(editors note: At Philly.com there are a half-dozen articles about Jamal, Officer Faulkner, and the controversy surrounding the case. Go to Philly.com and type in "Mumia" at the search engine to read them all)
OPEN-&-SHUT CASE THAT WON'T CLOSE
Still no resolution for either side of Abu-Jamal debate
By WILL BUNCH
IT IS A MURDER STORY that - at least based on the forensic evidence - would not seem to make for a particularly compelling script for a crime show like "CSI: Miami" or "Cold Case."
A cab driver is identified by several eyewitnesses as the killer of a Philadelphia police officer. The slain cop was shot by a .38-caliber gun like the one owned by the cabbie, and the driver was discovered at the scene of the murder, struck by a bullet fired from the police officer's gun.
Not when the man convicted of the killing and once condemned to death is Mumia Abu-Jamal, a charismatic and articulate former radio journalist who had ties to the radical Black Panthers and MOVE.
And not when the murder took place in the Philadelphia of the early 1980s, a city seething with racial tension and controversy over a police department dogged by allegations of brutality.
Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of the police officer, Daniel Faulkner, and with Abu-Jamal serving what is now a life sentence in a western Pennsylvania prison - his death sentence was overturned in 2001 - it is difficult to say what is most remarkable about the case at the quarter-century mark.
Is it the fact that Abu-Jamal's conviction remains as controversial today as the day it was handed down at his 1982 trial and maybe more so - thanks in large part to something that barely existed at that time, the Internet?
Or is it the global reach of the case, with the facts of Abu-Jamal's trial and imprisonment almost better-known on the wide streets of Paris or Hamburg than on the narrow alleyways of his native Philadelphia?
"With the Mumia case, those grass-roots organizations that had been following the case since its beginning - and sustaining some of the conspiracy theories - were able to harness the Internet to spread these theories and advocate action across space and time," noted Michael Smith, a communications professor at La Salle University.
"I suspect that there may be another groundswell with the 25th anniversary."
Indeed, both sides of the seemingly endless debate over Abu-Jamal's guilt or innocence will seek to use the publicity over the anniversary to rally more support for their respective sides.
Opponents of Abu-Jamal's continuing appeal, including the officer's now highly visible widow, Maureen Faulkner, hold a fundraiser today at the Union League to honor District Attorney Lynne Abraham and to raise money for a scholarship fund. Tomorrow, busloads of Abu-Jamal supporters are slated to descend on Philly for a string of protests.
No one is more surprised at the staying power of the controversy than the man who went to crime scene on Dec. 9, 1981, as a reporter for the Daily News, Linn Washington, now a journalism professor at Temple University.
"Absolutely not," said Washington, when asked if he'd thought people would still be arguing about the case in 2006.
Washington over the years has become an advocate for a new trial for Abu-Jamal. He said that as the legend of the case has grown around the world - highlighted by the decision last year of a Paris suburb to name a city street after Abu-Jamal - he's given a lot of thought as to why that happened.
"Abu-Jamal is unique in terms of the people on Death Row," Washington said. "He can read and write and he is an articulate guy."
More importantly, Washington noted, every generation has its case that comes to define broader issues of race and justice - such as the famed Scottsboro Boys, black men accused of a rape in Alabama in the 1930s - and the Abu-Jamal case has become that case for the late 20th century and now into a new millennium.
With the Abu-Jamal case, there are so many intersections with the broader questions about race and justice in Philadelphia that for many, the cold, hard facts have melted into the background.
In 1981, the city was not only near the peak of a generation of urban decay and population flight, but it was still feeling the aftershocks of the divisive 1970s and the mayoralty of Frank Rizzo, who was tough on crime but also dogged by allegations of police brutality.
Abu-Jamal, now 52, born Wesley Cook, was at the center of that maelstrom. As a youth, he'd been active for a time with the Black Panthers. As a radio journalist with WHYY, he'd covered some of the major race-related stories of the '70s, most notably the running battle between the city authorities and the radical group MOVE. Over time, Abu-Jamal grew close to the MOVE effort. He even sought to have the group's founder, John Africa, defend him in his 1982 murder trial.
