Mens et Manus in Prison
ESG Seminar (SP274):

Political Prisoners:
Personalities, Principles, & Politics

Killer or Victim?
The Poster Boy for and Against the Death Penalty
By Francis X. Clines

The New York Times
Sunday, May 21, 2000

WASHINGTON — THE convicted murderer's commencement address to the students at Antioch College in Ohio had to be recorded from one of the phone calls he is allowed in the break from his maximum security, 23-hour lockdown cell in Pennsylvania. The sound quality was poor, the voice scratchy, but the convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, living on death-row, sounded quite up to the pomp and circumstance of the occasion.

"Think of the lives of those people you admire," the one-time Black Panther told the graduates from his prison. "Show your admiration for them by becoming them." Simultaneously, and no less passionately, students elsewhere on the campus were being inoculated against the "absurd myths" of the Abu-Jamal cause, in the words of Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the white Philadelphia policeman whom Mr. Abu-Jamal was convicted of shooting to death in 1981. "Yes, I do want Mumia Abu-Jamal to be executed," she fervidly declared. The widow stood surrounded by a group of police officers who, like the students and assorted other activists drawn to the case across the past 19 years, sense the approach of a defining moment in what has become an issue of international concern about the state of criminal justice, capital punishment and racism in the United States.

Mr. Abu-Jamal, whose appeal to the federal courts for a new trial could receive a response any day now, has become the most recognizable death row inmate in the land as the United States experiences the collective dissonance of taking the lead among industrialized countries in executing criminals (and the rate continues to rise), even as mainstream politicians increasingly voice doubts about how capital punishment can ever be fairly meted out to accused murderers who cannot afford a competent defense.

Last week, the New Hampshire legislature voted final approval to abolish the death penalty — a moral gesture for the lawmakers, since a gubernatorial veto was promised and no one is on death row there. But the stand accentuated the growing call for a moratorium on executions that was endorsed earlier this year by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a pro-death penalty Republican suffering "grave concerns about our state's shameful record" in meting out the death penalty to people later found to be innocent.

The moratorium call has risen along with the tide of executions. It was endorsed in 1997 by the American Bar Association. The Nebraska legislature followed suit. Even George Will, the conservative polemicist, cautions that "skepticism is in order" when it comes to executions, if only because of government's record of failure and ineptitude in all manner of public service.

The fairness of Mr. Abu-Jamal's conviction, which came during a period of turbulent race relations in Philadelphia, has long been debated, investigated and reinvestigated along starkly partisan lines. "It almost reminds me of the O.J. case," said Officer Daniel Faulkner's old partner, Garry Bell, describing how factual disputes about ballistics and witnesses have become dwarfed by such issues as the morality of capital punishment, racism in the judicial system and the nation's booming "prison industrial complex," as critics term the growing prison population and those who administer it.

"It's mind-boggling; none of us here in 1981 could have envisioned what is happening today," said Mr. Bell, while insisting Mr. Abu-Jamal deserves execution.

Some outside investigators are not so sure. "The trial was grotesquely unfair and included fabricated evidence," contends Stuart Taylor, the legal affairs columnist for The National Journal. Among other things, he notes that the police claim that Mr. Abu-Jamal loudly, proudly, confessed to the shooting did not show up in the official record until two months after the crime.

"Still, Abu-Jamal may not be the right poster boy to mobilize persuadable people beyond the left," adds Mr. Taylor. He speculates that some facts suggest the defendant, found wounded at the death scene with his legally registered gun lying nearby, might indeed have shot the policeman, but in an unplanned confrontation possibly involving elements of provocation and self-defense. He might, in other words, be neither guilty nor innocent in any unmitigated sense. But Mr. Abu-Jamal, a black radio journalist long critical of the city police, never testified one way or the other at his trial, rebuffing his court-appointed attorney as he complained of rampant racism.

MR. ABU-JAMAL, today 45 years old, had no previous arrest record at the time. He alleges that his constitutional rights were violated wholesale by police, prosecutor and judge in his furious trial in Philadelphia in 1982. While investigators like Mr. Taylor say he has never clearly denied the shooting or explained his version of events, his defenders insist only a fair retrial can establish the facts and prove his innocence.

Mr. Abu-Jamal's cause, in any case, is clearly flourishing. His charge that he had been railroaded by a racist system began reaching an audience beyond Philadelphia in 1995, when National Public Radio began broadcasting his prison life commentaries. They were quickly dropped amid listeners' complaints, but by then the world had been alerted and Mr. Abu-Jamal's celebrity-cum-notoriety grew, vastly abetted by the World Wide Web, where argumentation never ceases on behalf of convict ( and innumerable other sites) and victim (

Six thousand believers in Mr. Abu-Jamal gathered earlier this month in Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and thousands more demonstrated in European capitals, blocking some Paris intersections. When a five-member French delegation showed up last month in Philadelphia with 50,000 protest signatures ("We represent the city of Bobigny"), their path had been blazed by Francois Mitterrand's widow, Danielle, who visited Mr. Abu-Jamal in prison. His cause has drawn sympathy from movie actors and world leaders, from Ed Asner to Nelson Mandela. Amnesty International joined the call in citing "a pattern of events that compromised Abu-Jamal's right to a fair trial."

"It's probably the biggest international mobilization since the Angela Davis case," said Leonard I. Weinglass, an experienced leftist advocate who is handling the appeal for Mr. Abu-Jamal. His conviction was twice upheld by the state court of appeals, while the United State Supreme Court declined to hear it in an earlier challenge.

Oddly, for all the moratorium talk, capital punishment has not yet emerged as an issue in this year's presidential arena. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has increasingly had to defend his stewardship of his state's death row, the nation's busiest. But Vice President Al Gore, a supporter of capital punishment, has not dared to press the politically risky issue.

Even so, with the Abu-Jamal case now entwined with the capital punishment issue, his supporters expect the pending court decision to galvanize both causes, whether a new execution date is set or a new trial is ordered. "We're persisting," said Pam Africa, who directs the Abu-Jamal website. "This can only get bigger."


An article last Sunday about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted killer of a Philadelphia police officer, referred incorrectly to his former affiliation as a broadcast commentator. While National Public Radio agreed in 1994 to broadcast his occasional commentaries, it reversed itself before doing so, citing "serious misgivings about the appropriateness" of using a convicted murderer who was seeking a new trial.

Last modified on Saturday, March 2, 2002 at 11:05:13 PM EST