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October 10, 2009

The big little SCOTUS capital case from Ohio to be argued this coming week

The Legal Intelligencer has this new piece, headlined "Ohio Death Penalty Case Might Determine Abu-Jamal's Fate," which highlights that even seemingly little capital cases taken up by the Supreme Court could have big consequences in other high-profile capital cases. Here is how t he piece starts:

Lawyers for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal will be watching closely on Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up an Ohio death penalty case because its outcome may very well decide whether Abu-Jamal's death sentence will be reinstated.

In April, Abu-Jamal lost his final appeal seeking a new trial for the December 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner when the justices refused to take up the issue of whether blacks were unfairly excluded from the jury. But, at the time, the justices took no action on a companion petition filed by the Philadelphia district attorney's office demanding reinstatement of Abu-Jamal's death sentence despite having discussed it weeks before.

Now it appears certain that the high court has decided to hold the Philadelphia prosecutors' petition in abeyance pending the outcome of Smith v. Spisak -- an Ohio case that raises strikingly similar issues to those in Abu-Jamal's case.

If the prosecutors in that case are successful and win reinstatement of the death sentence imposed on Frank G. Spisak, the justices may then see no need to take up Abu-Jamal's case. Instead, at that point, it's likely that the justices would simply issue a one-page order in Abu-Jamal's case that would summarily reverse the decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and order the appellate court to reconsider whether Abu-Jamal's death sentence should be reinstated.

Why is Abu-Jamal's case so similar to Spisak's?  Both were on death row for notorious murders, but both won rulings in federal court that granted them partial new trials limited to the penalty phase. In both cases, the federal courts' decisions to overturn the death sentences hinged on Mills v. Maryland -- a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that governs how juries should deliberate during the penalty phase of a capital trial.

October 10, 2009 at 09:59 AM | Permalink

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