The strange case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

July 17, 1995|By E. L. Doctorow

JUST BEFORE 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981, in a rough downtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Police Officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a Volkswagen Beetle and arrested its driver, William Cook, for driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Expecting or experiencing trouble, Daniel Faulkner radioed for assistance.

When fellow police officers arrived, they found him lying in the street, shot in the back and the face.

A few feet away, slumped in his own pool of blood, was William Cook's brother, a free-lance journalist and black activist named Mumia Abu-Jamal -- born Wesley Cook.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, who moonlighted as a cab driver, later said that he had been driving by and, seeing a police officer hitting his brother, stopped his cab and rushed to his defense. His licensed .38 caliber pistol, which he had bought after having been robbed twice, was found at the scene.

Faulkner died at Jefferson University Hospital an hour after the shooting. Mumia Abu-Jamal underwent surgery there, a bullet from the officer's revolver having struck his chest and lodged near his spine.

Protesting his innocence, Mumia Abu-Jamal was charged with first-degree murder and brought to trial in early 1982.

The prosecution maintained that he had come up behind the officer and shot him in the back, that the fallen officer had returned fire and that Mumia Abu-Jamal, though wounded, had stood over Faulkner and fired the fatal shot into his face.

Prosecutors produced two eyewitnesses who identified Mumia Abu-Jamal as the gunman and a third whose identification was )) less certain. They also offered ballistic evidence that the bullet removed from the officer was of the high-velocity type in Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol.

Two other witnesses testified they heard Mumia Abu-Jamal confess to the shooting at the hospital.

Because he could not afford a lawyer, he chose to represent himself. The presiding judge, Albert Sabo, complained that Mumia Abu-Jamal was taking too long interviewing the jurors, and replaced him with a court-appointed lawyer, who by his own statement was reluctant to take the case.

Mumia Abu-Jamal objected and was eventually put out of the courtroom, the first of several exclusions that, all told, would absent him from large portions of the trial.

Another problem Mumia Abu-Jamal faced was his younger brother's inability or unwillingness to testify on his behalf. Mumia Abu-Jamal's lawyers said William Cook had a history of drug problems and was terrified of police retribution.

He is now believed to be homeless and has not been seen in a year.

On July 2, 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by Judge Sabo.

Now, after 14 years on death row, his appeals rejected, Mumia Abu-Jamal is to be executed at 10 p.m. on Aug. 17.

Yet his death warrant, signed by the new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, comes just as substantive doubts about the prosecution's case have been raised by Mumia Abu-Jamal's current attorneys, possibly his first competent legal representation.

They serve for minimal fees, paid largely by contributions raised by various defense committees that have formed over the years.

In papers filed in June the attorneys asked that Judge Sabo -- who, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has handed down more than twice as many death sentences as any judge in the country -- recuse himself from the case. They asked for a stay of execution and a new trial.

Last week, Judge Sabo refused to recuse himself or sign the stay.

A review of the attorneys' petition suggests that the evidence upon which Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted does not hold up under examination.

Of the two eyewitnesses who positively identified Mumia Abu-Jamal as the gunman, one was a prostitute with several charges pending against her and the other was a cab driver on probation for a felony arson conviction.

No other witnesses saw the prostitute at the scene. One witness told the defense that she arrived after the incident and asked bystanders what had happened.

Nevertheless, she claimed in court she had seen Mumia Abu-Jamal wielding a gun. Subsequently, charges against her were not prosecuted.

The cab driver's testimony corroborated the prostitute's, but in a deposition taken on the night of the crime he said something else entirely -- that the gunman was not the 170-pound Mumia Abu-Jamal but a heavyset man of well over 200 pounds who had fled the scene.

Four other witnesses who were never put on the stand, including one woman whose apartment overlooked the intersection, also reported seeing a man running away.

Yet no police inquiries regarding another possible gunman were ever made.

An examination of the ballistic evidence reveals that no effort was made by the police to determine if Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol had been fired that night.

Moreover, the Philadelphia Police Department's own medical examiner concluded that the officer's fatal head wound was made by a .44 caliber bullet. Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol was a .38 caliber.

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