Daniel J. Flynn
The ‘20s had Sacco and Vanzetti. The ‘50s had the Rosenbergs. The ‘70s had Angela Davis. Now campus activists in the 1990s have their very own cause du jour. Seventeen years ago, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. Increasingly since that time, maintaining his innocence has been an article of faith among those on the far Left.
While making a routine traffic stop in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner was murdered. After Officer Faulkner pulled over and attempted to arrest William Cook, his brother, Mumia Abu-Jamal, then rushed into the area. Soon thereafter the policeman was shot and killed. After a trial that ended in the summer of 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist journalist who had been involved with the Black Panthers and the Philadelphian radical group MOVE, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
At least five witnesses said they saw Abu-Jamal kill the policeman. A gun registered to Abu-Jamal was found by the suspect’s side. Abu-Jamal was wearing a holster. The gun at his side contained five spent shells. Five bullets were extracted from the slain officer that matched the shells found in Abu-Jamal’s gun. The journalist was hit with a return round from Officer Faulkner’s service revolver. Even William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s own brother, has never denied the guilt of his sibling.
Despite such seemingly convincing evidence, activism on behalf of Abu-Jamal is today more vibrant than ever. Take a walk on just about any large campus in the United States and you’re bound to encounter literature proclaiming the innocence of the man convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. A group of more than 700 scholars called Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal (AMAJ)—including such luminaries as Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison, French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, historian Howard Zinn, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and writer Alice Walker—is currently working for his release. A petition drive is underway at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington to make the imprisoned Abu-Jamal this year’s commencement speaker. The recent wave of activity will culminate in a planned national student walkout on April 23 on behalf of the incarcerated journalist, to be followed by a "Millions for Mumia" march on Philadelphia’s city hall on April 24. Pam Africa, a leader of the Philadelphia-based organization MOVE, told Campus Report that "hundreds of thousands, if not millions" are expected to gather in the City of Brotherly Love for the event.
In an interview, a representative of the International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu Jamal, an organizer of the event, told Campus Report, "I think Daniel Faulkner deserved to die." The Philadelphia-based activist, who goes by the name "Marcos," called the slain officer’s widow "a flake" who’s "either a liar or has delusions" and said he didn’t know or care if Abu-Jamal killed a police officer.
"It doesn’t make any difference who shot Faulkner," he opined "He was beating Mumia’s little brother with a metal flashlight. He was armed and dangerous and the only way to deal with him was to shoot him."
Abu-Jamal’s strong support within academia first began to heavily permeate the outside world several years ago. The city of Santa Cruz, California issued a proclamation calling for a new trial, while San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown followed suit by naming August 16, 1997 as a citywide "Justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal Day." A year earlier a group in Copenhagen barricaded themselves in the Danish Parliament and hoisted a "Free Mumia" banner outside a window for the international press.
Sympathetic pop-culture references to Abu-Jamal are more commonplace as well. Earlier this year, popular music acts the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine played a controversial arena benefit concert for the death row inmate at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The January 13 episode of the NBC television series Law and Order contained a scene suggesting that Abu-Jamal was set-up. A female district attorney explains to the character "Briscoe" that she can’t talk because she has to go to a fundraising dinner for Mumia Abu-Jamal. "You mean the Philadelphia cop-killer?" detective Briscoe responds. "I mean the Philadelphia journalist," she defiantly retorts. "He was framed for the murder, you know." A web site sympathetic to Abu-Jamal enthusiastically reports that "the woman’s viewpoint is shown by the whole drift of the episode to be right."
Could it be that an innocent man was sentenced to death almost 17 years ago? Many of Abu-Jamal’s supporters seem to think so and demand that he be set free. Shaped by the disastrous police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in May of 1985, many Philadelphia-based Mumia supporters believe that area police are capable of doing anything to frame one who was so steadfast in his attacks upon the local system of criminal justice. Opposition to the death penalty, racism and the criminal justice system fuel the activism of others involved in the issue. What does the evidence say?
What Did the Eyewitnesses See?
Central to the vast amount of literature promoting a frame up in the case is the notion that there were several eyewitnesses attesting that someone else killed Officer Faulkner in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981. Abu-Jamal’s current attorney, Leonard Weinglass, states that "four witnesses situated in four separate locations on the street—none of whom knew each other or Mumia—reported seeing the shooter flee, and all have him going in precisely the same direction."
