PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Philadelphia judge has re-instated Mumia Abu-Jamal post-conviction appellate rights, more than 35 years after he convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner in Center City.
City Judge Leon Tucker partially granted Abu-Jamal’s appeal, saying former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille should have recused himself from Abu-Jamal’s state Supreme Court appeal attempt “to ensure the neutrality of the judicial process,” but simultaneously said the court found no evidence Castille was biased in his decision or had prior significant involvement in the case, as the defense contends.
Abu-Jamal’s latest appeal attempt is based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving another Philadelphia man, Terrance Williams, who was convicted in a separate murder. The high court ruled Castille should have recused himself from that state Supreme Court decision, because he had “personal significant involvement” as the city’s district attorney.
Castille was the District Attorney when Abu-Jamal was going through his appeal process on the lower-court level.
Abu-Jamal was convicted by a jury in the murder of Faulker in 1982, and he was sentenced to death. But in 2011, then-District Attorney Seth Williams decided to ask for life without the possibility of parole, following a federal appeals court decision that jurors may have received misleading instructions during the trial.
“Justice would best be served by allowing the petitioner (Abu-Jamal) re-argument before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” wrote Tucker, “before a complete and clearly unbiased tribunal” or court.
In the court filing released Thursday afternoon, Tucker also pointed to two missing documents brought to the court’s attention by the defense, which he said should have been held on to by the commonwealth.
The first is a memo from Castille to Deputy District Attorney Gayle Barthold, and the second is a 1988 letter from then-Sen. Michael Fisher asking about status information on certain capital cases.
“The unavailability of such documents may prejudice petitioner,” Tucker added.
The judge also said the commonwealth should have kept all documents related to the case, adding, “It is ironic that the commonwealth accepts no responsibility for the preservation of the memo request from Mr. Castille yet has been able to retain the responsive document from Ms. Barthold that the memo request from Mr. Castille was attached to.”
He continues, saying, “The public expectation of impartial justice is necessary. The slightest appearance of bias or lack of impartiality undermines the entire judiciary hence the mandate of not only propriety but the appearance of propriety.”
Abu-Jamal’s defense attorney, Judith L. Ritter, said in an emailed statement: “Judge Tucker recognized the unconstitutional bias involved with Justice Castille’s sitting on the prior post-conviction appeals, and the need for a new appeal untainted by such bias. This was a straightforward application of federal and Pennsylvania law requiring cases to be decided by judges whose impartiality cannot reasonably be questioned.”
Faulkner’s widow, Maureen, said Friday that the case has taken so much happiness from her and the Faulkner family, and they all just want it to end.
She believes the judge made the “safe” decision and not the right decision in allowing Abu-Jamal to appeal.
“I don’t think he followed his heart or his gut,” she said, “because I think if he did, he would have made the proper decision, by not allowing Mumia Abu-Jamal to be able to go up to the Superior Court judge.”
Since Larry Krasner took over as district attorney, Maureen Faulkner said she is uncertain what will happen next.
“I think he looks at cases in a different way and I think he’s ruling in a different way. So as far as this case is concerned, I have no idea whether the DA’s office is going to appeal this or whether they are going to let it go straight through to the Superior Court judge,” she added.
Abu-Jamal has 30 days to appeal to the state Superior Court.