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Mumia Abu-Jamal 101

by Lucy Komisar

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Mumia Abu-Jamal is in prison in Pennsylvania, sentenced to death for murder in the first degree. His defenders say his guilt was never established properly. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and PEN are among groups calling for a retrial of his case.

Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge, a Republican who promised during his election campaign to expedite executions, signed a death warrant on June 1, 1995; Ridge was reelected this year. Two months later, Judge Albert F. Sabo, who had sentenced Jamal, granted a stay of execution until the legal proceedings in the case are concluded.

Jamal is the author of Live from Death Row, published by Addison-Wesley.

Jamal's brother has dropped out of sight

Jamal, who is black, was tried and convicted in June 1982 of the murder of a white policeman, Daniel Faulkner, in the early hours of December 9, 1981. Faulkner had stopped Jamal's brother, Billy Cook, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Jamal, driving his taxi, came upon the scene, parked, and ran to where, the defense says, the officer was beating his brother. There was gunfire.

The prosecution contended that Jamal first shot the officer, wounding him slightly. After the officer returned fire and hit him, Jamal, angered, stood over the officer, who had fallen to the sidewalk, and shot him in the face. Found at the scene was Jamal's gun, which he carried because he had once been robbed in his cab.

The defense asserted that Jamal was shot by Faulkner as Jamal approached, and that a third black man riding in the car with Cook then shot Faulkner and fled.

Cook was convicted of simple assault and received a thirty-day sentence. He had a drug history and, defense attorney Leonard Weinglass says, he feared that police would retaliate against him and did not want to appear in court. Weinglass -- who did not represent Jamal at the trial -- says that Jamal's mother had a heart condition, and the family agreed to keep her second son out of the trial. Neither side subpoenaed Cook. The mother died shortly after the trial, and, Weinglass says, Cook, a sidewalk vendor, became a homeless heroin addict and dropped out of sight.

Weinglass, who undertook Jamal's defense in 1993, declined to reveal to the Newsletter whether he had discovered the "third man's" identity or his or Billy Cook's whereabouts.

The prosecutor denied the existence of a "third man."

Sabo is known as the "hanging judge"

In his petition for a stay of execution and new trial, Weinglass said that, "Jamal was convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to death based on his political views and history." He said, "His conviction was the product of widespread police and prosecutorial misconduct, countenanced and advanced by a hostile and biased trial court which stripped him of his ability to raise a defense and then violated his fundamental rights to a fair and impartial trial."

Sabo turned down the defense's arguments for a retrial; the matter now goes before a federal court. Sabo is known as the "hanging judge;" he has put thirty-one people on death row, all but two of them black, ore than any other sitting judge in the United States. His decisions have been reversed 11 times.

Weinglass also filed suit in federal court after he discovered that the legal mail he had sent to Jamal was opened, read and copied by the prison administration, which sent copies of legal strategy papers to the Attorney General's office, in violation of lawyer-client confidentiality rules. He won.

There are serious reasons to believe that Jamal's guilt was not established "beyond all reasonable doubt" -- there is at least a possibility that another man was responsible -- and there is a lack of evidence of first degree murder -- an intentional, premeditated homicide.

The arguments for a new trial are laid out in the defense's version of the story, which follows here, adapted from Weinglass's petition and his afterword to Jamal's Live from Death Row.

Respected journalist

Jamal was a well-known, award-winning Philadelphia journalist and activist. As a teenager, he had been a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party; in 1969, he became its communications secretary.

In the mid-1970's, Jamal broadcasted on National Public Radio, the Mutual Black Network, and the National Black Network; he had his own FM radio talk show. In 1980, he was elected chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists. The January 1981, Philadelphia magazine named him "one of the people to watch in 1981."

Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was shot at about 4AM on December 9, 1981, in downtown Philadelphia on Locust Street near the intersection with 13th Street. Jamal was found at the crime scene, critically wounded by a gunshot and sitting in a pool of blood on the curb about four feet from Faulkner. He was arrested and taken to Jefferson Hospital for surgery. The police officer died at the same hospital an hour after the shooting.

The state's case depended principally on three elements: eyewitnesses who claimed to identify Jamal as Faulkner's assailant, a purported confession, and Jamal's gun, the alleged murder weapon.

Contradictory evidence

The prosecution's witnesses viewed the events at about 4AM on a darkened street through the flashing red lights of Faulkner's police car.

The main witness, Cynthia White, said she was on the southeast corner of 13th and Locust and saw Jamal with a gun in his hand. No other witness saw her there. Dessie Hightower, a defense witness, said she observed White a half block west of 13th Street at that time.

The defense claims that White, a prostitute, testified in return for police favors -- police allegedly told another prostitute, Veronica Jones, that Jones would be allowed to work the street with impunity like White if Jones would also testify against Jamal.

The other key witness was Robert Chobert, a cabdriver, who initially told police that the man who shot Faulkner was large, heavy, about six feet tall and weighing 200 to 225 pounds. On the stand, Chobert admitted that Jamal, 170 pounds, did not look "heavy." He acknowledged he heard shots but never saw a gun or flashes from a gun barrel. Still, he insisted Jamal was the killer. Chobert, like White, was susceptible to police pressure, because he was on probation for a felony arson conviction.

