Saturday, January 17, 2015

Live From Death Row: 
        The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 7, 9999

That stately old hymn we just sang is based on a timeless poem by the great Unitarian writer James Russell Lowell, which he wrote in opposition to entry of the United States into the Mexican War:
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side.
Those words have always carved their place deep in my mind, deep in my soul. They present such an unambiguous image of how life is supposed to be: Here's the good on one side; evil on the other; each of us in between; and then, we choose-- we choose which side to take, whether to follow truth or to follow falsehood.
We are called, often (more often than we realize, perhaps), to answer the voice of conscience in our souls, to discern what is true and what is false, and to choose to do the right thing.
We are called to be moral, ethical beings.
But what about those times when we're not sure who is telling the truth and who is peddling lies? When we're not sure "in the strife of truth with falsehood" which side is good, and which is evil? When we look, and see not black and white, but a spectrum of shades of gray? When we are called upon to take a stand, yet feel still within our minds and souls a certain ambiguity about the question at hand?
The fact that we are imperfect lenses does not excuse us from having to focus on what we see. While our perception may be skewed due to a whole array of subjective factors, we are called (as ethical and moral men and women) to perceive a situation as clearly as we are able; to listen to different voices; to gather the facts together; to discern what our consciences tell us is true-- and then, to make a choice.
Here, then, is this imperfect lens' version of the complicated, critical issues involved in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal:
In the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, police office Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed near the intersection of Locust and 13th Streets in Philadelphia. Lying wounded nearby was Mumia Abu-Jamal, a well-known African American radio journalist. After being treated in the hospital for his wounds, Abu-Jamal was charged with Faulkner's murder. In spite of the fact that a gun registered to him (with five spent cartridges) was found nearby, Abu-Jamal denied killing the policeman, and said he had stopped in the area while driving a cab because he had (coincidentally) come upon Faulkner beating Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, with a flashlight.
Abu-Jamal's trial began six months later in May of 1982, before the "Honorable" Albert Sabo, a judge who had sentenced more people to death than any other judge in the United States, and a former police officer and onetime national officer of the Fraternal Order of Police. Sabo appointed an attorney who had never tried a criminal case to defend Abu-Jamal (who he knew could be facing the death penalty), and in spite of the fact that the prosecution had already conducted more than 125 witness interviews, the defense was granted a paltry budget of only $150 to cover the cost of its investigation and pretrial preparations.
Throughout the pretrial hearings, Mumia's attorney continually sought to be relieved of his position. Abu-Jamal requested to be allowed to defend himself. Sabo denied the motions of both, and pushed ahead with the trial. When the defendant insisted on his right to defend himself, the judge labeled him in contempt of court, and had him bodily removed from the proceedings. Mumia spent the entire trial in a holding cell in a Philadelphia prison, and was not even provided with a transcript of the proceedings.
Unprepared and unwilling, his defense attorney had no option but to proceed. The prosecution presented its case in less than seven days, relying mainly upon four witnesses who claimed to be at or near the scene of the shooting. One, a prostitute who had a record of over 35 arrests, testified that she saw a man who looked by Mumia shoot the officer by running up behind him, and then fire again as he fell to the sidewalk. (Later, she would admit that the police offered to dismiss several charges pending against her if she testified on their behalf.)
The testimony of the other three prosecution witnesses contradicted the prostitute's testimony in several important ways. Two of these men testified that Faulkner was indeed beating Cook, and that they heard gunfire erupt after Mumia arrived on the scene. While they identified Abu-Jamal as being in the area, none of them could state for certain that they actually saw him shoot Daniel Faulkner. A third man, a cabdriver who had pulled up behind the police car, had originally said he saw a man who looked like Abu-Jamal shoot Faulkner, then flee the scene by way of an alley way 30 yards away. The shooter was a "large, heavy man" the witness said-- over six-feet-two, and weighing more than 225 pounds. (Abu-Jamal is just over six-feet tall, and weighed just barely 170.). At the trial, this witness changed his story and left out the details about the gunman "running away" through the alley. Instead, he said the gunman "went and sat down" at the exact spot where the police found the wounded Abu-Jamal. (The judge would not allow the defense to question this witness' veracity by citing his previous criminal convictions for driving a taxi without a license-- which he was, indeed, doing on the night of the shooting [those charges were never brought against him]-- or for arson (including throwing a Molotov cocktail into a public school).
