Weeding Through The Rhetoric: What's The Rage/Beastie's Benefit About?

There are those who vilify Mumia Abu-Jamal, there are those who praise him... and then there's everyone else.

The emotion surrounding the controversial 1982 conviction and subsequent death sentence of Mumia for the murder of 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner may well blister at Thursday night's Rage Against The Machine/Beastie Boys benefit concert in New Jersey for Mumia's defense fund. The concert has drawn the ire of New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, the New Jersey State Police, and the widow of Daniel Faulkner. It has also added Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello to the roster of outspoken celebrities (including Whoopie Goldberg, Oliver Stone, and Paul Newman) who have called Mumia's 1982 trial unfair, and have lobbied for a new trial.

Unfortunately, the concert has also inflamed emotions clouding what was already an extraordinarily involved and complicated matter. To crack open the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who currently sits

on death row in Pennsylvania, is to open a door onto conflicting realities and swirling logic. The situation is so complex that in a 1995 piece in the legal journal "The American Lawyer," writer Stuart Taylor concluded, "Jamal is probably an unrepentant killer," yet went on to decry his trial as "grotesquely unfair" and the sentencing hearing that lead to his death sentence as "clearly unconstitutional."

Cutting through the rhetoric of those calling for Mumia's death or his freedom is not an easy task. There's very little about Mumia's case that is not the source of debate, but this much remains uncontested: In the wee hours of December 9, 1981, Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a blue Volkswagen Beetle driven by one William Cook, the brother of Mumia Abu-Jamal (real name Wesley Cook). Both Faulkner and Cook stepped out of their vehicles, and after an altercation between the two followed, Mumia emerged from a nearby parking lot where he had been sitting in

his parked cab. Shots rang out, Mumia was struck once in the torso, and Faulkner was struck twice, once in the torso and once at point blank range in the face.

This much is certain as well: Mumia is an outspoken political activist who has worked with the Black Panthers as well as the black militant group MOVE. He was also a respected radio journalist whose work was heard on National Public Radio as well as other outlets. Since his imprisonment, he has continued his commentary, this time as an author, with his 1995 book "Live From Death Row."

Everything else, including who witnessed the crime, what they saw, the weapon used, and even the very nature of the judge and jury that tried Mumia is up for debate. And when a convicted man stands to be executed, the importance of resolving the debate would seem to be considerable.

In the 1982 trial that resulted in Mumia's murder conviction, prosecutors presented what seemed like an overwhelming case against Mumia including

damning eyewitness testimony and a confession. Mumia's supporters counter those claims, and raise charges of their own, including witness intimidation, falsified testimony, and judicial bias.

During the 1982 trial, prosecutors presented four witnesses who all claimed, in varying fashions, to have seen Jamal emerge from the nearby parking lot, approach officer Faulkner, and raise his hand toward him just before hearing gunshots. One of them even identified Mumia as the killer at the scene of crime while police had Mumia in custody.

Jamal's supporters claim that this eyewitness testimony was tainted by police interference, and point to inconsistencies between the initial reports these witness gave police on the night of the murder and the testimony they gave during the 1982 trial as evidence of such misconduct. They also claim that two witnesses who were crucial to Mumia's conviction, cab driver Robert Chobert and prostitute Cynthia White, were in positions that made them

susceptible to the influence of Philadelphia police. Mumia supporters point out that Chobert (who testified that he saw Jamal stand over Faulkner and fire several shots at him) was on probation for arson. They go on to charge that White (who told the court she saw Jamal charge Faulkner with a gun, shoot him in the back, and then fire several more shots at him as he lay on the street) struck a deal with police that allowed her to work the streets in exchange for testimony against Mumia.

Those who believe Mumia should remain behind bars rebut these charges pointing out that during the appeal process (which Mumia has now exhausted), the defense has failed to provide any evidence of witness coercion. They also point out that the charges of a police deal with White were first raised by another prostitute, Veronica Jones, who later testified that she was confused about the events of the early 80s due to heavy drug use.

Also vital to Mumia's conviction was a confession that

two police officers and one hospital worker claim that Mumia made while being treated for the gunshot wound he suffered the night of Faulkner's death. All three testified that, while laying in the emergency room that evening, Mumia shouted, "I shot the motherf***er and I, hope the motherf***er dies."

Those sympathetic to Mumia's case claim that the story of a hospital confession was a fabrication, noting that the police officers who claim to have heard it did not make mention of it until some three months later. They also note that one of the officers, Gary Wakshul, said in a report filed hours after the alleged confession, "We stayed with the male at (the hospital) until we were relieved. During this time, the Negro male made no comments." They also point to a statement made by Dr. Anthony Coletta who says that he was with Mumia during that time, and claims, "He never made this statement."

Anti-Mumia forces denounce the theory of a confession scripted by police after

the fact by pointing to the testimony of hospital security guard Priscilla Durham who said that she filed a report about Mumia's confession with her supervisors the same morning that it happened. Supporters of the convicted killer counter that Durham was biased because of her close work with Philadelphia police, and claim that the handwritten report she said she filed at the hospital was never found (a type-written version was eventually entered into evidence).

There are many other points of contention in the Mumia case: Mumia's lawyers question the ballistic tests that match his gun to the bullet that killed Faulkner, while prosecutors contend that the .38 caliber Special P+ bullet that killed Faulkner matches Mumia's Charter Arms .38 Caliber handgun.

However, Mumia supporters fear that ultimately the most important factor in the black activist's conviction was race. They point out that the jury that convicted him was comprised of ten whites and two blacks in a city

whose population is 40 percent black. They also claim that the presiding judge in the case, Judge Albert Sabo, was heavily biased against Mumia. They note that Judge Sabo, who has since retired, had sent 32 defendants to the electric chair, 27 of them black. Observers called Sabo a "pro-prosecution" judge and labeled his handling of the Mumia case "overly hostile." One legal observer writing for "The American Lawyer" called the sentencing portion of Mumia's trial "a travesty," and added "it was riddled with Constitutional flaws."

Supporters of the ruling against Mumia point out that the jury and not Sabo decided on the death penalty, and that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have upheld the sentence on direct appeal. Answering to the charges of bias, Sabo himself once said, "In the old days we lawyers had a saying: If you have the evidence on your side, argue the evidence. If you have the law on your side argue the law. And if you have neither the evidence

nor the law, scream like hell! Now the news media has changed that to read as follows: If you don't have either the evidence or the law, blame the judge."

A lot of folks have taken that advice, causing a small swell in support for Mumia, who even if he is granted a new trial, is not guaranteed an acquittal.

"From an evidentiary standpoint, the case against Mumia Abu-Jamal wasS one of the strongest I have seen in 24 years as a prosecutor," Assistant District Attorney Arnold H. Gordon told NPR of the case.

How that case was handled, however, is precisely what all the fuss is about. Even with a guilty verdict, there's a world of difference between a life sentence in prison and a death sentence, particularly if you're the defendant.

If you are interested in learning more about the case (and believe us, there is a lot more), you might want to check out the following websites:

www.justice4danielfaulkner.com: A site maintained by a group that feels that Jamal was fairly convicted.

www.mumia.org: A site run by the International Concerned Family & Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

www.geocities.com/CapitolHill: A site that outlines what Mumia's supporters see as flaws in the case against him that led to his conviction. The site also features a bulletin board that hosts wide variety of opinions on the case.

www.americanlawyer.com: Information on "The American Lawyer," the legal journal whose coverage of the Mumia case is referred to in this piece.