Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook; April 24, 1954) is a convicted murderer, American activist and journalist who became involved in black nationalism in his youth and was a member of the Black Panther Party until October 1970. He left the party and became a radio reporter, eventually becoming president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. After numerous appeals, his sentence was commuted in 2011 to life imprisonment without parole.
Some activists and human rights groups have criticized the quality of Abu-Jamal's trial; some have claimed that he is innocent, and many opposed his death sentence. The Faulkner family, public authorities, police organizations, and conservative groups have maintained that Abu-Jamal's trial was fair, his guilt undeniable, and his death sentence appropriate. He was described in 2001 as "perhaps the world's best known death-row inmate" by The New York Times. During his imprisonment Abu-Jamal has published books and commentaries on social and political issues, including Live from Death Row (1995).
He was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. He has a younger brother William. They attended local public schools.
In 1968, a high school teacher, a Kenyan instructing a class on African cultures, encouraged the students to take African or Arabic names (because of the Muslim tradition in West Africa) for classroom use and named him "Mumia". According to Abu-Jamal, "Mumia" means "Prince" and was the name of a Kenyan anti-colonial African nationalist who fought against the British before Kenyan independence.
Cook adopted the surname Abu-Jamal ("father of Jamal" in Arabic) after the birth of his son Jamal on July 18, 1971. His first marriage at age 19, to Jamal's mother Biba, was short-lived. Their daughter, Lateefa, was born shortly after the wedding. The couple divorced.
Abu-Jamal married his second wife, Marilyn (known as "Peachie"), in 1977. Their son, Mazi, was born in early 1978. By 1981, Abu-Jamal was living with his third (and current) wife, Wadiya.
In his own writings, Abu-Jamal describes his adolescent experience of being "kicked ... into the Black Panther Party" after suffering a beating from "white racists" and a policeman for his efforts to disrupt a George Wallace for President rally in 1968. From the age of 14, he helped form the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party with Defense Captain Reggie Schell, and other Panthers. He was appointed as the chapter's "Lieutenant of Information," responsible for writing information and news communications. In an interview in the early years, Abu-Jamal quoted Mao Zedong, saying that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". That same year, he dropped out of Benjamin Franklin High School and began living at the branch's headquarters.
He spent late 1969 in New York City and early 1970 in Oakland, living and working with BPP colleagues in those cities; the party was founded in Oakland. He was a party member from May 1969 until October 1970. During this period, he was subject to Federal Bureau of Investigation COINTELPRO surveillance, with which the Philadelphia police cooperated, from then until about 1974. The FBI was working to infiltrate black radical groups and to disrupt them by creating internal dissension.
Education and journalism career
After leaving the Panthers, Abu-Jamal returned to his former high school. He was suspended for distributing literature calling for "black revolutionary student power". He led unsuccessful protests to change the school name to Malcolm X High. After attaining his GED, he studied briefly at Goddard College in rural Vermont.
By 1975 Abu-Jamal was pursuing a vocation in radio newscasting, first at Temple University's WRTI and then at commercial enterprises. In 1975, he was employed at radio station WHAT and he became host of a weekly feature program of WCAU-FM in 1978. He was also employed for brief periods at radio station WPEN, and became active in the local chapter of the Marijuana Users Association of America.
From 1979 to 1981 he worked at National Public Radio-affiliate (NPR) WUHY; he was asked to resign as management believed he did not maintain a sufficiently objective approach in his presentation of news. As a radio journalist, Abu-Jamal was renowned for identifying with and covering the MOVE anarcho-primitivist commune in Philadelphia's Powelton Village neighborhood. He reported on the 1979–80 trial of certain of its members (the "MOVE Nine"), who were convicted of the murder of police officer James Ramp. Abu-Jamal had several high-profile interviews, including with Julius Erving, Bob Marley and Alex Haley. He was elected president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
In December 1981, Abu-Jamal was working as a taxicab driver in Philadelphia two nights a week to supplement his income. He had been working part-time as a reporter for WDAS, then an African-American-oriented and minority-owned radio station.
At 3:55 am on December 9, 1981, in Philadelphia, close to the intersection at 13th and Locust streets, Philadelphia Police Department officer Daniel Faulkner conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle belonging to and driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal's younger brother. Faulkner and Cook became engaged in a physical confrontation. During the traffic stop, Abu-Jamal who was driving his cab in the vicinity, observed the altercation, parked, and ran across the street toward Cook's car. Faulkner was shot from behind and in the face. He shot Abu-Jamal in the stomach. Faulkner died at the scene from the gunshot to his head.
Police arrived and arrested Abu-Jamal, who was found wearing a shoulder holster. His revolver, which had five spent cartridges, was beside him. Abu-Jamal was taken directly from the scene of the shooting to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he received treatment for his wound. He was then taken to Police Headquarters where he was charged and held for trial in the first-degree murder of Officer Faulkner.
