by Michael Arnowitt
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prisoner on Pennsylvania's Death Row for 17 years, is one of the most important political cases of the 20th century. In many respects, the case has followed a track eerily reminiscent of the 1920's trial and execution of the framed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
As a high school student, Jamal was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. Mumia's FBI file began at age 14 when he protested a visit to Philly by the segregationist Presidential candidate George Wallace. Later, Mumia became a writer and radio journalist, developing a style that earned him the nickname "the voice of the voiceless."
Mumia's reporting exposed a corrupt Philadelphia police department and its war against the MOVE organization. Mumia became a police target himself: despite having no criminal record, FBI and local police surveillance of Mumia created a file some 700 pages long.
This was the background for the night of December 9, 1981. A shootout at 4 A.M. in a rough neighborhood of Center City, Philadelphia found police officer Daniel Faulkner dead and Mumia critically shot. Mumia was arrested and convicted of killing Faulkner in a trial full of irregularities and prejudice.
For the last 17 years Jamal has been locked alone in a cell 23 hours a day. His confidential legal mail has been opened and reproduced by prison authorities - copies of some of his letters to his attorney were even forwarded to the governor's office. Since November 1996, journalists have been prohibited from filming or recording interviews with Mumia, who notes: "they don't just want my death, they want my silence."
In the early 1990s, he hired civil rights attorney Leonard Weinglass. A 300-page legal brief was filed challenging virtually every aspect of the prosecution case. Mumia's defense team has unearthed many witnesses not brought forward at the time of the original trial in 1982 to support their contention that a third party, a black man or possibly two men, shot officer Faulkner and fled the scene.
The key point here is that if the shooter ran from the scene, this could not have been Mumia, who was found within minutes on the sidewalk near policeman Faulkner in a pool of blood. Mumia's life was saved by emergency surgery.
In 1995 Mumia Abu-Jamal was only 10 days away from execution when massive worldwide protest forced the government to grant a temporary stay.
The case is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling at any moment on Mumia's appeal for a new trial. Governor Tom Ridge has promised the powerful Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) organization that he will sign a new death warrant for Mumia the minute an appeal is denied. [Author's note: since the writing of this article, Mumia lost his Pennsylvania Supreme Court appeal and the case is now in the Federal courts.]
A new anti-Mumia group has been formed in recent months that has undertaken public activities advocating Mumia's guilt, including the purchase of an expensive full-page ad in the New York Times. Some observers speculate this may be an indication that a new effort to execute Mumia will come soon, and that the FOP wants to be more active in the public debate that would follow any court ruling adverse to Mumia.Here are ten reasons to believe Mumia is innocent:
10. Pamela Jenkins. Jenkins was a former prostitute and government informant, the girlfriend of police officer Thomas Ryan. She testified at hearings last year that Ryan tried to make her falsely identify Mumia as the shooter at the time of the original trial, even though Jenkins was not at the scene of the shooting.
Jenkins' credibility was recently proved by her status as the key witness in the investigation that unraveled the massive police corruption scandal in Philadelphia's 39th Police District. Her testimony was instrumental in reversing the decisions of hundreds of cases.
9. Cynthia White. Jenkins also recently testified that Cynthia White, or "Lucky," another prostitute and the prosecution's star witness, was successfully coerced to lie on the stand in exchange for exemption from criminal prosecution - that is, being given permission to work her corner. None of the other nine eyewitnesses recall seeing White at the scene of the crime.
Jenkins on March 5, 1997 saw White, who ran away and hopped into a pickup truck driven by former Philadelphia police officers Jenkins knew. It is likely White is being hidden to this day by the police to prevent her being called to testify by Mumia's legal team.
8. More on the mysterious "Lucky." White was arrested in 1987 on armed robbery charges. However, Philadelphia homicide detective Douglas Culbreth appeared in court and successfully asked that White be released without having to post bail money, because she was "a Commonwealth witness in a very high profile case."
When Jamal's legal team sought to find her for recent hearings, the prosecution declared that she was dead. To support this claim, they produced a death certificate for a woman in another state with a different name, whose body had been cremated, and whose fingerprints did not match Cynthia White's.
7. William Singletary. Singletary was a local businessman and one of the only eyewitnesses who saw the whole incident. Police suppressed Singletary's original statement that he saw a shooter fleeing the scene - a man whom by Singletary's physical description could not have been Mumia. In a 1995 hearing, Singletary testified how he was coerced and intimidated by the police, who tore up his written statement and forced him to sign a different, false statement which they dictated. His version of events is supported by Dessie Hightower, who witnessed the 5-hour police interrogation of Singletary.
6. More witness manipulation. Veronica Jones confessed in a 1996 hearing that she was coerced by police into retracting her original statement about the case. Jones explained that she lied on the stand in exchange for receiving only probation on unrelated, pending felony charges. Robert Chobert, in a 1995 hearing, testified that he was offered a deal by the D.A.: if he retracted his claim that a shooter fled from the scene (he too described a man whom by physical description could not have been Mumia), the prosecution would reinstate his suspended cab driver's license.
5. Trial Judge Albert Sabo. Known as a "prosecutor in robes," Sabo has sentenced to death more than twice the number of people than any other judge in the country. Six former Philadelphia prosecutors have sworn in court documents that no accused could receive a fair trial in the court of Judge Sabo.
Typical Sabo responses to virtually all defense statements were "Shut up!", "Sit down!", and "Take it up with the Supreme Court!" When Mumia's court-appointed attorney Anthony Jackson objected to Mumia not being allowed to be present at Jackson's questioning of certain police witnesses on the record, Sabo replied, "I don't care about Mr. Jamal."
Stuart Taylor, Jr., in the leading law journal American Lawyer, summarized his review of the transcripts: "Jamal's trial was grotesquely unfair and his sentencing hearing clearly unconstitutional...Judge Sabo flaunted his bias, oozing partiality toward the prosecution."
4. Jury-stacking. Eleven qualified blacks were removed by peremptory challenges from the prosecution, a practice that was recently revealed as having been taught to prosecutors in a special training video tape prepared by the Philadelphia D.A.'s office in the 1980's. Mumia ended up with an 83 percent white jury (ten whites, two blacks) in a 40 percent black city.
3. Judge Sabo forcibly prevented Mumia from being present at major proceedings of his own trial, a blatantly improper act, especially in a capital case. Sabo, 76, was forced to retire this past January, but the damage has been done.
2. Trial travesties. Jamal's court-assigned attorney, Anthony Jackson, testified that he didn't interview a single witness in preparation for the trial and he informed the court in advance that he was not prepared and wished to withdraw. Jackson was so incompetent he was later disbarred. Jamal, who futilely argued throughout the trial that he did not accept Jackson as his attorney, was also denied the right to act as his own attorney.
Neither a ballistics expert or pathologist could be hired by Mumia, because the court refused to allocate sufficient funds, allowing only $150 for each of a maximum of four experts. Judge Sabo repeatedly refused to authorize additional funds. The defense investigator quit the case before the trial began. How far would O.J. get on $600?
1. According to the written findings of the medical examiner, Faulkner was killed by bullets from a .44; Mumia's gun was a .38 caliber.
(Contributions towards Mumia's legal expenses and costs of hiring investigators can be sent to the Black United Fund/Mumia Abu-Jamal, 2227 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19132.)