FOR ME, THE DEFINING MOMENT of the Jan. 28 benefit concert to free Mumia Abu-Jamal occurred not at the concert itself, but the next night as I was driving home from work. I was pushing buttons on my radio when I happened to tune in to the local Pacifica outlet, WBAI in Manhattan. A Jamaican by the name of Habte Selassie was hosting a reggae show. He mentioned the concert the night before and the allegation that Abu-Jamal was a cop-killer. "A cop-killer?" he said dismissively, "Moses was a killer, too. He killed a man in cold blood." Then Selassie recited a story from the Bible in which Moses came upon an Egyptian and a Jew fighting and proceeded to slay the Egyptian.
Justifiable homicide, in other words. There are some Americans who believe there can be a valid reason to shoot a cop between the eyes as he is lying defenseless on the ground. And it is so refreshing when they come right out and say so.
Such candor was not in evidence the night before at the Continental Airlines Arena in the Hackensack Meadowlands. At the press conference before the concert, Abu-Jamal’s supporters maintained the fiction that some mystery gunman had done the shooting and that Abu-Jamal was an innocent bystander. That seemed to fool a good number of the television types. And as for the fans, they didn’t really care. About 20,000 of them showed up to see an assortment of bands that included the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. As one young fan diplomatically put it before the show, "I wouldn’t have cared if it was a concert for hating baby Jesus. I just wanted to see Rage."
During the concert, a rap star named Chuck D tried to lead the audience in a chant of "Free Mumia," but few joined in. And the audience actually booed Pam Africa, a member of a Philadelphia back-to-nature cult named MOVE with which Abu-Jamal was affiliated at the time of his crime. Africa, whose appearance suggests she has gone so far back to nature that she has just emerged from a mud puddle, is unleashed by Abu-Jamal’s defense team periodically. Her obscenity-spiced tirades against modern society can alienate even rock fans. She is the one false note in an otherwise perfectly orchestrated PR machine that has made Mumia the martyr who would not die.
The concert raised about $400,000 for the Abu-Jamal defense team. They’re going to need every cent. So far, Abu-Jamal’s defense has been a courtroom disaster. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers lost every one of their appeals in the land where this latter-day Moses slew his Egyptian foe, Pennsylvania. The prophet sits on death row, at the mercy of federal judges who are increasingly reluctant to reverse the work of state courts.
Abu-Jamal made a big mistake in timing. He shot a cop at the wrong moment in history, after the reintroduction of capital punishment but before the deconstruction of the American justice system by the O. J. Simpson defense team. Prior to the Simpson trial, prosecutors merely had to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in the post-O.J. era, deconstructionism reigns. Jurors are now aware that if they like the defendant enough they can convince themselves that nothing that occurred in the past is truly knowable.
This is the goal of Abu-Jamal’s ever-growing contingent of celebrity supporters, which includes not only rockers but Hollywood actors such as Ed Asner and Mike Farrell. Most seem to be perfectly aware of the facts: that in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal was found with his gun at his feet and a dying cop on the sidewalk nearby. But they have convinced themselves that the gun, the five shell casings in it, and the empty holster Abu-Jamal was wearing can all be explained away.
Abu-Jamal failed to do so at his trial in 1982. He offered the lame alibi that some mystery gunman had arrived on the scene in the midst of his encounter with police officer Daniel Faulkner. The mystery man somehow managed to shoot the officer as Abu-Jamal stood nearby and—though armed with a gun—did nothing.
As if the evidence weren’t bad enough, Abu-Jamal fought with his court-appointed attorney. He kept insisting that he wanted as his legal counsel a non-lawyer by the name of John Africa, MOVE’s founder. Abu-Jamal botched things so thoroughly that one reporter covering the trial wrote a long article wondering if the defendant had a death wish.
Abu-Jamal made a big mistake. He conducted a Chicago Seven–type experiment in political theater without a Chicago Seven–type defense team. A few years before Abu-Jamal’s crime, Black Panther Joanne Chesimard took part in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which an officer was killed. But she’s now living happily ever after in Havana, thanks to the efforts of the late William Kunstler and the absence of a death penalty at the time. After her conviction, Kunstler managed to get her moved to a medium-security prison. Two Panthers snuck in with guns and sprung her. Before long, she was in Cuba.
But Abu-Jamal is on death row. For keeps, it would seem. Kunstler, who was easily the No. 1 intellect of the Chicago Seven, is dead and so Abu-Jamal has had to settle for Leonard Weinglass, who was perhaps the eighth smartest member of the Chicago Seven. Weinglass has none of Kunstler’s charisma or brilliance. He’s a rather goofy-looking guy with thick glasses and a wavering voice that suggests he’s trying to convince himself rather than his audience.
