For the first time since he was sentenced in 1983, Mumia Abu-Jamal no longer faces being put to death.
Recognizing that continuing to seek execution would only mean decades more of appeals - and a new public forum for the former Black Panther and onetime radio reporter - Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Wednesday he would not seek a new death-penalty hearing for the convicted killer of Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Flanked by Faulkner's widow, Maureen, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, officials of the Fraternal Order of Police, and a cadre of prosecutors past and present involved in the case, Williams said that he believed his office could successfully impanel a new jury and get a death sentence against Abu-Jamal but that he chose not to do so under the circumstances.
Abu-Jamal's original death sentence was overturned on appeal to the federal courts, which ruled that the trial judge's instructions to the jury were unfairly weighted toward execution.
The federal appeals court in Philadelphia - affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in October - left the District Attorney's Office with a choice: conduct a death-penalty hearing before a new jury or let Abu-Jamal serve life in prison without the chance of parole.
But the tortuous appeal 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 option seem futile.
"Every reviewing court has found the trial fair and the guilty verdict sound," Williams said. "Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal to die in prison."
Still, Williams said, the decision "was not an easy one."
And it was clear from the news conference that Maureen Faulkner's assent was the crucial factor and the reason that FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby and former president Richard Costello participated in the public announcement.
Faulkner spoke for about five minutes in an angry, at-times emotional tirade against the federal appeals courts and judges who heard Abu-Jamal's multiple appeals.
Faulkner called the judges of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit "dishonest cowards" who imposed their personal opposition to capital punishment on the public.
She denounced Abu-Jamal, whose case became an international cause celebre in the last 30 years, for "operating a cottage industry in prison. The money has poured in to his defense fund, and it's a disgrace."
Judith L. Ritter, the Widener University law professor 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," Ritter said in a telephone interview.
Ritter, who worked on the case with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, said she still hoped there would be new developments that would let the legal team revive Abu-Jamal's bid for a new trial.
Abu-Jamal still has one post-trial appeal pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, though lawyers say it would not affect the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling affirming the conviction.
From an inmate's standpoint, Williams' decision could cause 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 confinement, locked in his cell 23 hours a day. Nicknamed "Pops" by some inmates, Abu-Jamal will now be transferred to the general prison population, where he will be housed 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."
Wednesday's announcement came two days before the 30th anniversary of Faulkner's slaying, a date being commemorated in public events by partisans on both sides.
Faulkner, 25 and newly married, was on patrol in Center City the night of Dec. 9, 1981, when, according to trial testimony, he 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.
The prelude to Williams' announcement came in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a petition from the District Attorney's Office seeking to reinstate the death penalty.
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.
That court reaffirmed its earlier ruling that Abu-Jamal's sentencing hearing was unfair.
The fairness of that hearing was one of 29 claims in a 1999 appeal filed for the former radio reporter, who became a political radical.
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 court agreed with Yohn and ordered a new sentencing hearing. But two years later, the Supreme Court ordered the court 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 court again reaffirmed its ruling and returned the case to Yohn.
The prosecution's clock began ticking Tuesday, when 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.
Maureen Faulkner talks about the case in a video at www.philly.com/faulkner