Yesterday's ruling was the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that ordered the appeals court to review its 2008 ruling that ordered a new sentencing hearing for the former Black Panther. Both yesterday and in 2008, the appeals court ruled that Abu-Jamal's murder conviction should stand but called for a new sentencing hearing because death-penalty jury instructions were misleading.
The Supreme Court ordered the review because of a related case out of Ohio regarding jury instructions in a death-penalty trial.
But the three-judge panel on the appeals court said Abu-Jamal's case was different from the Ohio case because the verdict form was confusing and repeatedly used the word "unanimous," even in the section on mitigating circumstances. Under state law, Abu-Jamal should have received a life sentence if a single juror found that mitigating factors outweighed aggravating factors.
Judge Anthony Scirica, writing in yesterday's 32-page opinion, said the ultimate responsibility for the dispute over jury instructions lay with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which repeatedly upheld Abu-Jamal's death sentence since the late 1980s.
That court "failed to evaluate whether the complete text of the verdict form, together with the jury instructions, would create a substantial probability the jury believed both aggravating and mitigating circumstances must be found unanimously," Scirica wrote.
Judith Ritter, a Widener University law professor who represents Abu-Jamal, said yesterday that the state had "long ago abandoned the confusing and misleading instructions and verdict slip" that were relied on at Abu-Jamal's trial in order to "prevent unfair and unjust death sentences."
But Williams said that the jury instructions were "fair and appropriate" when Abu-Jamal was sentenced and that he has "to apply the laws that were in place" in 1982.
Yesterday's ruling was the latest in a 29-year legal drama that is likely to continue for years. Abu-Jamal has become a cause célèbre among foes of capital punishment and remains in a state prison outside Pittsburgh.