Mumia Abu-Jamal Trial: 1982

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Mumia Abu-Jamal Trial: 1982

Defendant: Mumia Abu-Jamal
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Anthony Jackson (trial); Leonard I. Weinglass (posttrial, since 1992)
Chief Prosecutor: Joseph J. McGill
Judge: Albert Sabo
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: June 15-July 2, 1982
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Execution

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal raises a number of questions that jurisprudence must face: How believable is witness? How does a judge handle an unruly defendant? Is capital punishment justifiable? Abu-Jamal's lingering incarceration on death row has prompted numerous protests against his execution, many in countries that have abolished the death penalty. During demonstrations on February 28, 2000, 185 people were arrested outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and 164 protesters were arrested at a federal appeals court building in San Francisco.

At 3:51 a.m. on December 9, 1981, 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, a five-year veteran on the force, radioed from his patrol car for backup at Thirteenth Street and Locust. Arriving seconds later, police found Faulkner lying dead, his face blown away by a gunshot.

Sitting nearby and bleeding profusely was a man identified later as Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was a cabdriver. On the ground was a gun he was licensed to carry.

Black Panther Activist

A Philadelphia native, Abu-Jamal had cofounded a chapter of the Black Panthers in 1969, when he was 15 years old. Expelled from high school for radicalism, he had since become a radio journalist, well known for his smooth, resonant voice and on-the-air ambience. He was also known as a harsh critic of the police. However, since 1979, when he had joined a local public radio station, and especially since January 1981, his colleagues had noticed a deterioration in the quality of his work. He was also accused of biased reporting. Finally, asked to resign, he took to driving a taxi.

Hospitalized with a severe chest wound from a bullet fired by Officer Faulkner's gun, Abu-Jamal was arrested for murder. The bullet recovered from the policeman's skull was too fragmented to be identified as having come from Abu-Jamal's gun, which held five empty cartridges, but it was consistent with its type.

Trial Begins, Defendant Absent

As jury selection began in June 1982, Abu-Jamal insisted on representing himself. By the third day, however, Judge Albert Sabo disqualified him, ruling that he was taking too long for the voir dire process and intimidating prospective jurors. A court-appointed attorney, Anthony Jackson, took over. In the end, the jury included 10 whites and 2 blacks.

Abu-Jamal was absent during most of the prosecution's seven-day presentation; Judge Sabo had dismissed him from the courtroom because of his continuing and unruly insistence on representing himself. The proceedings were not transmitted to his holding cell, nor was he provided a transcript.

Prosecutor Joseph J. McGill gave a description of the presumed sequence of events of that night: Officer Faulkner had stopped a car, probably for a traffic violation. The driver, who turned out to be Abu-Jamal's younger brother, William Cook, took a swing at the cop, who responded by brandishing his billy club or a flashlight. Abu-Jamal, who had witnessed the altercation from his cab, parked nearby, then dashed from the taxi, firing a shot at Faulkner. Downed and wounded, the officer managed to fire back at Abu-Jamal, who then stood over him and shot him directly in the face.

Four witnesses testified for the prosecution. Cynthia White, a prostitute with 38 arrests to her credit, was the only one who said she had seen Abu-Jamal's gun. Robert Chobert, a taxi driver who had pulled up behind the police car (and who was on probation with his license suspended), said he saw Abu-Jamal make the up-and-down motions of firing a gun. "I know who shot the cop and I ain't going to forget it," Chobert declared. Upon cross-examination the defense reminded him that he had told police he had witnessed the shooter flee before more police arrived, and had described the gunman as over six-foot-two and weighing more than 225 pounds, while the defendant weighed barely 170 pounds.

Policeman Garry Bell testified that he had heard Abu-Jamal say, in the hospital, "I shot that mother-f-, and I hope the mother-fdies." Hospital security guard Priscilla Durham said she had also heard the same, and that she had told hospital investigators about it the next day. But the defense suggested that Bell had invented the confession, pointing out that he had waited to report it until 77 days after the crime. The defense also revealed that a report filed that night by the cop who took the suspect into custody had made no mention of such comments.

Was There Another Shooter?

Witnesses introduced by defense attorney Jackson painted a different picture. A second prostitute who had worked that same corner that night said she, like White, had been offered immunity from arrest in exchange for testimony against Abu-Jamal. A neighborhood resident said he had seen a man run away in the direction cabdriver Chobert described. Altogether, four witnesses, none of whom were acquainted, testified as seeing the shooter flee in the same direction. Was Mumia Abu-Jamal framed, the defense asked, by police who resented his on-air reporting and public insinuations about police brutality?

Meanwhile, court pundits wondered why the suspect's hands had not been checked for residue upon his arrest; why he had not claimed to have shot the officer in self-defense; why the court had allotted only $14,000 for the defense of someone accused of first-degree murder; why Abu-Jamal had been so disruptive that the judge had no choice but to throw him out of the courtroom; and why the defense had not called a ballistics expert or a pathologist to testify.

The defense, however, did call 16 character witnesses to avow that Abu-Jamal, a decent, professional good guy, was not the type to commit such a crime.

The Verdict

Jury deliberations on Friday, July 2, took less than six hours. Mumia Abu-Jamal was found guilty. The next day, as the jury considered whether to impose the death sentence or life imprisonment without parole, the prosecution reviewed his Black Panther experience 12 years earlier. The jury was read a newspaper interview published when he was 16 that included his quoting Mao Tse-tung of the People's Republic of China: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." The jury deliberated for an hour and 53 minutes, and sentenced Abu-Jamal to death.

Since 1982, Abu-Jamal has been on death row while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected two applications for a new trial; civil disobedience rallies have been held from Philadelphia to San Francisco; prominent writers and artists have spoken out on his behalf; National Public Radio had scheduled him to comment on prison life and crime issues on its All Things Considered and then backed off; worldwide opponents of the death penalty have engaged in protests; Abu-Jamal has received honorary citizenships in Copenhagen and Palermo and an honorary law degree in California; donations to support his legal fees have mounted to well over $200,000; prominent attorneys have taken up his cause; he has written and published several books and numerous essays; and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to grant him a writ of habeas corpus or consider his appeal.

In October 1999, to give defense and prosecution lawyers time to prepare arguments for a new trial, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn, Jr. suspended a death warrant that had set Abu-Jamal's execution for December 2.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. All Things Censored. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.

. Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience. Farmington, Penn.: Plough, 1997.

. Live from Death Row. New York: Avon, 1996.

Weinglass, Leonard I. Race for Justice: Mumia Abu-Jamal's Fight against the Death Penalty. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage, 1995.