For Mumia Abu-Jamal, the clock is ticking.
The hands were set in motion on Dec. 9, 1981, when police officer Daniel Faulkner was shot to death, and in the trial that found Abu-Jamal guilty of first-degree murder--a fair trial, say prosecutors; a travesty, say his supporters.
The ticking became more ominous last month, as Gov. Tom Ridge set Abu-Jamal’s execution for the week of Aug. 13.
Abu-Jamal’s execution is no sure thing. His attorneys have filed an appeal in Common Pleas Court, using reams of new evidence to demand a new trial and cancel the execution date. Lawyers expect the appeals to last for years.
Abu-Jamal, an articulate former radio reporter who has collected his radio commentaries in a book, “Live From Death Row,” has attracted supporters from around the world--trade unions, the African National Congress, Anabaptist sects, radical activists, politicians, religious leaders, prominent authors and celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg and Ed Asner.
They paint Abu-Jamal, now 41, as a political prisoner, a black man treated unjustly. They say he was railroaded by prosecutors who suppressed evidence and by a hostile judge who allowed it to happen.
But they are wrong, says Joseph J. McGill, who prosecuted Abu-Jamal.
“This is not a race case. This is a police-killing case, a crime that happened to be perpetrated by a black male,” he said.
In the early morning of that day in 1981, Abu-Jamal was driving a cab when he came across a fracas in Philadelphia’s center city.
Faulkner had stopped Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and the two men struggled.
Prosecutors say Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner, 25, once in the back and the wounded officer fired a bullet into Abu-Jamal’s chest as he fell. Then, they say, Abu-Jamal stood over the officer, shooting him in the head and face.
Abu-Jamal turned his trial into political theater, calling his court-appointed attorney a “baboon” and a “shyster,” insulting the jury, deriding the judge as a “hangman.” And Abu-Jamal never gave his own account of the killing.
But defense lawyer Rachel Wolkenstein, citing new ballistics and pathology analysis, offers a new scenario: Abu-Jamal saw Faulkner beating his brother and came to his aid. Then Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal and a third man shot the officer.
Regardless, Abu-Jamal’s supporters say his trial was unfair.
They say prosecutors and police stacked the trial against the defendant, with the approval of Common Pleas Judge Albert F. Sabo. Witnesses who could have helped Abu-Jamal’s case were coerced to testify against him, intimidated into leaving town or simply unavailable during the trial, they say.
Abu-Jamal’s lawyers contend police had targeted Abu-Jamal, a founder of the Philadelphia Black Panthers who had no criminal record, because he was a black activist critical of police.
“In effect, the jury was invited to give the death penalty to Mumia Abu-Jamal because he was a radical black activist and not for what he did,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne law professor. “There was no justification for bringing any of Mr. Abu-Jamal’s political history into that case.”
Even if Abu-Jamal did shoot Faulkner, said David Kairys, a Temple University law professor on leave from a firm connected to Abu-Jamal’s case, a third-degree murder conviction--with no death penalty--would have been the proper sentence. First-degree murder requires premeditation.
“I think it would be better for everyone if we have a quick, fair retrial,” said Kairys. “I can’t assume he’s innocent. The one thing I’m sure is, no one can assume he’s guilty from that trial.”
To the prosecutors, there are no grounds for appeal.
“It’s the position of the district attorney’s office that the defendant received a fair trial and a just verdict was rendered,” said First Assistant Dist. Atty. Arnold H. Gordon.
McGill, now a defense attorney, rejected claims that prosecutors buried evidence and coerced witnesses and that police had targeted Abu-Jamal.
“This is obviously a move by his supporters to do whatever they can to upset a verdict which was based on overwhelming factual evidence as well as circumstantial evidence,” he said.
He said eyewitnesses, Abu-Jamal’s presence at the scene, ballistics and a confession at the hospital--another facet now in dispute--all pointed to Abu-Jamal’s guilt. Abu-Jamal’s behavior at the trial sealed his fate.
“I’ve never seen a defendant attempt to destroy himself as he did,” he said. “It was the wrong strategy. He did nothing except bury himself.”
John DiDonato, also a former prosecutor, said he wasn’t impressed with new defense ballistics and pathology evidence--"you can find an expert to say anything you want"--and was wary of witnesses who surface years later with new testimony.
DiDonato also dismissed criticism of Sabo, who has been described as a “prosecutor in robes” by other lawyers.
DiDonato acknowledge that prosecutors tend to have an easier time before the judge. But, he said, “I think he’s an honest guy who tried to do a fair job. I can’t imagine Judge Sabo would intentionally go out of his way to make rulings to make sure that someone would be convicted.”
These arguments don’t convince Abu-Jamal supporters like actor Mike Farrell, who has been quoted as describing Abu-Jamal as “an African-American journalist convicted through the use of racist scaremongering.”
Gordon, the first assistant district attorney, responded to Farrell and other celebrity supporters with a harsh letter.
Their support for Abu-Jamal’s “exercise in revisionist history and reinvention of the facts in this case,” he said, “truly constitutes an insult to police officers, families of murder victims and the thousands of law-abiding citizens who are no doubt repulsed by your misguided and misinformed support for this very cunning but despicable murderer.”