Mumia AbuJamal

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Mumia Abu-Jamal ©Prison Radio

Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook April 24, 1954) is a journalist and political activist, most famous for his 1982 conviction and death sentence for the murder of Daniel Faulkner, a police officer, and for the subsequent mass campaigns for and against him. Technically, he had been awaiting execution in Pennsylvania from 1982 until December 2001 when Federal District Court judge William Yohn overturned Jamal's death sentence. However, Yohn reaffirmed Jamal's conviction, ruling that he will remain in custody indefinitely.

Career, arrest and trial

Prior to his conviction, Abu-Jamal was a Philadelphia journalist. He began his career at the age of fourteen as the lieutenant minister of information with the Philadelphia Black Panther Party. He was also a prominent supporter of the group MOVE, and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Some say that his achievements as a journalist have been exaggerated - while he has been described as "an award-winning Pennsylvania journalist who exposed police violence against minority communities," little evidence has supported this claim, and at the time of the crime he was a taxi driver.

It is often claimed that he received the Peabody Award for excellence in Radio Journalism (supposedly in 1980, at the age of 26, for covering the Pope's visit), but the University of Georgia (who attributes the awards) said he has never won it, though he did win a local media award, and someone did submit his work for a Peabody award.

On December 9, 1981, Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over Abu-Jamal's brother, William (Wesley) Cook in the vicinity of 13th and Locust Streets, an area frequented by prostitutes, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street with his lights out. Abu-Jamal, who was driving a cab at the time, happened on the scene and claimed to see Faulkner beating his brother with a flashlight (William Cook later plead guilty to assaulting officer Faulkner). In an ensuing struggle, both Abu-Jamal and Faulkner were shot. Faulkner was shot in the back and in the face and died instantly while Abu-Jamal was shot in the chest. Police allege that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner while Abu-Jamal's defenders allege that Faulkner was shot by a third man from behind, who fled the scene. Abu-Jamal was arrested at 4 a.m. with a pistol registered in his name at his side.

On July 3, 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of Faulkner's murder and sentenced to death. In addition to a conventional criminal defense, Abu-Jamal raised many political issues in his trial, and asked the court repeatedly to allow MOVE leader John Africa to represent him.

Cause célèbre

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An anarchist mural in inner-city Bristol, England.

Abu-Jamal's case has become a popular cause among many, particularly on the political left, the anti-globalization movement, and anti-death penalty activists as well as the black nationalist movement. Saving Mumia Abu-Jamal from the death penalty is a popular cause among people and organizations who insist he is innocent. Others, without concern for whether he is factually innocent, still believe that he did not receive a fair trial. A third group of supporters simply oppose the death penalty in general. A fourth group object to harsher penalties for killing a police officer than for killing an ordinary citizen. Many supporters have called for a new trial, his release from prison, or the commutation of his sentence to life in prison.

Daniel Faulkner's family and the Fraternal Order of Police believe that Abu-Jamal killed Faulkner while Faulkner was engaged in a legal, justified arrest. In August 1999, the FOP's national biennial general meeting passed a resolution calling for an economic boycott of all individuals and businesses that had expressed support for freeing Abu-Jamal.

General Disagreements


Jamal's supporters say that since Jamal had taken a high profile position with the Black Panther Party as a teenager, he could have been a target of the FBI's COINTELPRO program, whose purpose was to harass, disrupt and destroy popular political groups such as the BPP. Several other Black Panthers who were convicted of various crimes, including murder, have been released when it was learned that the FBI withheld evidence which would have acquitted them, such as Geronimo Pratt. Some of these unlucky, wrongly imprisoned people served up to thirty years before being exonerated and freed. Others, such as Fred Hampton, were killed under suspicious circumstances.


Jamal's detractors say that the critics of the trial amass numerous small errors to build their case for a larger conspiracy, and that the supporters of Jamal are unable to make a convincing case about the overall crime and Jamal's involvement with the murder of a police officer.

Disagreements about the trial process

Even among many of those convinced of Abu-Jamal's guilt, there is a strong belief that he did not receive a fair trial in the courtroom proceeding that produced his first-degree murder conviction.

