By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has let stand the conviction of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sent to death row for gunning down a Philadelphia police officer 28 years ago.
He contends blacks were unfairly excluded from the jury, and has been an outspoken activist from behind bars.
The justices made their announcement Monday.
A separate appeal over whether Abu-Jamal deserves a new sentencing hearing has not been taken up by the high court.
Prosecutors are appealing a federal appeals court ruling in Abu-Jamal's favor last year on the sentencing issue. The case has attracted international attention amid charges of prosecutorial misconduct and the inmate's outspoken personality.
Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and cab driver has been a divisive figure, with many prominent supporters arguing that racism pervaded his trial. Others countered Abu-Jamal is using his skin color to escape responsibility for his actions. They say he has divided the community for years with his provocative writing and activism.
He was convicted for the December 9, 1981, murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Faulkner had pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother in a late-night traffic stop. Witnesses said Abu-Jamal, who was nearby, ran over and shot the policeman in the back and in the head.
Abu-Jamal, once known as Wesley Cook, was also wounded in the encounter and later confessed to the killing, according to other witnesses testimony.
Abu-Jamal is black and the police officer was white.
Incarcerated for nearly three decades, Abu-Jamal has been an active critic of the criminal justice system.
On a Web site created by friends to promote the release this month of his new book, the prisoner-turned-author writes about his fight. "This is the story of law learned, not in the ivory towers of multi-billion dollar endowed universities but in the bowels of the slave-ship, in the hidden, dank dungeons of America."
His chief defense attorney, Robert Bryan, had urged the justices to grant a new criminal trial, but the high court offered no explanation for its refusal to intervene.
"The central issue in this case is racism in jury selection," Bryan wrote to supporters last month. Ten whites and two blacks made up the original jury panel that sentenced Abu-Jamal to death.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals a year ago kept the murder conviction in place, but ordered a new capital sentencing hearing. That court ultimately concluded the jury was improperly instructed on how to weigh "mitigating factors" offered by the defense that might have kept Abu-Jamal off death row.
Pennsylvania law at the time said jurors did not have to unanimously agree on a mitigating circumstance, such as the fact that Abu-Jamal had no prior criminal record.
Months before that ruling, oral arguments on the issue were contentious. Faulkner's widow and Abu-Jamal's brother attended, and demonstrations on both sides were held outside the courtroom in downtown Philadelphia.
Many prominent groups and individuals, including singer Harry Belafonte, the NAACP and the European Parliament, are cited on his Web site as supporters. Prosecutors have insisted Abu-Jamal pay the price for his crimes, and have aggressively resisted efforts to take him of death row for Faulkner's murder.
"This assassination has been made a circus by those people in the world and this city who believe falsely that Mumia Abu-Jamal is some kind of a folk hero," said Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham last year, when the federal appeals court upheld the conviction. "He is nothing short of an assassin."