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20 Jan, 2010 09:00

Death sentence for Black Panther member still sparks controversy

The US justice system has come under fire after the Supreme Court overruled a decision to annul the death sentence of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, accused of killing a police officer in 1981.

Abu-Jamal, a professionally trained journalist and once an activist of the controversial African-American civil rights movement, is for many one of the most well known political prisoners in the world. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner almost three decades ago.

All these years Abu-Jamal has continued to write and speak from behind bars. “I'm fighting for my life and fighting to create a revolution in America,” is his motto.

Christopher Chambers of Georgetown University says Abu-Jamal’s popularity and fame as a journalist only benefited from his sentence.

It comes from the taint and flavor of injustice that surrounds this case,” Chambers says. “It implicates the power, the racism of the judge, the cops, and the punishment phase.”

Chambers also thinks Abu-Jamal has become a “living martyr” and important symbol, which he can only remain as long as he is alive.

However, Hugh Burns – Prosecutor of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office – maintains that Abu-Jamal is in fact guilty of the crime charged.

[Abu-Jamal] was at the scene [of the crime] and the gun was by his side,” Burns says. “He tried to pick it up and use it on the police officers who were arriving. One of them kicked it out of his hand. There were about four eyewitnesses who saw him do it,” Burns said.

During the sentencing phase the case bounced from district court to the court of appeals. However, on Tuesday the US Supreme Court finally ordered the court of appeals to keep Abu-Jamal’s conviction. The decision was based on a similar case from Ohio, which will now be used as a precedent while Abu-Jamal’s case heads back to the court of appeals.

The decision has infuriated thousands who have pledged their support for Abu-Jamal and struggled over the years to free him. These supporters insist on Abu-Jamal’s innocence and say he was framed for his political activism and race.