Concerning the judge

Albert F. Sabo was the presiding judge for the trial.

Jamal's supporters claim that :

  • Sabo had a reputation in favor of the police and against defendents in criminal cases.
  • Sabo had a reputation as a judge with a bias toward convictions. Amnesty International claims he has sentenced more men to die (31 total, only 2 of them white) than any other sitting judge in Pennsylvania. A review of the court records by The Philadelphia Inquirer showed "that most of the homicide judges in Philadelphia hear more murder cases than Judge Sabo with fewer death sentences."
  • During the trial, Sabo made no attempt to be impartial. Every ruling he made was against Jamal. Every objection by the prosecutors was sustained, every objection by the defense was overruled.
  • A white court stenographer Terri Mauer-Carter alleged she and her boss Richard Klein, a Philadelphia judge, overheard Sabo saying he was going to "help them fry the nigger" shortly before the start of Abu-Jamal's trial. There is however no proof as of yet.
  • Sabo was a Philadelphia judge whose assigned cases included crimes in all of Philadelphia, not just a 'heavily non-white district.' However, Jamal supporters note that this high conviction, high death sentencing judge was assigned a disproportionate share of minority defendents.

Jamal's detractors answer that :

  • The claim that Sabo has given more death sentences than anyone else is fabricated: no such statistics are collected, and so there is no way Abu-Jamal's supporters could know this.
  • At any rate, it is the jury, not the judge, which convicts and gives death sentences. (However, see below regarding an error in the judge's sentencing instructions.)
  • Sabo presided over a heavily non-white district, which accounts for the racial make-up of his defendants (whom he did not choose).

Concerning Mumia's defense

Lawyer Anthony Jackson was chosen by Abu-Jamal as legal counsel, after recommendation by his friends at the Black Journalists Association (Jackson knew Jamal before the murder). He then petitioned the Court to have the case assigned to him at public expense, to which the Court agreed.

Aftwerwards, Jamal asked to represent himself, to which Judge Sabo agreed. However, after what the Court considered as disruptive actions (according to court records, Jamal was removed 13 times from the courtroom for his disruptive behaviour), Jamal was warned that he would lose that right if he didn't stop. When Jamal's behaviour continued, Jackson was reinstated as the defense lawyer.

Jamal supporters contend that the reason Sabo changed his mind was that Jamal was actually doing a decent job in defending himself, which supposedly was typical of Sabo's bias against Jamal.

Jamal repeatedly asked to be represented by, or at least assisted by, John Africa (who had also been noted for his disruptive courtroom behaviour). John Africa having no legal training, the court refused. Jamal objected to Jackson, and refused to cooperate with him, saying he was "functioning for the court system, not for [Jamal]", and that John Africa, not Jackson, was his real counsel. Jackson later alleged that Jamal didn't return to him some of the documents (such as witness statements) he had handed him when Jamal took over the defense.

Mumia's defenders often describe this as a case where a public defender is thrust upon an indigent defendant (as happens in many cases), and say that he was picked by Sabo without Jamal's consent, specifically because he wasn't a very good lawyer. Jamal supporters claim that Jackson would later be disbarred for incompetence.

Although Jackson is sometimes described by Mumia's defenders as having never defended a client in a murder case, he had served in twenty murder cases, with only six convictions and no executions prior to the Abu-Jamal case.

It is sometimes claimed he was allowed only $1500 to analyze evidence and to hire expert witnesses, though receipts indicate the defense spent $13,000.

Concerning the jury

The racial composition of the jury was not recorded, but it is known at least two jurors were black (13% of the jury), as was a third accepted by the prosecution who was later dismissed for violating sequestration. The racial composition of Philadelphia at the time was 40% black.

It is sometimes claimed that the prosecution requested the removal of many black potential jurors specifically because they were black. Both prosecution and defense were allowed up to twenty peremptory challenges, and the prosecution used fifteen of these, giving reasons for each.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which reviewed the case twice, did not conclude that racial bias was a factor in jury selection, which would have been grounds to order a new trial.

