The case stems from a December 1981 traffic stop in which Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over a car driven by Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook. Abu-Jamal was a passenger in the car. A struggle broke out between Mr. Cook and Officer Faulkner.
According to witnesses, as the struggle continued Abu-Jamal ran back toward the car from a parking lot across the street and shot Faulkner in the back. The officer fell to the ground and returned fire, striking Abu-Jamal in the chest. Abu-Jamal then allegedly walked toward the officer, stood over him, and fired four more shots at close range. One shot struck Faulkner between the eyes.
He was convicted and sentenced to death. The jury found one aggravating factor – killing a police officer who was acting in the line of duty. The jury considered one mitigating factor, Abu-Jamal’s lack of a significant criminal record.
It is the sentencing phase of the trial that was under consideration in the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Both a federal judge and a federal appeals court had ruled that the jury that sentenced Abu-Jamal to death might have been confused over how to properly assess mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of the trial.
At issue was whether jurors might have thought that they had to unanimously agree on each piece of mitigating evidence being weighed against the aggravating circumstances justifying a death sentence.
There is no unanimity requirement for jurors considering mitigating circumstances. They are free to consider anything that might weigh against a death sentence.
In contrast, all jurors must agree on any aggravating factors. In addition, jurors must unanimously decide that the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that those aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances.
In some cases jurors have been given faulty instructions by the trial judge that jurors must unanimously agree on the mitigating factors. Such instructions are inaccurate and unconstitutional under a 1988 Supreme Court decision called Mills v. Maryland.