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Since his conviction in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, through his numerous books, essays and radio commentaries, has become the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States and an international cause célèbre. Paris, for example, made him an honorary citizen in 2003, bestowing the honor for the first time since Pablo Picasso received it in 1971. The "Free Mumia" slogan is seen and heard around the world. Over the last 27 years he has become the most visible of the invisible 3,600 Death Row inmates in the United States.
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal cries out for justice not because he is famous but because he is innocent. Kenneth Freeman, the street-vendor partner of Abu-Jamal's younger brother, Billy Cook, killed Officer Faulkner moments after Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the chest as he approached the scene where Faulkner had pulled over the car Cook was driving. When Faulkner began beating Cook with an 18-inch long flashlight, Abu-Jamal ran from his nearby taxi to come to his brother's aid. After Abu-Jamal was shot and collapsed to the street, Freeman emerged from Cook's car, wrestled Faulkner to the sidewalk and then shot him to death. Freeman fled the scene on foot. Numerous witnesses told police they saw one or more black men fleeing right after the officer was shot. A driver's license application found in Faulkner's shirt pocket led the police directly to Freeman's home within hours of the shooting.
But the police did not want Freeman for this killing, releasing him without him even having to call his attorney. The police, led by the corrupt Inspector Alfonzo Giordano who took charge of the crime scene within minutes of the shooting, wanted to pin Faulkner's death on the blacked-out, police-bashing radio reporter at the scene. Freeman they would deal with later, meting out their own brand of street justice in the dead of night.
Five days after Faulkner's death, the Center City newsstand where Freeman and Billy Cook operated a vending stand burned to the ground at about 3 a.m. Freeman told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter hours after the arson that "there was no question in my mind that the police are behind this." The Inquirer also quoted a Center City police officer who was on patrol in the area that morning as saying, "It's entirely possible" that "certain sick members" of his department were responsible. "All I know is when I got to the station to start my shift at 7:30 this morning, the station house was filled with Cheshire grins." Although the "unsolved" arson bankrupted Freeman and Cook, a worse fate awaited Freeman.
On the night in 1985 when the police infamously firebombed the MOVE home and burned down 60 other row houses in the process, incinerating 11 MOVE members including five children, Freeman's dead body would be found nude and gagged in an empty lot, his hands handcuffed behind his back. There would be no police investigation into this obvious murder: the coroner listed his cause of death as a heart attack. Freeman was 31.
Abu-Jamal had been well known to local police since he joined the Philly chapter of the Black Panther Party at age 15. The next year he was named "lieutenant of information," an appointment the Inquirer ran on its front page, picturing the young radical at Panther headquarters. Even though the chapter would soon dissolve, both the police and the FBI continued to monitor Abu-Jamal when he left Philadelphia to attend Goddard College in Vermont and on his return to Philadelphia to take up his radio career. As his career took wing, landing him a high-profile job at Philadelphia's public radio station, that scrutiny intensified due to his overtly sympathetic coverage of the radical counter-culture group MOVE. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, police confrontations with MOVE were brutal displays of civic discord and police abuse that culminated in the 1985 firebombing.
Abu-Jamal's case has been politically charged from the beginning. By the time he was arrested for the murder of Officer Faulkner, he was a marked man to the police for his Black Panther Party association and his favorable reporting of MOVE. Inspector Giordano, who detested both Abu-Jamal and MOVE, would set the framing of Abu-Jamal in motion by falsely claiming that Abu-Jamal had told him in the paddy wagon that he had killed Faulkner. (Giordano would not be called by the prosecution to reiterate his fabrication at Abu-Jamal's trial. Instead, on the first business day following Abu-Jamal's sentencing, Giordano would be "relieved" of his duties by the police department on what would prove to be well-founded "suspicions of corruption." An FBI probe of rank corruption within the Philadelphia Police Department the largest ever conducted by the U.S. Justice Department of a police force would lead to Giordano's conviction four years later. The FBI investigation would ensnare numerous other high-ranking Philadelphia police officials and officers, many of them involved in Abu-Jamal's arrest and trial. Deputy Police Commissioner James Martin, who was in charge of all major investigations, including Faulkner's death, was the ringleader of a vast extortion enterprise operating in City Center.)
The trial of Abu-Jamal was a monumental miscarriage of justice from beginning to end, representing an extreme case of prosecutorial abuse and judicial bias. A pamphlet published by Amnesty International in 2000 stated it had "determined that numerous aspects of Mumia Abu-Jamal's case clearly failed to meet minimum standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings."
The trial judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo, presided at more trials that resulted in the defendants receiving the death penalty than any judge in the nation. Of the 31 so sentenced, five won reversals on appeal, an indication of extreme judicial bias. The Inquirer called him "a defendant's worst nightmare," a prominent defense attorney referred to him as "a prosecutor in robes." A former court stenographer said in an affidavit in 2001 that during Abu-Jamal's trial she overheard Sabo tell someone at the courthouse, "Yeah, and I am going to help them fry the n-word."
During the third day of jury selection, Sabo stripped Abu-Jamal of his right to represent himself and interview potential jurors despite the fact that the Inquirer reported Abu-Jamal was "intent and business like" in his questioning. On the second day of the trial, Sabo removed Abu-Jamal from the courtroom for insisting that MOVE founder John Africa replace his court appointed backup counsel, Anthony Jackson. In turn, Sabo appointed Jackson to represent Abu-Jamal. This would put to rout the possibility of a fair trial.
Abu-Jamal's first major appeal issue developed during jury selection when the prosecutor, Assistant D.A. Joseph McGill, used 10 or 11 of the 15 peremptory challenges he exercised to keep otherwise qualified blacks from sitting on this death-penalty-vetted jury. In a city with more than a 40 percent black population at the time, Abu-Jamal's jury ended up with only two blacks. In 1986 four years after Abu-Jamal's trial the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that it was unconstitutional for a prosecutor to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race. The ruling was retroactive.
The second major constitutional claim that would arise occurred at the end of the guilt phase of the trial when the prosecutor referenced the appeal process in his summation to the jury. He told the jury that if they found Abu-Jamal guilty of murder in the first degree that "there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final."
Although Officer Faulkner had been killed by Kenneth Freeman, the prosecution mounted its evidentiary case against Abu-Jamal on the perjured testimony of a prostitute informant and a cab driver with a suspended license for two DUIs who was on probation for throwing a Molotov cocktail into a school yard during a school day. Both of these witnesses had been handpicked by Giordano at the crime scene.
"The Mumia Exception"
As Amnesty International established in its 2000 pamphlet entitled "The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance," his tortuous appeal process has been fraught with "judicial machinations." Claims that won the day in other cases were repeatedly denied him.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turned down his first appeal even though one of his claims was almost identical to one that had persuaded the same court to grant Lawrence Baker a new trial in 1986. In that case, Commonwealth v. Baker, the court overturned Baker's death sentence for first-degree murder on the grounds that the prosecutor improperly referenced the lengthy appeal process afforded those sentenced to death. That prosecutor Joseph McGill was the same prosecutor who used similar almost verbatim language in his summation during both the guilt and sentencing phases of Mumia's trial. The judge who failed to strike the language in the Baker case was the same judge who presided at Mumia's trial, Common Pleas Court Judge Albert F. Sabo.