Weinglass has yet to win even a minor victory for Mumia in court, but he is a hit with gullible members of the media, as evidenced by the press conference before the concert. Before eighteen TV cameras, Weinglass repeated the usual bunch of lies and half-truths that make up the case for Abu-Jamal. Included was the usual nonsense about the fatal bullet not having come from Abu-Jamal’s gun. In fact, it was a .38 caliber bullet and Abu-Jamal was carrying a .38-caliber pistol, as even the defense’s own ballistics expert conceded at a 1995 appeals hearing in Philadelphia. Then there was the usual nonsense about a mystery gunman. And of course, the usual refusal to answer questions about why Abu-Jamal refuses to name that gunman or give any account whatsoever of the events of Dec. 9, 1981.
The reason for Abu-Jamal’s silence is obvious: The mystery-gunman strategy is just a ruse to win a retrial. In a new trial, Abu-Jamal would be free to start all over again and admit that he shot Faulkner, but argue that he did so in self-defense. This would be a lie as well, but one that would be much easier to get past a sympathetic jury. At the time of the killing, Faulkner was fighting with Abu-Jamal’s brother, who was resisting arrest after being stopped for a traffic violation. Abu-Jamal—in a coincidence that remains unexplained to this day—just happened to be across the street carrying his gun, for which he had a permit. In a new trial, Abu-Jamal could admit he shot Faulkner but argue that he did so in coming to the rescue of his brother. Weinglass has already laid the groundwork for this defense by suggesting that it was Faulkner who fired first (though eyewitnesses said otherwise).
This strategy has great potential, both from the angle of political agitation and in generating a sympathetic response from the largely black jury Weinglass hopes to face in court some day. At worst, it might lead to a manslaughter conviction, leaving Abu-Jamal free to walk out into a cheering crowd on the basis of the 17-plus years he has already served.
But to get that new trial, Abu-Jamal must keep up the pretense of a mystery gunman. And an intelligent observer will note the stubborn presence, in even the pro-Abu-Jamal scenarios, of Abu-Jamal’s gun. And that, like the gun in the first act of a Chekhov play, it has to be fired by the end. Who fired it? The only logical suspect is the man who was carrying it.
But at this point in time, for Abu-Jamal to admit that he shot Faulkner dooms his appeal for a new trial. This leads to an amazing spectacle, one largely unremarked in the mass media: Thousands of people the world over will loudly proclaim that Mumia Abu-Jamal did not shoot Daniel Faulkner. Yet Abu-Jamal himself refuses to do so. This is something new in history. Hundreds of convicted killers have mounted public campaigns to prove their innocence. But Abu-Jamal is certainly the first to do so without denying he was the killer.
When the Mumia circus came to town, my newspaper, the Star-Ledger of nearby Newark, ran an editorial pointing out Abu-Jamal’s obvious guilt. This prompted a fax from TV star Mike Farrell, who asserted that our editorial overlooked Abu-Jamal’s statements that he did not shoot Faulkner. I have been searching unsuccessfully for such a statement for some time, so I called Farrell in Los Angeles to see if he knew something I didn’t. But he could cite no such statement, though he has been working since 1993 to convince the world that Abu-Jamal did not shoot Faulkner.
Farrell was, however, well versed in other aspects of the case, and on the phone he seemed to be an affable sort. I pointed out to him that Weinglass had to have discussed the case with Abu-Jamal and would therefore be privy to Abu-Jamal’s knowledge of the identity of any mystery gunman. Farrell admitted that he has had many conversations on the subject with Weinglass over the past five years. "Have you ever asked Weinglass whether Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner?" I asked.
Farrell sounded perplexed. "I don’t know if I asked him that or not," he finally said.
I asked how he could account for the five empty shell casings in Abu-Jamal’s gun.
"Maybe he had gone to target practice earlier in the day," Farrell said.
Maybe. Maybe on the night in question Abu-Jamal actually waved an empty gun at a cop who had a loaded gun. But then again, maybe not.
It turns out that Farrell is one of the more rational of Abu-Jamal’s followers. Our newspaper also got a fax from Mark Lewis Taylor, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary who leads a 600-member group of pro-Mumia university professors. I called him and asked the same question. He admitted he hadn’t ever asked Weinglass whether Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner, but went on to ask whether the question is relevant.
