The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a court ruling that invalidated a former Black Panther's death sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, one of two rulings it issued that reversed actions by lower courts.
The first move was the latest twist in Mumia Abu-Jamal's racially tinged case that has drawn international attention.
The justices ordered the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to take another look at Abu-Jamal's claim that the jury weighing his punishment was given flawed instructions.
The high court acted on Pennsylvania's appeal of the 3rd Circuit ruling following a decision last week in a capital case from Ohio that turned on a similar issue. The 3rd Circuit could order a federal trial court to consider Abu-Jamal's case anew, including other claims he has raised that have yet to be decided.
A Philadelphia jury convicted Abu-Jamal of killing white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 after the patrolman pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother in an overnight traffic stop.
Prosecutors say Faulkner, 25, managed to shoot Abu-Jamal during the confrontation. A wounded Abu-Jamal, his own gun lying nearby, was still at the scene when police arrived, and authorities consider the evidence against him overwhelming.
Since Abu-Jamal's 1982 conviction, activists in the United States and Europe have rallied in support of his claims that he was the victim of a racist justice system. Abu-Jamal has kept his case in the spotlight through books and radio broadcasts.
The appeals court upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction but held his death sentence invalid. The Supreme Court earlier rejected Abu-Jamal's appeal of his conviction.
The issue over the instructions relates to whether jurors understood how to weigh mitigating circumstances that might have kept Abu-Jamal off death row. Under the law, jurors did not have to agree unanimously on a mitigating circumstance.
"The verdict form together with the jury instructions were misleading as to whether unanimity was required in consideration of mitigating circumstances," the appeals court wrote.
But last week, the Supreme Court reversed a similar ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. That case dealt with Frank Spisak, a neo-Nazi who killed three people in 1982.
The case is Beard v. Abu-Jamal, 08-652.
In a separate case, the Supreme Court again reinstated the conviction of a California woman for shaking her 7-week-old grandson in a case that has become a tug of war with the federal appeals court in San Francisco.
Shirley Ree Smith was convicted in December 1997 and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
After California appeals courts ruled against Smith, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 2006. The appellate judges said they found "no demonstrable support" for the prosecution's theory of the case. Prosecutors said that Smith lost her temper when Etzel Dean Glass III began to cry and shook him to death.
In 2007, the high court ordered the 9th Circuit to reconsider its decision based on a recent Supreme Court ruling. In that case, the justices overturned another ruling by the appeals court that was favorable to a convicted killer.
But later that year, the 9th Circuit stood by its earlier decision that Smith's conviction very likely was "a miscarriage of justice."
Last week, the high court issued yet another decision reinstating a murder conviction and overruling the 9th Circuit.
In their order Tuesday, the justices instructed the appeals court to consider Smith's case again in light of last week's decision.
The case is Patrick v. Smith, 07-1483.
From wire reports