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Our worries about injustice can take surprising turns.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007
On a cold December night, the Philadelphia police officer lay dying on a city street, a bullet in his head.
A year later, a jury convicted a radio journalist in the slaying, an erudite young man once involved in the Black Panther Party. His name: Mumia Abu-Jamal. His sentence: death.
The year was 1982. That was the last Abu-Jamal saw of freedom. Since then, he's been imprisoned in Pennsylvania, claiming innocence all the while.
Maybe you've seen the T-shirts that read, "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal," or read his book, Live from Death Row or heard his voice on the radio. He broadcasts via the Prison Radio, commenting on everything from Barack Obama's presidential campaign to the Jena Six case.
One recent broadcast focused on Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old boy who died after boot camp guards roughed him up at a Panhandle camp. Abu-Jamal expressed outrage over the acquittals.
Chances are, at some point, you've heard his name.
Wrongful convictions, particularly in death penalty cases, play on our worst fears. If such an injustice can find a stranger, it can find any of us.
Yet in all that talk, I can't recall hearing much about the police officer killed that evening. I didn't even know his name.
I was born the month Abu-Jamal went to trial. I would come of age in an era rife with the images of the wrongfully convicted on death rows.
In college in Chicago, I investigated such a case with other journalism students. At dinner one night with a man who had been released from death row, I heard of the horrors he had endured.
Journalism appealed to me because it allowed me to seek justice, to give voice to the stories of those without access or power.
I'd heard of Abu-Jamal. But I knew nothing of the man he is convicted of killing, or his widow, who has felt silenced and powerless for a quarter century.
With his strong command of language and his sonorous broadcaster's voice, Abu-Jamal gained support from some high-profile quarters. In 1991, the Yale Law Journal published his account of life on death row.
Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys performed a concert in his name. A Parisian neighborhood named a street for him, and the city made him an honorary citizen. A New York Times advertisement on his behalf was signed by Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie, among others.
A story in Vanity Fair called him "America's most famous prisoner."
When a new book on the Abu-Jamal case landed on my desk, sent by an acquaintance in New York, I was intrigued.
Murdered by Mumia: A life sentence of loss, pain and injustice is the autobiography of Maureen Faulkner, widow of Danny Faulkner, the police officer killed that December night. Written with Philadelphia lawyer and conservative talk radio show host Michael Smerconish, the book captures Faulkner's outrage at Abu-Jamal, his supporters and the court system.
She tells of her struggle to persuade others of his guilt, frustrated that Abu-Jamal became well known nationally and internationally, while her husband's memory faded from the news.
Even the title of the book seems to recognize this. Murdered by Mumia, it reads in bold block letters on the cover. The name Danny Faulkner is nowhere to be found.
The book's dedication sets the tone: To those who have suffered the unending pain inflicted on them by a loved one's killer, only to be victimized again by our appellate process. Be strong. You are not alone in your pain or in your struggle for justice.
In 1981, the Faulkners were newly married and living in Philadelphia. She describes a quiet life of beach outings, karaoke and family gatherings.
That year, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice. Prince Charles married Diana Spencer. ABBA, Styx and Foreigner had hit songs.
Just before 4 a.m. Dec. 9, 1981, Faulkner was on patrol in downtown Philadelphia when he stopped a Volkswagen Beetle driven by Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook. A short time later, police found Faulkner, 25, lying on the sidewalk, bullet wounds in his back and head.
Nearby, investigators found Abu-Jamal sitting on a curb, a bullet wound to his gut, a gun not far away.
Cook, who remained at the scene, was not charged.
According to reports of Abu-Jamal's trial, prosecutors presented several witnesses, weaving together a narrative in which a man with dreadlocks shot the officer after seeing Faulkner struggle with Cook. Two identified the man as Abu-Jamal, saying they saw him run across the street after his brother's car was stopped and shoot Faulkner.
Two other witnesses testified they heard Abu-Jamal talk about the shooting at a hospital. Faulkner's partner, Officer Garry Bell, testified that he heard Abu-Jamal say in the hospital: "I shot that motherf----r and I hope the motherf-----r dies."
Defense attorneys for Abu-Jamal disputed Bell's account, saying that Bell waited more than two months before reporting the confession.
A defense witness testified that he saw several officers hit Abu-Jamal with nightsticks and that he saw a figure run from the scene after the shooting.
In court, Abu-Jamal accused police of "trying to execute me in the street," adding that, "I am still innocent of these charges."
His conviction brought only temporary relief for Maureen Faulkner.
The appeals followed, bringing allegations of racism. The jury was mostly white. Abu-Jamal is black.
His attorneys raised questions both about the bullet and whether it came from Abu-Jamal's gun and about the credibility of the witnesses. They also claimed not enough money was spent on his defense.
With media-savvy attorneys and accusations surfacing of misdeeds in Philadelphia's police force, his cause became the cause of total strangers. Free Mumia.
Faulkner calls them "Mumidiots."
"Our Bill of Rights guarantees that he need not testify on his own behalf," she writes. "But you would think that, after a jury has delivered its verdict, a rational public would require at least some type of explanation before pledging their unwavering adoration and even offering to take his place for execution. This, however, has never been the case."
The appeals process for Abu-Jamal, now 53, continues. His death sentence was changed to life in 2001.
On the day of her book's release, the police widow spoke by phone from a New York hotel room. She had just finished an interview on the Today Show.
Before her appearance, news outlets reported that pro Abu-Jamal demonstrators planned to attend the show.
"I finally, after 26 years, I decided I needed to do this," she said. "Just to let people know what survivors go through."
She writes of Abu-Jamal's continuous presence in her life. She recalls the time she saw a man at a California gas station, wearing a "Free Mumia" shirt. She writes of the day she turned on the radio to hear Mumia's voice fill the quiet of her car. Her husband's voice was silenced long ago, but she still hears dispatches from Abu-Jamal.
"For years, I just feel as though I've pretty much been haunted by this man," she said.
She has no doubt about his guilt. Over the years, she tried to voice her opinion. When a publishing house, Addison Wesley, for example, gave Abu-Jamal a book deal, she hired a plane to fly a banner above the company's headquarters that read, "Addison-Wesley Supports Cop Killer."
"I was forced to experience the hurt, shock, and disbelief all over again," she writes of hearing of the book deal.
I tell her I'm surprised that I'd never heard Danny Faulkner's name, especially when Abu-Jamal's name is a familiar one. In journalism classes, presenting all sides is part of the basics. Multiple voices need to be heard to get a full story, a full picture.
In this case, Abu-Jamal's voice - at least nationally and internationally - seems to have muffled Faulkner's. I wonder, how did this happen? How did one voice become so loud? I wonder about my own choices, how I read and listen. Had I been guilty of overlooking the voiceless in favor of the man with the loudest voice?
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3373.
[Last modified December 17, 2007, 09:14:08]