May 17, 2007 -- One of the most controversial death row inmates in American history, convicted cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal is heading back to court to seek a new trial.
A folk hero to some and a cold-blooded murderer to others, Abu Jamal has been on death row for 24 years. Today his case gets a new day in court, as a panel of judges in Philadelphia decides whether to strike his death sentence and grant him a new trial.
Abu Jamal, an outspoken journalist and active member of the Black Panthers, was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982. On a cold December night in 1981, Officer Daniel Faulkner was found dead, shot once in the back and once between the eyes. When police arrived at the scene, Abu Jamal was sitting on the curb a few feet away from Faulkner's body.
Crime scene witnesses testified that they saw Abu Jamal fire a shot at Faulkner's back. Next to Abu Jamal was a gun prosecutors say they linked to the bullets that killed Faulkner. Together, the collective physical and testimonial evidence led a jury to find Abu Jamal guilty after a few hours of deliberation.
Abu Jamal proclaimed his innocence from the start of the investigation. He and his lawyer, Robert Bryan, say there were substantial flaws in that trial. Bryan, an expert in death penalty litigation, argues that the trial was poorly run and that the jury was tainted by racial bias.
At today's hearing a panel of three judges will consider those arguments, along with allegations that the trial judge was racially biased.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund will also present arguments on Abu Jamal's behalf, claiming that prosecutors unfairly excluded black jurors from the 1982 trial.
Depending on the court's decision Abu Jamal could get a new trial or a new execution date.
'Free Mumia' Movement Supports Abu Jamal
Since his conviction Abu Jamal has been prolific, writing a handful of books and recording a radio show from prison. He speaks of resistance and freedom, closing each broadcast with the tag line, "From death row this is Mumia Abu Jamal."
Few, if any, cases have garnered as much passionate attention as Abu Jamal's. It inspired the "Free Mumia" movement, a global protest of activists, movie stars and scholars mobilizing for his release. Though his popular support peaked in the 1990s, fans continue to rally for his release with a devotion that verges on worship.
"Mumia stands out because he is a hero and a prophet for our times," wrote Millie Barnet in the Sonoma County Free Press.
Abu Jamal's detractors, in contrast, say the "Free Mumia" campaign makes a hero out of a cop killer.
"Mumia is nothing but a cold-blooded murderer," said Maureen Faulkner, the officer's widow, in a 1998 interview with ABC News.
"They have been duped," said Faulkner of the activists behind the movement.
Abu Jamal's supporters have planned protests this week in Philadelphia, New York, Toronto and London.
Those who support Abu Jamal and those who condemn him are watching his case with concern, worried that the court's decision will contradict their sense of a just outcome. Both sides are keenly aware that after decades of debate and outrage, a case that is 24 years old is still not over.