Most people who have followed the case believe that Abu-Jamal's association with MOVE has cut both ways - helping to publicize his case - especially after the notorious 1985 bombing that killed 11 MOVE members and burned a chunk of West Philadelphia - but perhaps not helping him win new allies here in Philadelphia, where many saw the radical group as a polarizing force.
Efforts by surviving MOVE members, such as Ramona Africa, to publicize the Abu-Jamal case eventually began to succeed with a small network of far-left political groups. They include the Partisan Defense Committee, a New York-based group that dates back to the Trotskyite movement of the 1930s, and the Maryland-based Quixote Center, a group with roots in the Catholic "liberation theology" that flourished in Central America during the 1980s.
While these groups are not well-known, their involvement and their ability to produce protesters began to have a cumulative effect. At the same time, many activists and some journalists were looking for someone who could personify the plight of America's growing Death Row population, and this attractive, dreadlocked and articulate former journalist seemed too good to be true.
One such journalist was Noelle Hanrahan, a radio reporter based in San Francisco who in 1992 was covering the first execution in California since the death penalty had been reinstated in America in the 1970s. As she prepared her coverage, Hanrahan said this week, "I thought that something was missing - the voices of Death Row inmates."
That's when she discovered both an article by Abu-Jamal and then a scratchy recording of him.
"I was stunned - I had done hundreds of interviews, and I never had recorded anybody who was so professional," Hanrahan said. Her association with Abu-Jamal led to the Prison Radio Project, an ongoing effort in which Abu-Jamal's recorded "radio essays" continue to receive distribution around the globe. That effort in turn caused National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" to offer the inmate a regular commentary slot - an offer that was withdrawn amid a firestorm of controversy from the Fraternal Order of Police and from conservatives.
That controversy was part of a kind of "perfect storm" in the mid-1990s. Abu-Jamal's ongoing criminal appeals gained a high-powered advocate in 1992 with liberal attorney Leonard Weinglass, and the NPR flap brought on board Hollywood celebrities like Ed Asner and Mike Farrell and well-known authors like E.L. Doctorow, who became high-profile Abu-Jamal advocates. For some of those advocates, the facts of Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial were clearly secondary to the broader issues. Asner has said he never read the transcript but told ABC News in 1998 that "I just know that the trial stunk."
Michael Smerconish, the Philadelphia attorney-turned-talk-radio-host and Daily News columnist, said that Abu-Jamal's growing group of well-known supporters "cobbled together a series of half-truths" and were able to sell to people outside of the city what sounded like "a convincing story of police brutality in a city known for police brutality."
Smerconish became a leader of a conservative backlash, but the irony is that by fighting back, the opponents of a new trial for Abu-Jamal have also helped to keep the story in the public eye. In recent years, advocates for Abu-Jamal have tended to focus more on the issue of whether he received a fair trial than on what happened on the night Faulkner was killed.
"It's not an issue of innocence or guilt, but an issue of guilty or not guilty," said Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor of American studies and urban education who frequently writes about the Abu-Jamal case on his blog, "The Barbershop Notebooks." He compared the case, in that regard, to the O.J. Simpson case, saying the questions about the justice system and police conduct are what resonate with many African-Americans.
Indeed, the calls for a new trial already have become a hot potato in the 2007 mayoral race because one of the front-runners, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, has backed the call for a new trial, drawing intense criticism from the FOP. Opponents of a new trial say that not only would the passage of time make a fair trial even more difficult, but there's a broader fundamental question.
"It makes no sense," said Joseph McGill, who prosecuted the 1982 trial and is now in private practice, saying the judicial system can't grant new trials simply on the basis of popular opinion. He noted that at least 20 judges have reviewed Abu-Jamal's conviction and not one has sought to overturn it.
But those judicial rulings seem to have little impact on the public profile of a case that seems to have lost its appeal as a whodunit years ago, but continues to find life in a brand-new century as a political Rorschach test.