Court transcripts, as well as subsequent statements by the four individuals in question, paint a far different picture than the one presented by Weinglass. No credible witness has ever claimed to see anyone but Mumia Abu-Jamal kill the policeman. Remarkably, one of the witnesses that Weinglass says exonerates his client, Robert Chobert, has fingered Abu-Jamal as the killer several times and has never recanted.
The other three witnesses claimed by Weinglass to support his case have always denied that they were at the immediate crime scene when the murder took place—one was watching television, another was blocks away, while a third was in a parking lot behind a building. Two of these witnesses, as well as Mr. Chobert, all said that they saw people running around the scene of the crime—not fleeing the scene—in the chaotic minutes after the police arrived.
Typical of the reactions to Mr. Weinglass’ interpretation—an interpretation that concluded that those rushing around the crime scene were necessarily fleeing—is Debra Kordansky’s. Kordansky is one of the people the defense team claims saw someone else kill the policeman and flee. When asked by Weinglass in court about a mystery man escaping the area, Kordansky scoffed at his deliberate mischaracterization of her statements. "No, I think the runner was part of the flow of the whole situation. There was a man killed, there’s panic. Someone was running, maybe two people are running, maybe three people are running, you know. There’s police, there’s news crews, etc."
In a 1996 statement given to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, Veronica Jones retracted statements she made under oath at the original trial thirteen years earlier. Her denials of seeing men run away from the scene, she now maintains, were coerced by the police. While Jones still only purports to have peeked at the crime scene "a few minutes later," she now explains that she "did see two men leave the scene in a hurry as was reported by me to the police in an earlier signed interview." Jones has changed her story several times since 1981, admits to drinking and smoking marijuana heavily that day, and, like key prosecution witness Cynthia White, was working as a prostitute on the night in question.
The one witness who claims to have seen someone other than Abu-Jamal kill Faulkner has been consistently labeled by the defense as "a person whose recollection of what happened on the night in question we believe to be not entirely accurate." Mr. William Singletary bizarrely claims that Abu-Jamal was clothed in a "safari suit like the Arabs wear" on the night of the murder. He states that he observed a police helicopter "circling overhead" (the Philadelphia police department did not own one) that escaped the notice of everyone else in the area. And he states that the passenger in William Cook’s car shot Officer Faulkner.
While there aren’t any credible eyewitnesses who saw anyone but Abu-Jamal kill Faulkner—even Mumia and his brother have never claimed to have seen another shooter—there are at least five people who testified that the man later convicted of the crime did in fact kill the policeman. Eyewitnesses Michael Scanlon, Robert Harkins, Cynthia White, Robert Chobert and Albert Magelton all pin the murder on the man arrested at the scene by the police: Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Did the Bullets Come From Mumia’s Gun?
Supporters of Abu-Jamal contend that ballistics tests prove Abu-Jamal to be innocent. "Ballistically there’s nothing to tie Mumia to even firing the gun," insisted Pam Africa to Campus Report. A scrap of paper with ".44" scribbled on it is proof enough that the .38 caliber spent shells found in Mumia’s gun do not match the bullets extracted from the officer’s corpse, his defenders say. Yet the notation made on the piece of paper was not penned by a ballistics expert or a policeman, but by a medical examiner without any training in this area. The examiner testified that his notes on such matters are "normally discarded," and made his determination by using a standard household ruler.
Ballistics tests on the bullets retrieved from Officer Faulkner’s body showed rifling groves that matched the chamber of the gun found beside the suspect, a gun that was purchased by and registered to Mumia Abu-Jamal. Spent shells found in Abu-Jamal’s gun were all ".38 Caliber Special P+" ammunition, identically matching the rounds that were shot into Officer Faulkner’s body.
Abu-Jamal’s own ballistics analyst, George Fassnacht, testified that the bullets that hit Officer Faulkner were not .44 caliber and to this day he refuses to view the physical evidence. Despite this, the defense team still clings to their theory that the writing of ".44" on a torn sheet of paper—by a doctor untrained in ballistics—demonstrates that the spent shells and the bullets that hit Faulkner don’t match.
Nor does the defense team explain how a gun registered to Mumia Abu-Jamal was found laying by his side at the crime scene, how it contained five spent shells of the same make as the bullets that killed Officer Faulkner, or why he was wearing a holster.
Was the Trial Fair?
Among the claims of those making the trek to Philadelphia this month for the "Millions for Mumia" event are that the jury was racially biased, suitable legal representation was denied to the defendant, and that the trial was politicized by the prosecution.
