Execution Draws Nearer For a Black Journalist

July 23, 1995|By NORRIS P. WEST

Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death in connection with the Dec. 9, 1981, slaying of a Philadelphia police officer. The date was incorrectly reported in an article and photo caption in Sunday's Perspective section.

The Sun regrets the error.

I could imagine him fighting with his pen or his voice, not shooting a police officer.

I don't know whether or not Mumia Abu-Jamal is guilty of killing Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner on a fateful night in December 1991, when their destinies became entwined.

But regardless of Mumia's guilt or innocence, I'm troubled by the way his case was handled by the criminal justice system.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

As a young African-American reporter in Philadelphia in 1980, I became a member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists when Mumia was its president.

A former Black Panther, he'd been nurtured in the philosophy of black nationalism. He believed the role of African-American journalists was different from that of their white counterparts. That role, he insisted, was to lay the foundation for black liberation by pointing out historical injustices against African-Americans that had left a legacy of contemporary problems -- blight, poverty and second-class citizenship.

His baritone voice on WDAS-radio in the late 1970s reported on issues and events from North Philadelphia to northern Africa. His reports were poignant, articulate and often poetic.

Mumia wore his hair in dreadlocks -- long before that style was appropriated by today's youths. Part of the reason he eventually was fired from WDAS, the prominent station with a black format and black ownership, was that he didn't fit the "corporate image."

He became sympathetic to the MOVE group, which had a showdown with Philadelphia police officers in 1978 and would have a more deadly clash with city police in 1985. MOVE, occupying homes in an urban setting, espoused a back-to-nature ideology.

Mumia became committed to telling MOVE's story, which he thought was being skewed by mainstream media and even traditional black publications like mine -- I worked at the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation's oldest black newspaper.

I'd had maybe five or six discussions with Mumia in 1980 and 1981, along with other reporters. The conversations invariably turned to the the question of what black journalists should do to improve the living conditions and the sense of pride among the most downtrodden of people. We agreed on some things, disagreed on others.

Not to be imagined

Because of these conversations, I could have imagined him fighting with his pen, his voice to improve life for African-American people. Never would I have imagined him on death row, convicted of killing a police officer over a traffic stop.

Mumia was convicted in a shooting that occurred when Officer Faulkner, who was white, stopped a taxicab driven by Mumia's brother, William Cook, on Dec. 9, 1991. Mumia, a free-lance journalist at the time, also was driving a cab in the area.

Mumia stopped. Shots were fired. The officer was killed, and Mumia was struck in the chest by a bullet, a shot police say was fired by the fatally wounded officer as he fell.

It was difficult to write the story for my paper the morning after. I'd never had to write about someone I knew being charged with a crime. Fortunately, I haven't had to do that since.

I last saw Mumia some months before his trial. I went to the prison in Northeast Philadelphia to write about a prison boxing program. He was quiet, somber. It was a difficult conversation.

The 1982 trial, which I did not attend, was peculiar, even by Philadelphia's standards. Mumia's frequent outbursts, usually over complaints that his court-appointed lawyer was incompetent, prompted the judge to exclude him from much of the trial.

Presiding over the case was Judge Albert F. Sabo, who a Philadelphia Inquirer study later found had put far more people on death row than any other judge in the country.

Now, as Mumia's scheduled execution date of Aug. 17 approaches, his more experienced appeals lawyers are arguing vigorously for a new trial.

They point to a number of problems with the 1982 trial.

They say police ballistics tests indicate that the bullet that struck Mumia entered his chest from a downward angle, which would rule out the shot by the falling officer. They argue that prosecution witnesses were unreliable -- one of them was a prostitute who had charges against her dropped after testifying. And, they contend, black jurors were systematically kept off the jury while a white man was allowed on the panel although he said he could not be impartial. A potential defense witness claiming to have seen someone running from the scene was allegedly intimidated into leaving town before the trial.

The city's Fraternal Order of Police and the slain officer's family want to hear none of this. They have opposed efforts for a new trial and want Mumia put to death next month.

A personal loss

On a personal level, I don't want that to happen because, I think, I'll feel a personal loss, although my acquaintance with Mumia was brief and collegial.

But even putting that aside, my spirit would be troubled if the execution were to come as a result of such an error-laden judicial proceeding. Citizens ought to demand that the standard of judicial efficacy be unimpeachable when a life-or-death issue is at hand.

Can the citizens of Pennsylvania say with certainty that this high standard was met in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal?

Norris P. West is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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