The strange case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

JUST BEFORE 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981, in a rough downtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Police Officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a Volkswagen Beetle and arrested its driver, William Cook, for driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Expecting or experiencing trouble, Daniel Faulkner radioed for assistance.


When fellow police officers arrived, they found him lying in the street, shot in the back and the face.

A few feet away, slumped in his own pool of blood, was William Cook's brother, a free-lance journalist and black activist named Mumia Abu-Jamal -- born Wesley Cook.


Mumia Abu-Jamal, who moonlighted as a cab driver, later said that he had been driving by and, seeing a police officer hitting his brother, stopped his cab and rushed to his defense. His licensed .38 caliber pistol, which he had bought after having been robbed twice, was found at the scene.

Faulkner died at Jefferson University Hospital an hour after the shooting. Mumia Abu-Jamal underwent surgery there, a bullet from the officer's revolver having struck his chest and lodged near his spine.

Protesting his innocence, Mumia Abu-Jamal was charged with first-degree murder and brought to trial in early 1982.

The prosecution maintained that he had come up behind the officer and shot him in the back, that the fallen officer had returned fire and that Mumia Abu-Jamal, though wounded, had stood over Faulkner and fired the fatal shot into his face.

Prosecutors produced two eyewitnesses who identified Mumia Abu-Jamal as the gunman and a third whose identification was )) less certain. They also offered ballistic evidence that the bullet removed from the officer was of the high-velocity type in Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol.

Two other witnesses testified they heard Mumia Abu-Jamal confess to the shooting at the hospital.

Because he could not afford a lawyer, he chose to represent himself. The presiding judge, Albert Sabo, complained that Mumia Abu-Jamal was taking too long interviewing the jurors, and replaced him with a court-appointed lawyer, who by his own statement was reluctant to take the case.

Mumia Abu-Jamal objected and was eventually put out of the courtroom, the first of several exclusions that, all told, would absent him from large portions of the trial.


Another problem Mumia Abu-Jamal faced was his younger brother's inability or unwillingness to testify on his behalf. Mumia Abu-Jamal's lawyers said William Cook had a history of drug problems and was terrified of police retribution.

He is now believed to be homeless and has not been seen in a year.

On July 2, 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by Judge Sabo.

Now, after 14 years on death row, his appeals rejected, Mumia Abu-Jamal is to be executed at 10 p.m. on Aug. 17.

Yet his death warrant, signed by the new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, comes just as substantive doubts about the prosecution's case have been raised by Mumia Abu-Jamal's current attorneys, possibly his first competent legal representation.

They serve for minimal fees, paid largely by contributions raised by various defense committees that have formed over the years.


In papers filed in June the attorneys asked that Judge Sabo -- who, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has handed down more than twice as many death sentences as any judge in the country -- recuse himself from the case. They asked for a stay of execution and a new trial.

Last week, Judge Sabo refused to recuse himself or sign the stay.

A review of the attorneys' petition suggests that the evidence upon which Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted does not hold up under examination.

Of the two eyewitnesses who positively identified Mumia Abu-Jamal as the gunman, one was a prostitute with several charges pending against her and the other was a cab driver on probation for a felony arson conviction.

No other witnesses saw the prostitute at the scene. One witness told the defense that she arrived after the incident and asked bystanders what had happened.

Nevertheless, she claimed in court she had seen Mumia Abu-Jamal wielding a gun. Subsequently, charges against her were not prosecuted.


The cab driver's testimony corroborated the prostitute's, but in a deposition taken on the night of the crime he said something else entirely -- that the gunman was not the 170-pound Mumia Abu-Jamal but a heavyset man of well over 200 pounds who had fled the scene.

Four other witnesses who were never put on the stand, including one woman whose apartment overlooked the intersection, also reported seeing a man running away.

Yet no police inquiries regarding another possible gunman were ever made.

An examination of the ballistic evidence reveals that no effort was made by the police to determine if Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol had been fired that night.

Moreover, the Philadelphia Police Department's own medical examiner concluded that the officer's fatal head wound was made by a .44 caliber bullet. Mumia Abu-Jamal's pistol was a .38 caliber.

The two witnesses who had been in the hospital waiting room with Mumia Abu-Jamal, and who testified that he shouted defiantly that he had shot Faulkner, turned out to be the officer's former partner and best friend and a hospital security guard who was also a friend.


The partner's log report of that night mentioned no confession. Neither did he report a confession in a statement he volunteered the next week.

In fact, neither he nor the security guard said anything about a confession until months later -- after Mumia Abu-Jamal filed a complaint that he was abused by the police while in the hospital.

Furthermore, another officer who was with Mumia Abu-Jamal from the time he was driven from the murder scene to the time the doctors started treating him wrote in his log report immediately after the episode that "the Negro male made no statements."

This officer was given vacation leave at the time of the trial and never testified.

The prosecution's claim that Mumia Abu-Jamal was shot while standing over the fallen officer is not consistent with a pathologist's report describing the downward trajectory of his chest wound.

A different scenario, which is consistent, is suggested by Mumia Abu-Jamal's own account -- that he was shot first by the officer as he approached. Furthermore, the third prosecution eyewitness portrayed the two men as facing each other.


Why did the police never pursue obvious leads and investigate the possibility of another gunman?

Mumia Abu-Jamal had long been a controversial figure. As a teen-ager he helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party. Later he became a journalist and radio commentator known for his support of the activist black MOVE community and for his condemnation of the city's police force as habitually brutal to blacks.

To uniformed men in mourning for one of their own, he was an enemy delivered to their mercies.

During Mumia Abu-Jamal's years on death row, he has written cogently of prison life and has attracted many supporters. Groups across a broad spectrum have collected money for his defense.

Amnesty International, the PEN American Center and Human Rights Watch have all questioned the fairness of the trial. All this has only strengthened the law-enforcement community's determination to see the "cop killer" executed.

And Mumia Abu-Jamal's recently published book, "Live From Death Row," has gotten him disciplinary isolation for his trouble, so that what the Fraternal Order of Police hopes is the last month of his life may pass as wretchedly as possible.


If the death penalty must exist in this country, it is the burden of the public servants charged with applying it to do so only from the most unanswerable and awesome judicial imperatives -- or state-administered death becomes morally indistinguishable from any other murder.

Without a stay of execution and the most scrupulously objective retrial, how can Governor Ridge look at the facts of this case and say that they meet this test?

Will the pain of Faulkner's widow, who supports Mumia Abu-Jamal's execution, be resolved if it turns out that the wrong man has been executed and her husband's killer still walks the streets?

E. L. Doctorow is author, most recently, of "The Waterworks." He wrote this for the New York Times.