In addition, the prosecution produced a security guard who worked at the hospital where Mumia was taken for treatment. She testified that Abu-Jamal, an experienced journalist who had covered scores of court cases and knew all about the Miranda law, openly testified to everyone within earshot: "Yeah, I shot him, and I hope the _____ ______ dies." No one else was produced to support her testimony, nor was the physician who attended Abu-Jamal the entire time in the emergency room, nor the reporting officer who had written in his record of the case at the time: "At the hospital, the Negro made no statement." (Conveniently, this officer was "on vacation" at the time of the trial, and Judge Sabo denied defense motions that he be ordered to testify, or that the trial be delayed until his return.)
In Mumia's defense, his lawyer (still insisting on his desire to be relieved of his charge) produced two witnesses who said they saw someone other than Abu-Jamal run up and shoot Faulkner, then run away through the alley. They also relied on the testimony of sixteen character witnesses, who were repeatedly questioned by the prosecution about their political leanings, their social philosophy, and their "ulterior motives" in defending Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The case went to the jury at noon on the Friday of the July 4th weekend. The prosecution had used all of its pre-emptory challenges to bar African American jurors, and so the final composition of the jury was ten white and two blacks. Of the whites, there were several relatives of police officers, one man who had openly said it would be "difficult" for him to be fair to both sides, and not a single opponent of the death penalty. Before the day was over, the jury had found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.
In the penalty phase of the case that followed, the prosecution presented evidence of Mumia's former membership in the Black Panther Party, which he had joined at the age of 15. Writings of his were produced from 12 years earlier-- when he was 16 years old, which included a quotation from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." In this way, the prosecution sought to portray Abu-Jamal as a "dangerous" man, bent on hatred of the police and intent on using whatever means necessary to destroy the system.
When Mumia rose to make a statement of his own, he began by questioning the effectiveness of the defense that had been provided for him and the fairness of the presiding justice. Judge Sabo then stunned everyone in attendance (including the prosecution, apparently) by ordering that Mumia be sworn in as a witness, and thus, be subject to cross-examination. The prosecution then launched into a further tirade about Mumia's "dangerous" and "militant" political beliefs, even citing the fact that as a Black Panther at the age of 16, Mumia had written an article that included the "subversive" phrase "All power to the people."
Convinced now that the defendant was a dangerous militant, the nearly all-white jury returned a verdict of death-- based largely upon the words of a 16 year old boy, disregarding the fact that Mumia had grown into manhood without a single conviction of any kind on his record; that he had a family and the abiding respect of the community, black and white alike; and that he was a well-respected broadcast journalist who had worked for years for National Public Radio, and who (that same year) had been named by Philadelphia magazine as "One of the 25 People to Watch" in Philly in the year 1981.
Indeed, there are reasons to believe that the Powers that Be (especially the Philadelphia Police Department) were watching Mumia Abu-Jamal very closely, and that his presence at the scene of the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner gave them a convenient opportunity to silence this "troublemaker" once and for all.
Through Abu-Jamal's work as a broadcast journalist, the Philadelphia police force under Frank Rizzo had become notorious as one of the most racist and brutal law enforcement agencies in the entire country. From the mid-1970s, the Philadelphia Police had focused much of their frenzy on the largely African American, radical, spiritual organization MOVE founded by a prophetic figure named John Africa a decade or so before.
In 1977, seven MOVE members had been killed in a raid at their West Philadelphia headquarters. MOVE had also charged that the Philadelphia Police had killed an infant child in the attack-- a report which Abu-Jamal's reporting verified as true (and which earned him the nickname "the voice of the voiceless" in Philadelphia's African American community). From this point on, there is every reason to believe that Mumia was a "marked man" as far as the Philadelphia Police were concerned. Even after Abu-Jamal was behind bars, the anti-MOVE madness would reach its tragic nadir on May 20, 1985, when Philadelphia authorities actuallydropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters in the Knowlton Village section of the city, killing 11 men, women, and children and destroying an entire neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Mumia's appeals went on-- in the same irregular, incongruous way as had his original trial. His appeal was assigned, somehow, to Judge Sabo himself-- who, obviously, dismissed it out of hand. Similarly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case, and recently, the US Supreme Court, while not ruling on the merits of Mumia's case, refused to consider his appeal on the basis of his having been denied his right to defend himself in the face of an admittedly-incompetent defense. In response to this Supreme Court refusal, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge (who has signed more death warrants than his last five predecessors combined) signed a warrant for the execution on Mumia Abu-Jamal by lethal injection on December 2, 1999. (Just last week, a federal judge stayed the execution pending Abu-Jamal's appeal to federal court.)
