Ruling keeps alive cop killer's lawsuit over hepatitis drugs

Three-judge federal panel ruled there are sufficient grounds to support inmate's claim that he was denied appropriate treatment for a nonmedical reason — high cost


By Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A federal appeals court on Friday kept alive a lawsuit brought by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in the killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, that alleges his rights were violated when he was denied hepatitis C drugs.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision that Corrections Department employees were not immune to being sued over their decisions regarding Abu-Jamal.

In this July 12, 1995 file photo, Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves Philadelphia's City Hall after a hearing. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner, File)
In this July 12, 1995 file photo, Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves Philadelphia's City Hall after a hearing. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner, File)

Abu-Jamal, 65, who is serving a life sentence in the Pennsylvania prison system, says the initial denial of treating him with two anti-hepatitis drugs violated his constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

He previously won a court order that required the prison system to provide the drugs.

His lawyer, Bret Grote, said Friday that the treatment was successful.

A Wolf administration spokesman said the newly issued opinion was under review and noted the decision did not conclude the litigation.

On Friday, the three-judge federal panel ruled there are sufficient grounds at this point to support his claim that he was denied appropriate treatment for a nonmedical reason — its high cost.

"Our ruling here should not be read to rule out the possibility that the department defendants may, at a future stage of the litigation, be able to establish either a lack of medical consensus at relevant points as to the appropriate procedures surrounding hepatitis C treatment or that there were 'medical reasons' for adherence to the protocol," wrote Judge Patty Shwartz.

In November, the Corrections Department announced it was moving to settle a separate lawsuit by providing a prescription drug treatment regimen for prisoners who suffer from chronic hepatitis C infections.

That deal called for the state to provide direct-acting anti-viral drugs, giving priority to those with the most serious conditions. The department said last year the average per-patient treatment cost was about $20,000.

Abu-Jamal, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute-Mahanoy, is a former Black Panther convicted of the slaying of Officer Daniel Faulkner, who had just pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother.

Abu-Jamal spent most of his decades behind bars on death row before his sentence was reduced in 2011 to life without parole. He was recently granted a new appeals hearing.

He tested positive in 2012 for the hepatitis C antibody, and three years later was rushed to a hospital twice in three months, Shwartz wrote. He repeatedly asked to be treated with two anti-viral drugs, but a prison system committee rejected his request.

Abu-Jamal sued in May 2015, and a federal judge ordered him to be treated with the two drugs. The latest appeals court decision concerns a lawsuit he filed in 2017 that alleges violation of his 8th Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

A trial date has not been scheduled.

Associated Press
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