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
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
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
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
(www.j4mumia.org 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
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
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.