Death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in a controversial trial of murdering a police officer, is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, a federal judge said Tuesday (December 18).
Abu-Jamal's case has attracted many outspoken supporters, including the former members of Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Chuck D and others, who have rallied for him to receive a new trial or freedom.
In a 272-page ruling, U.S. District Judge William Yohn Jr. ordered the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to conduct a new hearing for Abu-Jamal within 180 days or his death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment, according to Associated Press reports.
The former journalist and Black Panther was sentenced to die in 1982 after he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, who had pulled over William Cook, Abu-Jamal's brother, for a traffic violation.
Abu-Jamal claims he was driving a cab when he saw Cook being beaten by Officer Faulkner with a flashlight. In court trials, authorities acknowledged that Faulkner hit Cook with a flashlight after Cook struck the officer. Prosecutors said that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner in the back, then stood over the officer and shot him in the head.
Yohn's ruling marks a small victory for Abu-Jamal, who exhausted the state appeals process two years ago. Yohn had denied a petition to hear new evidence in September, and Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Dembe refused a retrial last month because her court had no jurisdiction to grant one.
Calling Abu-Jamal a political prisoner who was browbeaten by a racist justice system, several musicians, actors, writers and activists have campaigned to "Free Mumia." Supporters believe Faulkner's killer escaped on the night of the shooting and claim Abu-Jamal was set up because of his work as a political commentator and his involvement with the '60s black-activist organization the Black Panthers.
Former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, one of Mumia's most outspoken supporters, called Tuesday's decision "a huge step forward in the road to freeing one of America's most renowned and dedicated activists."
De la Rocha's former bandmate guitarist Tom Morello said Tuesday's order was "a tremendous victory for the cause of justice." "The noose has been removed from this political prisoner's neck for the time being, thanks in large measure to persistent public outcry," Morello said in a statement. "Remember, this is a case that is being tried both in the courts and in the streets. And while this battle will continue, today's ruling is a cause for celebration."
Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Bad Religion (see "Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine Plan Mumia Benefit"), Mos Def, Dead Prez, members of the Roots (see "Mos Def, Black Thought To Perform At Mumia Benefit"), Sting (see "Police To Protest Sting Over Mumia Support") and others have held various benefit concerts for Abu-Jamal over the years. Some
of those artists collaborated as the Unbound Allstars to record "Mumia 911" in late 1999 for the Abu-Jamal benefit album, The Unbound Project Vol. 1.
De la Rocha even met with United Nation's International Commission of Human Rights about Abu-Jamal's case (see "Rage's Zack De La Rocha To Discuss Mumia Abu-Jamal Case With U.N. Commission").
For much more on the controversy surrounding Abu-Jamal, see "Weeding Through The Rhetoric: What's The Rage/Beasties Benefit About?"
[This story was updated on 12.18.01 at 7:10 P.M. ET.]