A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Mumia Abu-Jamal

July 21, 1995

Dear Cecil:

I recently read that the former governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, had never heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal, despite the thousands of letters and petitions calling for Abu-Jamal's release that had been sent to his office. Now that the new governor, Tom Ridge, has signed Abu-Jamal's death warrant (for August 17--Marcus Garvey Day), I suspect this new governor also has no idea who Mumia is. Who pulls the governor's strings? Is this state murder of a liberal reporter a further COINTELPRO operation, or is some hateful petty bureaucrat to blame? As time is running out for Mumia, it is vital that the calls for mercy reach the appropriate ears.

Cecil replies:

Can't speak for the governor of Pennsylvania. But the fact is that until quite recently the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical facing execution for killing a cop, hadn't shown up on the radar screen of virtually anybody outside Philadelphia except for members of the left, for whom it had become a cause celebre. Abu- Jamal, a freelance radio reporter, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Black Panthers and later took up with MOVE, the black cult that was massacred in the 1985 firebomb fiasco. There have been protests around the world plus the now-inevitable Web page on the Internet.

You can guess the reaction: Mumia who? Even among those having a clue, many figure the guy's an unrepentant rad, he had a gun, he was involved in a shootout in which a cop got killed. Just as bad, his supporters are the usual radical chic crowd (Ed Asner, Whoopi Goldberg), he wears dreadlocks, and you can't even pronounce his name. Let him toast.

Here's what we know. Around 4 AM on December 9, 1981, Philly policeman Dan Faulkner pulled over a VW carrying Mumia Abu-Jamal's brother for a traffic violation. In the ensuing scuffle, Faulkner smacked the brother with his flashlight. Abu-Jamal, who was driving a cab, happened by and went to his brother's aid carrying a legally registered pistol.

The prosecution says Mumia shot first, hitting officer Faulkner in the back. Faulkner returned the fire, seriously wounding Mumia. Mumia leaned over the now-prostrate officer and shot him in the face, killing him, then collapsed himself. Two eyewitnesses said, more or less, that they saw this occur, and two others offered corroborating evidence.

No way, says the defense, which claims Faulkner was killed by an unknown assailant who fled the scene. (One possibility: Abu- Jamal's brother.) Both key witnesses had police records and could have been pressured. On the stand several witnesses contradicted their previous statements to police. It was never proved that Abu- Jamal's gun killed Officer Faulkner. (The bullet shattered and ballistics tests were inconclusive.) There may been suppressed evidence, judicial bias, and so on.

Granted, if you put enough lawyers on the case you can create a reasonable doubt that the sun rises in the east. Most of the defense's claims are speculative. Even if we discount the more improbable testimony, Cecil is prepared to concede that the state proved its case well enough to convict.

The death sentence is a different matter. Remember that Abu- Jamal initially was trying to help his brother. The prosecution said he didn't fire the fatal shot until he'd been wounded himself. The whole thing was over in seconds. Was this a premeditated crime? The jury evidently was unsure, since it requested clarification on the definition of third-degree murder and manslaughter after deliberations began.

Abu-Jamal was found guilty of murder one but still might have avoided execution had it not been for the highly irregular penalty hearing. As was his right, the defendant made a contentious statement to the court. This ticked off the judge, who ruled that Abu-Jamal, who had not testified during the trial, could be cross- examined. The prosecution took the opportunity to introduce Maoist rhetoric the defendant had spouted 12 years before at age 16. These irrelevant remarks apparently convinced the mostly-white jury that Abu-Jamal was a dangerous revolutionary, and though he had no prior criminal record they sentenced him to death. Amnesty International has rightly protested that he is being killed for his political views. The guy maybe deserves prison but probably not the fatal dose.

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