The Saga of Mumia Abu-Jamal
For the past 13 years Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning African American journalist, writer, and former Black Panther Party member, has lived alone in a stale, windowless box on Pennsylvania's death row awaiting execution for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer -- a crime that he says he did not commit. Abu-Jamal's lawyers say that his 1982 trial -- his case was tried before a predominantly white jury in a predominantly black city -- was a travesty of justice. Repeated requests for a retrial have been denied, and on June 1 Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge signed Abu-Jamal's execution order, scheduling his death by lethal injection for Aug. 17. The saga of this 42-year-old man's story has inspired a worldwide network of human rights activists, celebrities, and lawyers working on his behalf to ask for a stay of execution and a new trial. Actors Whoopi Goldberg and Ed Asner have rallied to Abu-Jamal's cause, charging that he is a political prisoner whose execution is being railroaded because of his left-wing politics. On June 16 the European Parliament voted unanimously to ask the United Nations to pass a resolution abolishing the death penalty among member states and specifically requesting that Governor Ridge postpone Abu-Jamal's execution. In 1994 National Public Radio's All Things Considered commissioned Abu-Jamal to do 12 radio commentaries from death row. But at the last minute the network's managing editor, Bill Drake, pulled Jamal's commentaries, stating in a May 14, 1994, press release that he had "serious misgivings about the appropriateness of using as a commentator a convicted murderer." Young radical A Philadelphia native, Abu-Jamal first got involved in radical politics in his early teens. At age 13 he was beaten by local police while protesting a campaign rally for segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Two years later he helped found the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and acted as its spokesperson. With the disintegration of the Panthers in the mid-'70s, Abu-Jamal turned to journalism, working as a freelance radio correspondent based in Philadelphia. In 1981 he was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award for a radio feature on Pope John Paul II's visit to Philadelphia. Throughout his career he remained the subject of intense FBI and local police surveillance. By 1981 Abu-Jamal had his own radio talk show, freelanced regularly for NPR, and was president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He was also a vocal supporter of a radical Philadelphia-based group called MOVE. His outspoken criticism of police harassment of MOVE cost him his job at a mainstream news-radio station, which led him to take a job driving a taxicab. Soon thereafter, while driving his cab in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 9, 1981, Abu-Jamal says he saw his brother being beaten by a police officer. He stopped the cab, went to intervene, and was shot by Officer Daniel Faulkner. Police contend that Abu-Jamal got out of his cab and shot Faulkner in the back and face. Faulkner then allegedly wounded Abu-Jamal after falling to the ground, mortally wounded. Initial police reports from the incident, however, say that four eyewitnesses reported seeing a fourth man shoot Faulkner, after he shot Abu-Jamal, and run away. The downward trajectory of Abu-Jamal's wound also indicates that Faulkner could not have made the shot from the ground. The trial Abu-Jamal's team of six defense lawyers, lead by attorney Leonard Wienglass, maintains that crucial evidence that could prove Abu-Jamal's innocence was suppressed during his 1982 murder trial. In an appeal for a retrial filed earlier this month, Jamal's attorneys say they can prove that prosecution eyewitnesses were bribed, threatened, and coached to lie in court about Abu-Jamal's actions. According to attorney Daniel Williams, the prosecution's case rested on "little more than a concocted confession and coerced testimony from a convicted prostitute who was facing three felony charges." The appeal is based on evidence from previously suppressed police records. Among other things, the appeal charges that weapons analyses were inadequate: Abu-Jamal's hands were never tested for the traces of nitrates that would have been left on them had he fired his pistol. Medical evidence also proved that Faulkner was shot by a .44 caliber gun, not the .38 caliber permitted pistol that Abu-Jamal carried that night. "From the very beginning, this trial was marked by irregularities and wholesale violations," Leonard Wienglass told a June 4 support rally in New York. Abu-Jamal's initial court-appointed defense attorney had asked to be removed from the case on the grounds that he had never participated in a capital-punishment case before, but he was denied by presiding judge Albert Sabo. Abu-Jamal's repeated requests to defend himself were also denied, and he was banned from the courtroom for much of the trial for contempt of court. The defense was granted a mere $150 for investigative purposes. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Quixote Center, Philadelphia courts normally grant indigent defendants an average of $6,500 for defense expenses in capital punishment cases. In Los Angeles County the amount can be as high as $60,000 per case. In Philadelphia, a city that is more than 40 percent black, only 2 of Jamal's 12 jurors were African American. According to the prosecution, Abu-Jamal confessed to the killing while lying semiconscious in a Philadelphia hospital emergency room. However, two attending physicians and a police officer who was with Abu-Jamal the entire time he was in the hospital now maintain that he made no such confession; in fact, he could barely speak. Abu-Jamal's defense team says that his former association with the Black Panthers and several years' worth of police surveillance records (none of which mention illegal activities) were used by the prosecution to call for the death penalty against the previously unconvicted man. Hanging judge The judge who convicted Jamal, Albert Sabo, a former Philadelphia under-sheriff, was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer in June 1995 as a "defendant's nightmare." After reviewing 35 of Sabo's trials, the Inquirer concluded that he regularly favored prosecutors. Criticism of Sabo, who came out of his 1992 retirement to hear Abu-Jamal's appeal, has been relentless. "This guy puts people to death without blinking an eye," says attorney Williams. "He's the classic 'hanging judge' -- he acts as a second prosecutor." According to the Quixote Center, Sabo has sentenced more people to death, 31 in all, than any other judge in the country. He has also had more of his capital cases overturned, 11 in all, than any other judge. Sabo's office said he does not respond to press inquiries. Despite Abu-Jamal's troublesome case, Governor Ridge appears unlikely to grant a stay of execution. "The governor reviewed the court transcripts and found nothing so unusual," said Ridge's press secretary, Tim Reeves. "The governor does not consider himself a second judge, and he takes the decision of 12 Pennsylvanians quite seriously." "Mumia Abu-Jamal never had a jury, and he never had a judge," said Wienglass, who is currently seeking to have Sabo removed from the appeal case. "What we seek today is Mumia's first day in court, because he hasn't received one yet." Contact these judges to urge that Judge Albert Sabo be removed from hearing Abu-Jamal's appeal for a new trial: Judge Legrome Davis, (215) 686-9534 or fax (215) 686-2865; or administrative judge Alex Bonavitacola, (215) 686-3770 or fax (215) 567-7328. Mumia Abu-Jamal's book, Live from Death Row, is available from Addison-Wesley.