The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid yesterday for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a ruling that virtually guarantees that the internationally known death-row inmate will never be freed.
Abu-Jamal, who has been awaiting execution for more than 25 years for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, had been hoping for a new trial - and a new chance to prove that he did not commit the killing.
Now, his best-case scenario is to avoid execution.
Faulkner's widow, Maureen, said she started to cry after learning about the decision.
"To think that he will never get a new trial is such a relief for the family and I after 27 years and everything we've gone through," Faulkner said in a telephone interview from California, where she lives.
The nation's highest court is still weighing a petition by prosecutors to reinstate Abu-Jamal's death sentence, and the justices recently agreed to review a capital case from Ohio that involves the same legal issue that is a key focus in Abu-Jamal's appeal.
Faulkner said she hoped the Supreme Court would ultimately reinstate the death sentence, saying that Abu-Jamal deserved to be executed because he killed a police officer in the line of duty. "I will always believe that Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered Danny with premeditation and malice. He deserves capital punishment," she said.
District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said she was gratified that the Supreme Court had denied the defense request for a new trial. "This means that Mumia Abu-Jamal's murder conviction stands, and he lost his appeal," Abraham said in a statement.
Abu-Jamal, now 54, learned of the ruling as he watched CNN in his prison cell in Southwestern Pennsylvania, his lawyer said.
"The options are obviously being narrowed," said the defense lawyer, Robert R. Bryan of San Francisco. Bryan said he would ask the high court to reconsider yesterday's ruling.
Abu-Jamal, who is known as "Pops" to other inmates, has long been a controversial symbol in the international debate about capital punishment in the United States.
From death row, he has written books and recorded radio commentaries and speeches for college students, winning support from celebrities, academics, and death-penalty opponents in many parts of the world.
Bryan said that Abu-Jamal was disappointed but not disheartened by the ruling.
"His reaction is that the Supreme Court lost an important opportunity concerning the right to a fair trial with a fair jury," Bryan said in a telephone interview after speaking with Abu-Jamal. "He just found that very disappointing."
In a brief interview released late yesterday on www.prisonradio.org, Abu-Jamal said the high court's decision shows "that the Constitution means nothing, that a fair jury means nothing."
Abu-Jamal, a former radio journalist who was working as a cabdriver back in 1981, was arrested just steps from the body of Faulkner, who was shot to death near 13th and Locust Streets in Center City in the early morning of Dec. 9, 1981.
Prosecutors contended during his 1982 trial that Faulkner had just pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother for a vehicle stop, and that Abu-Jamal ran toward them and shot the officer. Abu-Jamal was shot during the confrontation and was found slumped on the curb with a gunshot wound.
A Philadelphia jury of 10 whites and two blacks convicted Abu-Jamal and sentenced him to death. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 1989, and also rejected other appeals.
Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected three petitions from Abu-Jamal; yesterday's decision marked the fourth time he had been rebuffed by the high court.
At issue was one aspect of what the region's federal appeals court ruled last year when it rejected his petition for a new trial but threw out his death sentence.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected his claim that blacks had been unfairly excluded from his jury. If the court had accepted that claim, the remedy would have been a new trial.
Bryan had been hoping that the high court would hear an appeal on that issue, in large part because one of the three Third Circuit judges wrote a strong dissent, saying that further hearings were warranted on that issue.
The Third Circuit, in throwing out Abu-Jamal's death sentence, said the jury might have been confused by the trial judge's instructions and wording on the verdict form filled out by the jury.
The jury may have mistakenly believed, the Third Circuit said, that it had to agree unanimously on any "mitigating" circumstances - factors that might have persuaded jurors to decide on a life sentence, instead of death.
The high court in February agreed to hear an appeal in an Ohio death-row case that focuses on that issue.
Joseph J. McGill, a Center City lawyer who prosecuted the Abu-Jamal case when he was an assistant district attorney, said yesterday's decision seemed to guarantee that, barring some extraordinary new evidence, Abu-Jamal would never get a new trial - and would never be released from prison.
"As far as a new trial is concerned, it is over," said McGill.
McGill said the issue of the ultimate sentence was still up in the air. Even if the death sentence is reinstated on the issue of the jury instructions, he said, Abu-Jamal almost certainly would then try to raise other issues relating to the sentence.
"The death-penalty issue is very much an issue that can really go either way," said McGill.