innocent. "But an aroused public ... is ready to challenge anew the entire trial."
The prelude to Williams' announced came in October when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a petition by the District Attorney's office seeking to reinstate the death penalty.
The high court ruling - summarily rejected by the court without comment - returned the issue to Williams' office: either conduct a new death penalty hearing for Abu-Jamal or allow him to remain serving a life prison term with no chance of parole.
The prosecutor's unsuccessful appeal to the nation's high court followed a decision in April by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.
The Third Circuit reaffirmed its earlier ruling that Abu-Jamal's sentencing hearing was unfair.
The fairness of the sentencing hearing was one of 29 claims in a 1999 appeal filed for the former radio reporter who became a political radical and international cause célèbre.
In 2001, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. rejected most of the arguments but let proceed a claim that the sentencing judge's jury instructions made a death sentence more likely.
In 2008, the Third Circuit agreed with Yohn and ordered a new sentencing hearing. But two years later the Supreme Court ordered the Third Circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of the high court's ruling on the jury instruction issue in an Ohio death penalty case.
In April, the Third Circuit again reaffirmed its ruling that Abu-Jamal deserved a new sentencing hearing.
The clock began ticking on Tuesday when Judge Yohn issued an order giving Williams' office 180 days to decide on a new death penalty hearing or let Abu-Jamal serve a life sentence.