WASHINGTON – It was supposed to be an open-and-shut case. One dead cop. One wounded suspect,smoking gun in hand. But the events of that night are still being debated 26 years later.
As Mumia Abu-Jamal sits on death row in a Pennsylvania prison,convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981,a movement of supporters vows to fight for his freedom.
Pam Africa is one of them.
She is Abu-Jamal's spokeswoman and one of the leaders in the struggle to free him. She says her friend since 1975,one of the world's most famous death row inmates,is an “oppressed revolutionary hero.”
“Evidence clearly supports that he is innocent,” she said. “Mumia believes in the protection of life. It's just not in his character.”
U.S. District Judge William Yohn overturned Abu-Jamal's death sentence in 2001 but upheld his guilty conviction. This was not enough for Abu-Jamal,who wanted his conviction overturned,or the Philadelphia district attorney,who wanted the death sentence reinstated.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments May 17 and could issue a decision any time.
Abu-Jamal has become an author and journalist. His commentaries,broadcast on prisonradio.org,focus on everything from human rights to the Virginia Tech shootings. But there is an issue that Abu-Jamal has yet to discuss: the fight for his own freedom,and the events that happened Dec. 9,1981.
According to court transcripts posted on a Web site dedicated to the dead police officer,prosecution witnesses said they saw Officer Daniel Faulkner pull over a Volkswagen driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The driver was William Cook,Abu-Jamal's brother. Abu-Jamal,a cab driver formerly known as Wesley Cook,happened to be sitting in his taxi across the street.
After a brief scuffle between Faulkner and Cook,witnesses said Abu-Jamal got out of his cab and ran toward them. From 2 feet away,the witnesses said he fired one shot from a .38-caliber revolver,hitting Faulkner in the back.
Faulkner fired his weapon once at Abu-Jamal,hitting him in the chest,before collapsing. According to prosecution witnesses,Abu-Jamal stood over Faulkner and fired four more times at point-blank range. One of the bullets struck Faulkner in the face,killing him instantly.
At Abu-Jamal's trial,defense witnesses said they did not see Abu-Jamal fire a gun at Faulkner,but they did see a third man running away from the scene. The defense maintained that this person,not Abu-Jamal,shot Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal supporters recently screened a film about his case at Busboys and Poets,a Washington café. The 2001 film,”Framing an Execution: The Media and Mumia Abu-Jamal,” produced by Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation,is narrated by actor Danny Glover,one of Abu-Jamal's celebrity advocates.
The film accuses the media,specifically an ABC “20/20” segment with Sam Donaldson called “Hollywood's Unlikely Hero,” of biased reporting.
In a telephone interview,Donaldson said the film's accusations were “ridiculous.”
“The first part is a simple rendition of what was said in court. It's what the record shows,” he said. “In the second part,we set out to find all we could find out concerning all of this. This is where they try to attack us.”
Donaldson said Abu-Jamal's supporters attack anything that goes against their claim that Abu-Jamal is innocent,including cold,hard evidence.
After seeing the film,Oscar Fernandez,a Washington reporter for Pacifica radio and an avid supporter who attended the May 17 hearing,and J. Soffiyah Elijah,a Harvard law professor,led a discussion about the case and the film.
Audience member and University of the District of Columbia history professor G. Derek Musgrove attended the screening and thought the film was effective.
“I loved it,” he said. “From a media standpoint,I thought it was an excellent analysis of the ‘20/20' special.”
Musgrove described himself as a “moderate” supporter of Abu-Jamal's and was surprised to hear that the death sentence was overturned in 2001. He was under the impression that the possibility of Abu-Jamal's execution was imminent.
Not everyone thinks Abu-Jamal is innocent. Author Daniel Flynn wrote a booklet called “Cop-Killer: How Mumia Abu-Jamal Conned Millions into Believing He Was Framed.” He gave speeches about the case for several years.
“It's almost unfortunate for Abu-Jamal that his death sentence has been lifted,” Flynn said,even though he'd like to see it reinstated.
“Before,there was a sense of urgency for his support. He was a poster boy for the death penalty. Their rally cry was ‘Free Mumia.'”
Flynn said now that the death sentence is gone,Abu-Jamal's high profile anti-death penalty supporters,like Susan Sarandon,Spike Lee and Glover,have moved on to other causes.
In 1981,Abu-Jamal was a member of the Black Panther Party and an active participant of Move,a revolutionary organization based in Philadelphia that was then openly confrontational with the police.
Four years after Abu-Jamal's arrest,11 people – six adult Move members and five children – died after Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the organization's row houses during a standoff. The bomb ignited a fire that destroyed 61 houses.
Some Abu-Jamal supporters say he was framed because of his support of Move.
“I was the last story Mumia covered before his arrest,” said Africa,then an active member of Move. Abu-Jamal wrote a story about the brutality she said she faced at the hands of Philadelphia police. In her eyes,this angered the police force and sealed Abu-Jamal's fate.
“You don't frame a guilty person,” she said. “Mumia is innocent. This was a frame-up from beginning to end.”
Elijah,the Harvard Law professor,filed a friend of the court brief with the 3rd Circuit on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild,arguing Abu-Jamal's case.
“I believe he is innocent,” Elijah said in an interview. “More importantly,I believe that he did not receive a fair trial.”
The judge in Abu-Jamal's trial,Albert Sabo,was a member of the Fraternal Order of Police,which pushed for Abu-Jamal's execution. In Sabo's 14 years as a common pleas judge,he sentenced 31 defendants to death. Twenty-nine of them were minorities. Sabo died in May 2002.
Abu-Jamal supporters say Sabo was heard using racial slurs in his chambers.
“That argument holds no water,” Eugene Blagmond,spokesman for the Philadelphia FOP chapter,said. He said the judge never used slurs.
Blagmond says Abu-Jamal's supporters perpetuate “flights of fancy,” rattling off theory after theory about who killed Daniel Faulkner.
“This is the ultimate smoking gun situation. The gun was in Mumia's hand,” Blagmond said. “You can't get a more clear case than that.”
Although his celebrity advocates may have moved on,Abu-Jamal's freedom fighters continue to rally,petition and argue on his behalf. They say Mumia Abu-Jamal's innocence is the only thing that is clear.
Abu-Jamal's opponents are not quieting down,either.
“Our feelings are exactly the same now as they were then,” Blagmond said. “Every police officer goes to work and doesn't know if he's coming home. For them to make a hero out of someone who killed a police officer for no real reason that we know of,it just makes no sense to this day.”