Other points

  • Abu-Jamal's supporters claim that when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court first upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction in 1989, that ruling found no impropriety in the prosecutor using Abu-Jamal's teenage membership in the Black Panther Party to claim he harbored a desire to kill a police officer for over a decade, despite Abu-Jamal having no criminal record. Later, Federal District Court judge Yohn threw out the death sentence because of Sabo's incorrect instructions to the jury on just this point.

Witness Accounts

Eyewitnesses :

  • William Cook, Mumia's brother, driving the Volkswagen pulled over by Faulkner.
  • Robert Chobert, cab driver : "I saw Jamal standing over [Faulkner] and firing some more shots into him"
  • Cynthia White " [Abu-Jamal] came running out of the parking lot on Locust Street. He had a handgun in his hand. He fired the gun at the police officer about four or five times. The police officer fell to the ground. I started screaming." Jamal supporters claim that White was a prostitute who had been indicted and was threatened with prison if she testified in favor of Jamal, while if she testified against Jamal she would be able to continue her prostitution without police interference.
  • Robert Harkins
  • Alber Magilton
  • Michael Scanlon

Other witesses :

  • Deborah Kordansky
  • Veronica Jones
  • Desie Hightower

Jamal opponents have produced a map with the witness locations here.

Robert Chobert's testimony

  • According to Robert Chobert's testimony and statements, he was writing in his logbook when he heard the first shot and looked up. He had to look over or past Faulkner's car, with its flashing red dome light, to see the incident and saw the shooter only in profile. Chobert testified at trial that when he looked up, he saw Faulkner fall and then saw Abu-Jamal "standing over him and firing some more shots into him. "Under cross-examination by Jackson, he stated: "I know who shot the cop, and I ain't going to forget it."
  • Jamal supporters note Chobert's first recorded statement to police -- about which the jury was not told -- was that the shooter "apparently ran away", according to a report written on 10 December 1981 by Inspector Giordano. Giordano encountered Chobert upon reaching the scene about five minutes after the shooting. Giordano wrote: "[A] white male from the crowd stated that he saw the shooting and that a black MOVE member had done it and apparently ran away. When asked what he meant by a MOVE member, the white male stated, 'His hair, his hair,' apparently referring to dreadlocks."
  • There are also discrepancies between Chobert's description of the shooter's clothes and weight and that of Abu-Jamal.
  • Jamal supporters claim Chobert was under indictment for arson at the time, and his change of testimony may have been influenced by the charges pending against him.

Confession at the hospital

When Jamal was brought to Jefferson Hospital on the night of the killing, he struggled a moment with the police outside the Emergency Room entrance. At that time, several witnesses claim to have heard him shout "I shot the mother fucker and I hope the mother fucker dies". He then refused medical treatment and wasn't treated until a judge had issued a court order several hours later, at which time he was almost comatose.

While the two police officers present (Gary Bell and Gary Wakshul) did not write anything concerning the alleged confession in their police report, a hospital security guard, Priscilla Durham, made a report to the hospital authorities the following day including that statement. While she was an acquaintance of officer Faulkner, she claims not to have known at that time who the man being brought in was.

Officer Bell and Ms. Durham testified during the trial; Wakshul however was not heard until the 1995 hearings, but had made a written statement concerning the confession.

Jamal's defense had originally not put Wakshul on their witness list. However, on the last day of the trial, the defense asked to hear Wakshul. By that time Wakshul, who had stayed around during the first week of the trial, was on vacation. Judge Sabo refused to extend the trial, and told the defense lawyer, Jackson, that he "goofed". The defense lawyer claimed Wakshul's testimony was crucial to the case (A "Brady witness"]

In the 1995 hearings, Wakshul testified that he had indeed heard Jamal confess to the murder, and claimed that if he had written in his report "the Negro male made no comments" and made no mention of the statement until about two months afterwards, it was because of the great stress of seeing his partner die. Officer Bell had given a similar explanation during the trial.

Jamal's supporters have argued that his background as a journalist made it unlikely that he'd make such an incriminating comment.