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Or her cause bring fame and profit, and is prosperous to be just...
In the seventeen years he has spent on Philadelphia's death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal has emerged in some hearts and minds as something of a mythic figure. An international movement has grown up in his defense-- demanding, at least, that the obvious injustices of his first trial be laid aside, and that he be granted a new trial before a real jury of his peers. Scores of noted figures, from Maya Angelou to Toni Morrison to Ed Asner to Stephen Jay Gould to Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela himself-- to thousands of students in colleges and high schools across the country and around the world-- have grasped the importance of this case and what it means to our national soul.
As Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison has written:
"Why should we care that Mumia Abu-Jamal's life be spared?" she asks. "It is because he, like Nelson Mandela before him, reminds us of our irreducibility as human beings. He shows us our best self, what we are capable of remaining, under the most oppressive, humiliating, and soul shattering conditions. Mumia has refused to be reduced. He remains a full human being. Thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, loving, and fierce... Mumia must be freed to help heal us. To show us the beauty of resistance and compassion that is also our own."
The life of a single man-- Daniel Faulkner or Mumia Abu-Jamal-- is a sacred thing, we say. It is an entity, we say, of inherent worth and dignity-- to be guarded at all cost. It is more important, we say, than any state or principality or power. And taking Mumia Abu-Jamal's life now, while these severe doubts as to his guilt still linger in our minds-- would not only violate his sacred right to life. It would also violate the name of Daniel Faulkner (and those who seek justice in his name) by (perhaps, probably, who knows?) killing an innocent man for a murder he did not commit.
I have shared with you in the past the ambiguity I sometimes have felt when faced with the issue of capital punishment. There is something inside of us that wants revenge in the face of especially horrendous crimes-- like the murder of Jeffrey Curley in Cambridge; or the Oklahoma City bombing; or the brutal, tragic murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Sometimes, I feel as though my opposition to capital punishment (which is based largely on my religious principles and values) is hanging by the skin of its teeth.
But that opposition has only been strengthened by my study of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The present system of legalized executions is not only cruel and unusual punishment which sets us apart from every other industrialized, democratic nation in the world, it is also inherently, irredeemably, unfair and unjust and capricious. Can it be fair when, while black men are convicted of only 20% of the murders in this country, that they occupy almost 60% of the spaces on death row? Is that color blindness? Is that justice? I think not.
Zach De La Rocha of the rock group Rage Against the Machine sings:
Through steel walls
Your voice blastin' on
True rebel my brother Mumia
I reflect upon
you be the spark
That set all the prairie fires on
Make the masses a mastodon path
to trample the fascists on...
My panther my brother
we are at war until you're freed
they'll never silence the voice of the voiceless
cause the powerful got nervous
cause he refused to be their servant
cause he spit truth that turned heads
and burned like black churches...
you'll never silence the voice of the voiceless...
And Orwell's hell a terror era coming through
But this little brother's watching you too.
Watching you too...
Some of us may not have that kind of certainty of a true believer in Mumia's cause. But this much I know for sure:
If Mumia Abu-Jamal was a wealthy black man like O.J. Simpson, he would not be sitting on Pennsylvania's death row today.
Furthermore, my opinion now is that Mumia Abu-Jamal is a "convicted cop killer" only in the same sense that Nelson Mandela was a "convicted terrorist". It all depends on who is doing the convicting...
If Mumia Abu-Jamal is executed by the powers of the state-- especially without benefit of a new, fair trial-- then his blood will be on the hands-- not just of those who signed the writ of execution, or those who injected his body with poison-- but on the hands of all us whose eyes were opened, and ears heard his cry for justice-- and yet who stood by in silence, and said nothing, and did nothing, and let this travesty and this tragedy go unchallenged. And let this nation's history of racial and class terror stand unchallenged and unredeemed. Who stood by and heard, and yet, who looked way, and became lost again in our personal pursuits and our numbing pleasures and our material accumulation.
And if that sad day should come, may God somehow have mercy on our nation's soul (mercy we still could not find the grace to grant), as we face a new century whose very primal seeds were watered in the blood of a man most likely innocent.
But there is, as always, a more excellent way-- as Mumia himself has pointed out to us:
"Remember," he writes, "the system is not a true reality, but an idea which can be fought and dismantled. People forget that we don't need the system... We need only the things God gave us: love, family, nature. We must transform the system. That's the challenge. It's do-able, but only if we ourselves do it."
May these be the seeds we water, and the fruit we bear, in the new age that is before us.

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