The jury that was seated for trial included nine whites and three blacks. Despite protestations by the defense that the jury was stacked with whites, its racial make-up almost identically mirrored the demographics of Philadelphia at that time. Among the claims at a 1997 appeal was a defense allegation that the dismissal of a black juror during the original trial was designed to add more whites to the jury. The court pointed out the real reason for the juror’s dismissal: "This particular juror openly expressed a dislike for [Abu-Jamal]. Appellant now relies on that discussion to argue that the court actually ‘engineered’ the removal of this juror. His claim is devoid of merit."
Another of Abu-Jamal’s complaints in his recent appeal was that he was denied an adequate defense at the original trial. As the court pointed out in the rejection of the appeal, the defendant initially "insisted on proceeding with an individual known as John Africa who was not a licensed attorney and had apparently never received any formal legal schooling." Ignoring the maxim that "a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client," Abu-Jamal then demanded to represent himself after Judge Sabo rejected Mr. Africa. While the accused killer was briefly allowed to act as his own attorney, he was barred from doing so after constantly disrupting the court with ideologically-laced harangues. Judge Sabo then appointed a licensed attorney to take over the defense. The court-appointed lawyer had previously defended 20 murder cases, winning a majority of them. Despite Abu-Jamal’s current claims that Judge Sabo sabotaged his case, any reasonable person would deduce that the judge’s actions were in the defendant’s best interests.
As is clear to anyone who cares to read the trial transcript, it was Mumia Abu-Jamal, not the prosecution, who politicized the trial by unnecessarily bringing up his beliefs and opinions. Typical of Abu-Jamal’s courtroom rantings, as is pointed out by the website supporting justice for Daniel Faulkner (www.danielfaulkner.com), was his statement prior to sentencing: "This decision today proves neither my guilt nor my innocence. It proves merely that the system is finished. Babylon is falling! Long live MOVE! Long live John Africa!"
Was There a Conspiracy to Silence Abu-Jamal?
Refuse & Resist, perhaps the group most organized to gain freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, claims that there’s an ongoing "high level conspiracy" to imprison the former Black Panther member because of his effectiveness in exposing the injustice of America’s capitalist society. The conspirators, Refuse & Resist believe, include the courts and "Philadelphia’s swinest," who in this case engaged in "the normal police practice of fabricating evidence and framing defendants." Refuse & Resist advises readers of its web page "to stop and remember that the police are not just another criminal syndicate. They ‘serve and protect’ wealth and power in this society."
Abu-Jamal worked as a cabdriver and a freelance journalist at the time of the murder. He was not an award-winning reporter, nor did his writings and commentaries reach a sizable audience, as has been suggested. He was barely noticed by the police and even less recognizable to the media-consuming public.
In prison Abu–Jamal writes a regular column, has had radio commentaries broadcast on Pacifica Radio, and released several widely purchased books. If the police really did frame Abu-Jamal in hopes of silencing him, they couldn’t have partaken in a more ill-advised act. Even Mumia’s supporters brag that his voice is now louder than ever.
More Cut and Dry Than the O.J. Simpson Trial
On December 9, 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered Officer Daniel Faulkner in cold blood. Abu-Jamal was found with a holster strapped around his chest. A smoking gun that was registered in his name lay by his side. Five spent shells were found in Abu-Jamal’s gun. Five bullets were fired at Officer Faulkner. Ballistics tests demonstrated that the rounds that killed Faulkner matched the ones fired from Abu-Jamal’s gun. Abu-Jamal lay on the ground with a return round from Officer Faulkner’s service revolver imbedded in his chest. Five eyewitnesses have testified that they saw Abu-Jamal kill Officer Faulkner. Witnesses at the hospital Abu-Jamal was taken to following the shooting state that on two occasions the ailing suspect yelled out, "I shot the motherfucker and I hope the motherfucker dies!" Despite dozens of reasons given by campus activists to the contrary, Abu-Jamal is clearly guilty of murder. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in denying his recent appeal, "no number of failed claims may collectively attain merit where they could not do so individually." Many of his supporters—drawn to the case because of the former journalist’s political views—even privately doubt his innocence
It is difficult to think of any recent high-profile murder case that is more cut and dry. Even the celebrated O.J. Simpson trial—whose only crime-scene eyewitness was a dog—does not come close to the case against Abu-Jamal with regard to the clarity of guilt. And yet, scores of actors, rock stars, politicians, campus activists, and academics label the case a miscarriage of justice. Later this month they will all come together and descend upon City Hall in Philadelphia, not to mourn Officer Faulkner’s death, but to celebrate his killer. http://www.academia.org/campus_reports/1999/april_1999_2.html