After 25 years, Abu-Jamal case still stirs anger

December 10, 2006|By Joseph A. Gambardello | Joseph A. Gambardello,The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- Do a Google search for "Mumia Abu-Jamal" and you'll get more than 1 million hits for sites containing his name. For "Police Officer Daniel Faulkner," it's only 25,000.

Twenty-five years ago, an exchange of gunfire that left Faulkner dead and Abu-Jamal wounded linked the names of the two men inextricably in Philadelphia's history.

The survivor was transformed into a revolutionary folk hero, an international cause celebre; the dead man became a memory whose cause has been taken up by supporters determined to ensure that his is more than a bit part in a death penalty drama still without a final act.

Both sides - those who are determined that Abu-Jamal is innocent and those who are equally determined that he is not - will gather again in Philadelphia this week. Abu-Jamal's supporters will be here to protest; Faulkner's supporters to rally for his widow, Maureen, who never remarried and now lives in California.

There have been many twists and turns in the past 25 years - witnesses recanted or their accounts were discredited, another man "confessed" to being the killer, and a federal judge overturned Abu-Jamal's death penalty, a decision that is still before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

But one thing has not changed: In the eyes of the law, Abu-Jamal remains guilty of killing Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981, shooting him in the back and then once in the head after the officer wounded him with a bullet to the chest.

And somewhere in between the two sides in the case are those who feel that Abu-Jamal did not get a fair trial but believe he did it.

The reasons why the case remains alive and is still being fought on the Internet (Justice for Police Officer Daniel Faulkner vs. Free Mumia sites) are varying and complex.

And because of them, there is a clash of perceptions about race, justice and truth.

One thing that is clear is that Abu-Jamal was not a typical defendant. As a teenager, he joined the Black Panther Party. He then became a radio reporter of some renown whose African-American colleagues elected him head of the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. But his radio work fell off as he drifted toward the radical group MOVE.

His trial also was far from ordinary, with Abu-Jamal being regularly ejected for disrupting the court, often in pressing his demand that he be represented by MOVE founder John Africa before the mostly white jury.

Add to that the climate of suspicion at the time that the Philadelphia police were racist and a brusque judge who became known for imposing death sentences, and the ingredients were in place for a highly charged trial.

Finally, it was Abu-Jamal's death sentence that jelled international support for him from left-leaning groups. He has been made an honorary citizen of Paris, and a street has been named after him in a Paris suburb.

In Philadelphia, however, support for Abu-Jamal is not that evident, except among a few, including members of MOVE and those for whom opposition to the death penalty is a driving force.

And since he was taken off death row five years ago, even international attention has diminished.

For Maureen Faulkner, who has been steadfast in countering the arguments made by Abu-Jamal's supporters, that also has had an effect.

"It's given me a normal life for a couple years," she said.

Joseph McGill, who prosecuted the case, said most of those who still support Abu-Jamal are part of what he called an "uninformed movement."

"The further you get away from Philadelphia, the less light that's shown on it," he said. "The way they talk themselves out of considering the facts is to say the facts are not true."

But Abu-Jamal's supporters argue that the facts were fixed.

In court papers filed on Oct. 23, Abu-Jamal's lawyers assert that in 2000 a court stenographer alleged that the original trial judge, Albert Sabo, was overheard saying that he was "going to help 'em fry the n----." Sabo, whose courtroom actions and death sentences have been repeatedly questioned by appeals courts, died in 2002.

The bare outline of the shooting goes like this:

At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981, Faulkner, 25, pulled over a green Volkswagen driven by Abu-Jamal's brother William Cook for reasons still unknown.

A scuffle broke out. Abu-Jamal, 27, who was driving a cab at the time, witnessed it from a parking lot on the corner and ran across the street.

Gunfire erupted, and when it was over, Faulkner had been shot in the back and once in the face. Abu-Jamal was wounded in the chest, his licensed .38-caliber handgun with five spent rounds at his feet.

During the trial, witnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the gunman. The defense attempted to make the case that another man shot Faulkner and fled.

McGill, now in private practice, thinks Abu-Jamal "got caught up in the role he was playing" of a black revolutionary.

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