Memo To: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A New Trial for Mumia
I’m guessing you are getting tired of me pestering you about Mumia, who has been on death row for almost 20 years now. I’m advised that while an execution date isn’t set, he will have exhausted his appeals if he flunks an evidentiary hearing on September 15, when his lawyers will present what seems to be new evidence of his innocence. As you may recall, I’ve not been part of any official movement to get him off the hook and really have no reason to believe him not guilty of killing a Pennsylvania cop. I do, though, have great respect for the syndicated columnist John Leo, who actually believes Mumia is guilty, but that he should get a new trial because his first was seriously flawed and “the way the death penalty was imposed was indefensible.” Here are the facts that Leo presented in his column of June 21, 1999. Do me a favor, Tom, and at least have your attorney general take a close look at the new evidence -- a confession by another man -- his supporters believe is valid.
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The unchallenged facts in the case are these: at 3:51 a.m. on December 9, 1981, in a seedy area of Philadelphia, Officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a Volkswagen driven by Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, apparently for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He radioed for backup, then added, "On second thought, send me a wagon," intending to arrest Cook. When Cook turned and struck Faulkner, the officer began beating Cook with a 17-inch flashlight. Abu-Jamal, who was moonlighting as a taxi driver, came running over, armed with a .38 (his presence at the scene was never explained). Five shots were heard and Faulkner was hit twice. The fatal shot was fired directly into his face at close range. Less than one minute later, police arrived and found Abu-Jamal, shot once by officer Faulkner, four feet from the police officer's body. Abu-Jamal was wearing an empty shoulder-holster and an empty .38 was nearby, containing five spent shell casings.
There was no definite match between Abu-Jamal's gun and the bullets that hit Faulkner – the bullets were hollow-points that fragment in the body. Police neglected to test Abu-Jamal's hands, to determine whether he had fired his gun, and they didn't smell the gun barrel to see if it had just been fired. An eyewitness, cabbie Robert Chobert, said he saw Faulkner fall, with Abu-Jamal "standing over him firing more shots into him." But there were contradictions in his account – he first said that the shooter had run away from the scene before being caught and arrested, though police said Abu-Jamal hadn't run at all. And Chobert needed to stay on the good side of police. He was facing charges of arson and was driving that night with a suspended license. Two other eyewitnesses testified, also with contradictions and problems in their testimony. One of the oddities of the case is that Abu-Jamal has never explicitly denied that he shot Faulkner. The closest he came was at the sentencing hearing, when he said, "I am innocent of these charges." Nor has he or his brother given any explanation of what did happen that night. Stuart Taylor, Jr., of National Journal thinks Abu-Jamal may have remained silent for 17 years because he is an honest man who did shoot Faulkner and refuses to lie about it.
Taylor, in a long and brilliant analysis of the case in the American Lawyer in 1995, concluded that Abu-Jamal's trial was "grotesquely unfair." Only two blacks made it onto the jury in a city that's 40 percent black. Taylor thinks an unfair trial was guaranteed when it was assigned to Judge Albert Sabo, who is believed to have sent more defendants to death row – 31 – than any other judge in America. As Taylor tells it, the sentence was "pushed through by Judge Sabo in less than three hours on the Saturday of the July 4 weekend," in a proceeding "riddled with constitutional flaws," including introduction of an inflammatory statement Abu-Jamal had made as a Black Panther twelve years earlier at age 15.
Abu-Jamal is not Martin Luther King, Jr., not a folk hero and not anyone who should be honored at a college commencement. But he ought to get a new trial