A man running away

Two people who were west of and behind the police car, one person to the east and in front of the police car, and one person north and high above the scene, reported seeing someone flee after the shooting. This person, identified by one of them as the gunman who shot Faulkner, ran down the south side of Locust in the direction of an alley which intersects the street and provides a ready escape route.

Dessie Hightower, called by the defense, testified that less than 15 seconds after the shooting stopped, he saw a person with dreadlocks running east down the south side of Locust. Police demanded that Hightower take a polygraph test. Hightower swears he took the test and passed.

Veronica Jones, called by the defense, told homicide investigators during her initial interview that one or more people ran from the scene. She said that after the gunfire stopped, she saw someone running east on the south side of Locust. On the stand, however, Jones denied ever describing anyone fleeing the scene. Police had reportedly told her she could work the street with impunity like Cynthia White if she implicated Jamal.

Debbie Kordansky, a resident of the St. James Hotel, which overlooks the scene, reported hearing gunshots between 3:45 and 4AM She looked out her window and "saw a man running on the south side of Locust Street."

Barely conscious, two state witnesses claimed months later that Jamal shouted out a confession

The prosecution claimed Jamal confessed as he lay with his arms handcuffed behind him on the emergency room waiting room floor just after he arrived. Yet Dr. Regina Cudemo, who was present, did not hear a confession. Instead, she saw an officer apparently kick Jamal and heard him moan.

Dr. Anthony Coletta treated Jamal within five to 10 minutes of his arrival. He found Jamal to be "weak ... on the verge of fainting. ... If you tried to stand him up, he would not have been able to stand."

Although Dr. Cudemo did not hear Jamal say anything and Dr. Coletta found Jamal to be barely conscious, two state witnesses claimed two months later that Jamal was struggling violently and shouted out a confession. The two were Officer Garry Bell, Faulkner's partner and best friend, and a hospital security guard, Priscilla Durham, who first denied knowing Faulkner, then admitted that she had cried when told he had died.

Although Bell made a log report that night and volunteered a statement to homicide detectives the following week, and Durham had continuous contact with police, neither reported hearing the "confession" until months later, when both were interviewed by detectives from Internal Affairs who were investigating a complaint by Jamal that he had been abused by police in the hospital.

All the witnesses agreed that Jamal was too weak to walk into the hospital on his own. Officers were with him from the moment he entered the hospital. One of them, Gary Wakshul, with Jamal from the time he was driven from Locust Street until the doctors started treating him in the hospital, wrote a police report noting that "during this time the Negro male made no statements." The jury never heard from Wakshul, who went "on vacation" at the time of the trial.

Ballistics don't match

No test was conducted after Jamal's arrest to determine if he had recently fired a weapon or if his gun had been recently fired. The state's ballistics expert performed tests of the bullet removed from the officer's body, but these tests were inconclusive as to identification.

Instead, tests that might have excluded Jamal's gun as the murder weapon were never conducted. The Medical Examiner surmised that the fatal bullet was from a .44 caliber weapon. Jamal's gun was a .38 caliber pistol. The prosecution says a later judgment determined the bullet to be a .38.

The prosecution also argued that Jamal was shot while standing over a falling Faulkner. Defense expert, pathologist Dr John A Hayes, Jr., said that was medically impossible because of the downward trajectory of Jamal's bullet wound.

Judge excludes evidence of possible police bribery

A court-appointed counsel failed to object to the prosecution's use of 11 of 15 peremptory challenges to remove black jurors, resulting in a jury with only three blacks. One of the three blacks was later removed and replaced with a white juror.

The jury included a man whose best friend was a former Philadelphia police officer on disability after being shot while on duty and an alternate whose husband was a Philadelphia police officer. At least three white jurors, including the foreman, met and deliberated apart from black jurors throughout the trial.

Judge Sabo granted the prosecution the right to photograph Jamal in the hospital and use the photographs to assist witnesses in their identification; he denied Jamal's requests for a line-up identification.

Sabo refused to grant a continuance to permit the defense to seek testimony from the officer who had stated in a police interview that Jamal had not spoken after his arrest.

Sabo excluded evidence that police had offered not to arrest and charge Jones, a prostitute, if she would testify that she saw Jamal shoot the officer, and that police told her a similar deal had been struck by White. He ruled that evidence of Chobert's motive to lie could not be presented to the jury.

The jury found Jamal guilty of first-degree murder.

Damned by his past

The prosecutor presented evidence of Jamal's political views as a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960's and read from a newspaper article about the Party that contained an interview of Jamal at 16

The prosecutor asked if Jamal recalled saying that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" and "All power to the people." He argued that Jamal's political views had led him to kill the policeman.

Sabo issued the death sentence, and Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge signed a death sentence on June 2, 1995.

Lucy Komisar is a former Editor of the American PEN Center newsletter and a distinguished commentator on foreign affairs

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Albion Monitor December 17, 1998 (

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