Discarded Abu-Jamal Death Sentence More Proof of Death Penalty System Plagued By Ineffective Counsel, ACLU Says

December 18, 2001 12:00 am

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ACLU of Pennsylvania
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Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON–Today’s decision by U.S. District Judge William Yohn to throw out Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence due to improper courtroom procedure underscores the point that our nation’s death penalty system is riddled with flaws.

Abu-Jamal is at least the third Pennsylvania death row inmate this year to have his sentence thrown out due to confusing jury instructions by courts. In his decision to order a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal, Judge Yohn stated that the instructions given to the jurors in the Jamal case did not clearly direct them to consider crucial mitigating circumstances when voting to give Jamal the death penalty. At issue is the belief by jurors that they needed to be unanimous on considering any mitigating factors that would support a vote against death.

In explaining his decision, Judge Yohn cited a unanimous opinion, issued on October 31 of this year, in which the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a death sentence against George Banks, stating that jurors should have been able to consider mitigating circumstances in their deliberations. The instructions given to them did not make this fact clear. In that decision, the 3rd Circuit Court discussed yet another Pennsylvania death row case, Hackett v. Price, in which a prisoner’s death sentence was voided for the same reason.

Experienced death penalty criminal lawyers are the first line of defense against confusing or improper jury instructions and other courtroom mistakes. Without such experienced counsel, courtroom errors are all too common.

In addition to Philadelphia’s systemic problems regarding inexperienced counsel, it is worth mentioning that a 1998 University of Iowa study argued that being African-American significantly increased the likelihood of a defendant receiving a death sentence in Philadelphia. And a study of Pennsylvania’s death row released this month by the Capital Representation Project shows that Philadelphia is the only city in America with more than 100 African-Americans on death row. The report further discloses that among comparably sized counties across the country, Philadelphia County has the largest number (121) and percentage (90 percent) of minorities on death row, as well as the highest percentage (84 percent) of African-Americans on death row.

In order to give serious consideration to the problems of inadequate and untrained defense counsel, and racially driven biases, our leaders have no moral choice but to call for a moratorium on all executions.

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