- Associated Press - Monday, November 8, 2010

PHILADELPHIA | The lead lawyer for death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has quit the case just days before a key appeals court hearing and amid a rift with his famous client over strategy.

Lawyer Robert R. Bryan stepped down after Abu-Jamal asked him to sit silent in court while another lawyer argued that jury instructions in his 1982 trial were flawed.

At Abu-Jamal’s insistence, Widener University law professor Judith L. Ritter will now argue the issue.

Abu-Jamal, 56, has had close to 10 lawyers represent him since his 1981 arrest made him a worldwide cause celebre, and another dozen or two work on his behalf through liberal and leftist advocacy groups.

Mr. Bryan had taken over the case seven years ago and pushed to overturn both his client’s death sentence and conviction in the 1981 slaying of a Philadelphia police officer.

“He and I had a very basic disagreement about this argument tomorrow,” Mr. Bryan said Monday. “It finally got to the point where I just felt like, ethically, I was totally compromised.”

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing in 2008 after finding the jury instructions flawed. But the U.S. Supreme Court this year ordered the court to reconsider after upholding similar jury instructions in an Ohio case.

That seemingly makes Tuesday’s arguments an uphill battle for Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of killing 25-year-old Officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal’s writings and broadcasts from death row have helped make him an international cause among death-penalty opponents and an array of other activists.

Two documentary films about Abu-Jamal debuted this year, offering rival views of his case.

Officer Faulkner’s widow, Maureen, has also worked to preserve her husband’s memory by co-authoring a book and cooperating with one of the films.

Mr. Ritter has previously argued the jury-instruction issue before the 3rd Circuit Court, while Ms. Bryan handled other issues. She did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment Monday.

Abu-Jamal has argued in numerous appeals that racism by the trial judge and prosecutors corrupted his conviction at the hands of a mostly white jury. Those appeals have thus far failed.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have fought a federal judge’s 2001 decision to grant Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing because of the jury instructions.

The supposed flaw relates to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances in the death-penalty phase.

Mr. Bryan, based in San Francisco, said he met with Abu-Jamal about every six weeks over the years at a state prison in western Pennsylvania, and spoke to him by phone twice a week.

“I think this case can be won,” Mr. Bryan said. “I still think that he can be saved.”

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