The Case
of Mumia Abu Jamal

by Terry Bisson
from New York Newsday, 1995

In 1978, Philadelphia Mayor (and ex-police chief) Frank Rizzo blew up at a press conference, threatening what he called "the new breed" of journalists. "They [the people] believe what you write and what you say," said Rizzo, "and it's got to stop. One day—and I hope it's in my career—you're going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do."

What the "new breed" was doing in 1978, and is still doing today, was exposing police misconduct. A cop had been killed in a confrontation between Philadelphia police and the radical MOVE organization (the same MOVE that was fire-bombed by the city seven years later), and the police version of who shot first hadn't been accepted without question. Rizzo feared a new trend, and he was right.

The trend has continued. Today, the Mollen Commission, the NYPD "party"in DC, the Rodney King case and hundreds of other local scandals have exposed the dark underside of police misconduct nationwide. Ironically, the most prominent of the "new breed" of journalists at whom Rizzo's outburst was directed is awaiting execution on Pennsylvania's Death Row, the victim--many believe--of a police frame-up.

Mumia Abu-Jamal began his journalism career with the Black Panther Party. The Panthers were the original “affirmative action” employer, and Mumia (then Wesley Cook) was Minister of Information for the Philadelphia chapter at age 15, writing for the national newspaper. A heady beginning for a West Philly kid. After the Panthers fell apart (helped by a stiff dose of FBI harassment) Mumia turned to broadcasting. He had the voice, the writing talent and the ambition, and by age 25, he was one of the top names in local radio, interviewing such luminaries as Jesse Jackson and the Pointer Sisters and winning a Peabody Award for his coverage of the Pope's visit. He was president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, called “one to watch” by Philadelphia magazine.

But Mumia was still a radical. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him “an eloquent activist not afraid to raise his voice,” and this fearlessness was to be his undoing. His vocal support of MOVE's uncompromising life-style lost him jobs at Black stations, and he was forced to moonlight to support his family. The mayor's outburst marked the beginning of a campaign of police harassment that included such subtleties as a cocked finger and a 'bang bang' from a smirking cop, and escalated to a late-night police beating of Mumia's brother on the street.

Mumia was driving a cab that night. It is undisputed that he intervened. It is undisputed that both he and officer Daniel Faulkner were shot, and that Faulkner died. What is in dispute is who killed Faulkner. Mumia says it was someone else, and several witnesses saw another shooter flee the scene. Mumia's legally registered .38 was never decisively linked to Faulkner's wounds.

Mumia's murder trial was a policeman's dream. Denied the right to represent himself, he was defended by a reluctant incompetent who was later disbarred (and who has since filed an affadavit in Mumia's support detailing his delinquencies). Mumia was prosecuted by a DA who was later reprimanded for withholding evidence in another trial. He was allowed only $150 to interview witnesses.

But best of all was the judge. A life member of the Fraternal Order of Police, branded as a "defendant's nightmare" by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Judge Albert F. Sabo has sentenced more men to die (31 to date, only two of them white) than any other sitting judge in America. A fellow judge once called his courtroom a "vacation for prosecutors" because of bias toward convictions.

Sabo wouldn't allow Mumia to defend himself because his dreadlocks made jurors "nervous." Kept in a holding cell, he read about his own trial in the newspapers. A Black juror was removed for violating sequestration, while a white juror was given an court escort to take a civil service exam; in the end all the Black jurors but one were removed. A policeman who filed two conflicting reports was never subpoenaed (he was "on vacation"). Mumia's Black Panther history was waved like a bloody flag: Had he said, "All power to the people?" Yes, he admitted, he had said that. Character witnesses like poet Sonia Sanchez were cross-examined about their "anti-police" writings and associations.

Thus with Judge Sabo's help, an award-winning radical journalist with no criminal record was portrayed as a police assassin lying in wait since age 15. After Mumia's conviction, Sabo instructed the jury: "You are not being asked to kill anybody" by imposing the death penalty, since the defendant will get "appeal after appeal after appeal." Such instruction, grounds for reversal since Caldwell vs. Mississippi, was allowed in Mumia's case.

Mumia's appeals have so far gone unanswered. After being on Death Row for thirteen years, he is now the target of a police-led smear campaign. Last year NPR's "All Things Considered" canceled a scheduled series of his commentaries after the Fraternal Order of Police objected. Mumia's book, LIVE FROM DEATH ROW, has been greeted with a boycott and a skywriter circling the publisher's Boston offices: "Addison-Wesley Supports Cop Killers" Officer Faulkner's widow has gone on TV claiming that Mumia smiled at her when her husband's bloody shirt was shown--even though the record shows that Mumia wasn't in the courtroom that day.

Mumia and his supporters want only one thing--a new trial, with an unbiased judge and a competent lawyer. Defense attorney Leonard Weinglass has entered a motion to have Judge Sabo removed from the case because he cannot provide even the "appearance of fairness." The struggle became a race against time last month, when Pennsylvania Governor Ridge, though fully aware of the many questions in the case, signed a death warrant scheduling Mumia for execution August 17.

Mumia Abu-Jamal was not surprised. Several of the essays in his book deal with America's frantic "march toward the death chamber." As he wrote several years ago in the Yale Law Journal, "states that have not slain in a generation now ready their machinery: generators whine, poison liquids are mixed, and gases are measured and readied."

Unless Mumia Abu Jamal's final petition is answered, and he gets the fair trial he deserves, America will see its the first explicitly political execution since the Rosenbergs were put to death in 1953. Frank Rizzo's angry threat will be fulfilled, for one "new breed" journalist at least. It will stop. We won't hear any more criticism of the police from Mumia Abu-Jamal. Forever.


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