Jamal supporters claim:

  • Several of the witnesses, such as Pamela Jenkins, report being forced to tear up their witness statements and instead sign statements incriminating Abu-Jamal at the scene. Jenkins was the lover and informant of Philadelphia police officer Tom Ryan. In her statement, Jenkins claimed that Ryan "wanted me to perjure myself and say that I had seen Jamal shoot the police officer." In 1996, Tom Ryan and five other officers from the same district went to prison after being convicted of charges of planting evidence, stealing money from suspects and making false reports. Their convictions resulted in the release of numerous prisoners implicated by the officers. Veronica Jones witnessed the killing and testified for the defense. She claimed she had been offered inducements by the police to testify that she saw Abu-Jamal kill Faulkner, stating that "they [the police] were trying to get me to say something the other girl [White] said. I couldn't do that." Jones went on to testify that "they [the police] told us we could work the area [as prostitutes ] if we tell them [that Abu-Jamal was the shooter]." However, Judge Sabo had the jury removed for this testimony and then ruled that Jones' statements were inadmissible evidence.
  • Conflicting testimony and missing witnesses: Abu-Jamal's lawyers contend that a number of witnesses changed their original statements regarding what they saw on the night of the crime after being coerced, threatened or offered inducements by the police.

William Cook

  • William Cook, Abu-Jamal's brother and an obvious eyewitness to the killing, did not testify for either side at trial. He was convicted in separate proceedings of assaulting Faulkner. Cook made a statement to the police on the night of the shooting, and another to Abu-Jamal's legal team in 1995. However, neither of these statements have been seen by Amnesty International.
  • Abu-Jamal's supporters have alleged that in 1982, Cook was being intimidated by the police and feared being charged in connection with the killing and was therefore too frightened to testify. Cook was scheduled to testify during the 1995 hearing but failed to appear. Again it was alleged that this was due to fear of the police and of being arrested on unrelated charges in court. In his written denial of the 1995 appeal, Judge Sabo made negative assumptions regarding Cook's unwillingness to testify. Since 1995, the defense team has been unable to locate Cook despite numerous attempts.

Arnold Beverley

Another man, Arnold Beverley, confessed to the murder of Daniel Faulkner in 1999. However, neither Jamal, nor a single prosecution or defense witness could place Beverly at the scene of the crime, and his account of the killing is at odds with the known facts on numerous points. The Jamal legal team also waited nearly two years before attempting to enter Beverly's story as evidence into a possible retrial.

  • Jamal's detractors also point out that it is common in high-profile murder cases for false confessions to be made to police.

Other points

  • To date, neither Jamal nor Jamal's supporters have given a convincing alibi for his presence at the scene of the crime, unconscious, with what may have been the murder weapon.

Disagreements about ballistics

Was Mumia's gun fired?

Although all five bullets in Abu-Jamal's gun were spent, the police didn't conduct forensic tests to ascertain whether the weapon had been fired in the immediate past. However, there is no conclusive test to determine if a gun has been fired recently. The "sniff" test on a gun is not considered forensic evidence, being subjective. The only forensic tests available are the nitrate tests, which only show that someone might have been near a gun while it was fired. Since Abu-Jamal had been shot at close range himself, a nitrate test would have provided no useful information.

Abu-Jamal's hands and face were not tested or examined for the lead residue that would normally be present had he recently fired a gun. A lead residue test is a routine procedure in crime scene investigations where the suspect is apprehended at or near the scene of the crime and was conducted with at least one other suspect at the scene. However, the fact that Jamal had a bullet in his chest requiring immediate medical attention made such a test on Jamal insignificant in comparison to his need for immediate hospitalization. Jamal claims that he was beaten by police after the shooting but before he went to the hospital. Jamal was indicted shortly after he filed a complaint charging police abuse on the night of the shooting.

Gun Calibre

Abu-Jamal's gun was a .38 calibre weapon, and Dr. Paul Hoyer, who performed the autopsy, wrote in his notes that the bullet removed from Faulkner's body was ".44 cal". However, he testified that this was merely a guess he made before actually performing the autopsy, and this guess was not included in the autopsy report, as he had no ballistics training.