"When you say something as specific as ‘I did not shoot Officer Faulkner,’ you are accepting the terms of the charge," Taylor told me.
"Are you a deconstructionist?" I asked. He said no, but this entire exercise gives off a whiff of that philosophy.
I once cornered the elusive Weinglass and asked him to state for the record exactly what happened on the night Officer Faulkner took a bullet between the eyes.
"Well, we don’t know," he replied with a straight face.
"Did you ever ask your client?" I asked. He refused to say. Obviously he has, however, and just as obviously Abu-Jamal knows what happened that night. So does Abu-Jamal’s brother. And if either of them knew the truth about a mystery gunman, you can rest assured that every actor and academic from Hackensack to Hollywood would know about it.
This poses a problem for the Abu-Jamal defense, one that will almost certainly blow up into an international cause célèbre as Abu-Jamal moves ever closer to his date with the executioner. The problem lies in the gap between the myth being created for public consumption and the case that is now before a federal court. The nonsense about a mystery gunman works wonderfully as a fund-raising tool, but the judges keep laughing it out of court. In fact, Weinglass has mounted his defense so clumsily that he almost seems to be pushing Abu-Jamal into the death chamber. His performance during Abu-Jamal’s last round of appeals in Pennsylvania in 1995 was typically incompetent. Weinglass put on the stand two recently discovered "eyewitnesses" to the officer’s murder. One told of seeing a guy with "Johnny Mathis hair" pull up in a red car, shoot Faulkner, and then jump back in the car and drive away. The story had its flaws—none of the other eyewitnesses reported anything even vaguely similar—but perhaps this tale could have been the basis for a new trial.
However Weinglass also brought to the stand another witness who gave a totally different version of the killing. This one claimed the gunman jumped out of Abu-Jamal’s brother’s car, shot Faulkner, and ran away on foot. Abu-Jamal’s role in the tragedy was to go over to the dying officer and listen as he asked for someone to tell his wife and children of the tragedy.
Faulkner had no children.
Each story was shaky, but a sharp lawyer would have at least settled on one.
I once followed a Philadelphia prosecutor around the courts for two weeks for a magazine story. Day after day, I heard criminal defendants give lame alibis. Most of these criminals were not particularly bright, but I never saw one so stupid that he offered two mutually contradictory alibis. That may be a first in the history of jurisprudence.
Weinglass is fooling a lot of TV stars and rock musicians, but he’s not fooling the judges. He lost every aspect of his appeals in Pennsylvania and prospects are equally bad in the federal courts. The new Effective Death Penalty Act puts an end to endless federal appeals. Abu-Jamal will get just one, and it’s underway right now. And unfortunately for Abu-Jamal, the federal courts are now extremely reluctant to intervene in cases that have already been thoroughly litigated in state courts. These days, federal reversals tend to be reserved for defendants from Southern states, where the trial and appeals process are swift and not particularly thorough. But Abu-Jamal has had not only his day in court, but seventeen years. Every conceivable appeal has been examined and rejected. And his case is not helped by the many bonehead errors he made while trying to act as his own attorney in the first trial.
If Weinglass is trying to keep his client alive, he’s doing a miserable job of it. If, on the other hand, he is trying to create the perfect international poster boy for the drive to end capital punishment, then he’s a genius. Abu-Jamal is no street thug. He had a middle-class upbringing and was on his way to a career in radio before he got mixed up with the MOVE cult. With his cute dreadlocks and his deep bass voice, Abu-Jamal is the liberal white person’s ideal death-row inmate. The ease with which these people convince themselves of his innocence is a sight to see.
If the federal courts reject Abu-Jamal’s final appeal, he will almost certainly be executed. The present Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge, is a law-and-order type who has zero sympathy for the type of people who gravitate to Abu-Jamal. He would sign the death warrant tomorrow.
But get ready for the howling. The shrieks of rage will be loud and long among Abu-Jamal supporters from Stockholm to Sydney. The actual moment of lethal injection will be reported around the world. Abu-Jamal will have turned himself into the Moses of a movement that may eventually wind up once again ending capital punishment in America.
The endgame should be intriguing. Will Abu-Jamal wise up and realize that he’s being used as the wet dream of a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing ‘60s throwbacks hungering for a martyr? Will he go to his grave wrapped up in a second-rate alibi straight out of a true-crime paperback?
Or will he defy them all and admit the truth, reprising the statement that police say he made in the hospital emergency room after the shooting: "I shot the motherf— and I hope he dies"?
That would certainly shock a lot of showbiz types, but Pacifica radioman Habte Selassie would know exactly what he meant.