The court accepted Dr. Hoyer as a ballistics expert. However, during the 1995 PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) hearing, Judge Sabo contended that the medical examiner was "not a ballistics expert" like the two ballistics experts (including Jamal's own) who have since testified the bullets removed from officer Faulkner were consistent with being fired from the .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver which was registered to Jamal and found at the scene.

The incorrect guess may be explained by the fact that the bullet was a +P, which leaves a larger wound.

Mumia's supporters also claim that the discrepancy between Dr. Hoyer's notes and Mumia's gun calibre was never made known to the jury.

Other points

Mumia's supporters claim that :

  • The prosecution maintained that Officer Faulkner turned and fired at Abu-Jamal as he fell to the ground after being shot. Therefore, the entry of the bullet into Abu-Jamal should have been on a level or upward trajectory. However, according to the medical records, the overall pathway of the bullet was downwards.

Appeals, international response and prison life

Abu-Jamal's conviction has been upheld in both state and federal courts. In December 2001, a federal judge affirmed his murder conviction but ordered that Abu-Jamal should either receive a new sentencing hearing or have his sentence commuted to life in prison because of an error by the trial judge in presenting rules of sentencing to the jury. This decision was appealed by both sides and, as of August 2005, the appeal is still pending.

In October 2003, Mumia Abu-Jamal was awarded the status of honorary citizen of Paris in a ceremony attended by former Black Panther Angela Davis. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, said in a press release that the award was meant to be a reminder of the continuing fight against the death penalty, which was abolished in France in 1981. The proposal to make Abu-Jamal an honorary citizen was approved by the city's council in 2001.

In addition, organizations ranging from Amnesty International, the European Parliament, and the Japanese Diet to several national U.S. trade union federations (ILWU, AFSCME, SEIU, the national postal union) and the 1.8 million member California Labor Federation have declared the original trial unfair and either demand a new trial or Abu-Jamal's immediate release.

Human Rights Watch noted serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, particularly the heavy reliance during the sentencing phase on information regarding his political beliefs and associations.

According to Amnesty International's website, while they are "not in a position to say whether Mumia Abu-Jamal is innocent or guilty", they have concluded that the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty." Amnesty International is against the death penalty in all cases.

"Free Mumia!" is still a cry of black civil rights movements.

Since his imprisonment, Abu-Jamal has continued his political activism, publishing Live from Death Row, a book on life inside prisons, as well as making frequent commentaries on radio shows.

While in prison, Abu-Jamal completed his Bachelor of Arts from Goddard College, and earned an Master of Arts from California State University, Dominguez Hills, both by distance education.

He has recently endorsed rapper Immortal Technique and appears on his album Revolutionary Vol.2 several times. He calls it "truth in the form of hip hop."

  • Jamal opponents note a December 9, 1998 episode of the ABC news program 20/20 claimed the results of their four-month investigation was that Jamal did receive a fair trial and that many if not all of the arguments made by his supporters are based on incomplete information or information that is blatantly false. However, Jamal supporters contend that 20/20 had a strong bias against Jamal. A witness who testified in favor of Jamal (Jenkins) was discredited by 20/20 because she was prostitute, but the fact that a key witness who testified against Jamal (White) was also a prostitute was omitted by the program.


  • Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Live from Death Row. HarperTrade, 1996. ISBN 0380727668
  • Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom : A Life in the Black Panther Party. South End Press, 2004. ISBN 0896087182
  • Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Death Blossoms : Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience. South End Press, 2003. ISBN 0896086992
  • Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African-American People. Africa World Press, 2003. ISBN 1592210198
  • Abu-Jamal, Mumia. All Things Censored. Seven Stories Press, 2000. ISBN 1583220224
  • Amnesty International. The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance (Open Media Pamphlet Series). Open Media, 2001. ISBN 158322081X
  • Lindorff, David. Killing Time. Common Courage Press, 2002. ISBN 1567512283
  • Williams, Daniel R. Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0375761241

External links

eo:Mumia Abu JAMAL es:Mumia Abu-Jamal fr:Mumia Abu-Jamal nl:Mumia Abu-Jamal sv:Mumia Abu-Jamal