The case went to trial in June 1982 in Philadelphia. Judge Albert F. Sabo initially agreed to Abu-Jamal's request to represent himself, with criminal defense attorney Anthony Jackson acting as his legal advisor. During the first day of the trial, Sabo warned Abu-Jamal that he would forfeit his legal right to self-representation if he continued to be intentionally disruptive. Due to Abu-Jamal's continued disruptive behavior, Sabo ruled that Abu-Jamal forfeited his right to self-representation.
Prosecution case at trial
The prosecution presented four witnesses to the court. Robert Chobert, a cab driver who testified he was parked behind Faulkner, identified Abu-Jamal as the shooter. Cynthia White, a prostitute, testified that Abu-Jamal emerged from a nearby parking lot and shot Faulkner. Michael Scanlan, a motorist, testified that from two car lengths away, he saw a man, matching Abu-Jamal's description, run across the street from a parking lot and shoot Faulkner. Albert Magilton, a pedestrian who did not see the shooting, testified to seeing Faulkner pull over Cook's car. As Abu-Jamal started to cross the street toward them, Magilton turned away and lost sight of what happened next.
The prosecution presented two witnesses who were at the hospital after the shootings. Hospital security guard Priscilla Durham and police officer Garry Bell testified that Abu-Jamal confessed in the hospital by saying, "I shot the motherfucker, and I hope the motherfucker dies."
A .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver, belonging to Abu-Jamal, with five spent cartridges was retrieved beside him at the scene. He was wearing a shoulder holster. Anthony Paul, the Supervisor of the Philadelphia Police Department's firearms identification unit, testified at trial that the cartridge cases and rifling characteristics of the weapon were consistent with bullet fragments taken from Faulkner's body. Tests to confirm that Abu-Jamal had handled and fired the weapon were not performed. Contact with arresting police and other surfaces at the scene could have compromised the forensic value of such tests.
Defense case at trial
The defense maintained that Abu-Jamal was innocent and that the prosecution witnesses were unreliable. The defense presented nine character witnesses, including poet Sonia Sanchez, who testified that Abu-Jamal was "viewed by the black community as a creative, articulate, peaceful, genial man." Another defense witness, Dessie Hightower, testified that he saw a man running along the street shortly after the shooting, although he did not see the shooting itself. His testimony contributed to the development of a "running man theory", based on the possibility that a "running man" may have been the shooter. Veronica Jones also testified for the defense, but she did not see anyone running. Other potential defense witnesses refused to appear in court. Abu-Jamal did not testify in his own defense. Nor did his brother, William Cook, who told investigators at the crime scene: "I ain't got nothing to do with this."
Verdict and sentence
After three hours of deliberations, the jury presented a unanimous guilty verdict.
In the sentencing phase of the trial, Abu-Jamal read to the jury from a prepared statement. He was cross-examined about issues relevant to the assessment of his character by Joseph McGill, the prosecuting attorney.
In his statement, Abu-Jamal criticized his attorney as a "legal trained lawyer" who was imposed on him against his will and who "knew he was inadequate to the task and chose to follow the directions of this black-robed conspirator, Albert Sabo, even if it meant ignoring my directions." He claimed that his rights had been "deceitfully stolen" from him by Sabo, particularly focusing on the denial of his request to receive defense assistance from non-attorney John Africa and being prevented from proceeding pro se. He quoted remarks of John Africa, and said:
Does it matter whether a white man is charged with killing a black man or a black man is charged with killing a white man? As for justice when the prosecutor represents the Commonwealth the Judge represents the Commonwealth and the court-appointed lawyer is paid and supported by the Commonwealth, who follows the wishes of the defendant, the man charged with the crime? If the court-appointed lawyer ignores, or goes against the wishes of the man he is charged with representing, whose wishes does he follow? Who does he truly represent or work for? ... I am innocent of these charges that I have been charged of and convicted of and despite the connivance of Sabo, McGill and Jackson to deny me my so-called rights to represent myself, to assistance of my choice, to personally select a jury who is totally of my peers, to cross-examine witnesses, and to make both opening and closing arguments, I am still innocent of these charges.
Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death by the unanimous decision of the jury. Amnesty International has objected to the introduction by the prosecution of statements from his youth at the time of sentencing. It also protested the politicization of the trial, noting a documented recent history in Philadelphia of police abuse and corruption including fabricated evidence and use of excessive force. Amnesty International concluded "that the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty."
Direct appeal of his conviction was considered and denied by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on March 6, 1989, subsequently denying rehearing. The Supreme Court of the United States denied his petition for writ of certiorari on October 1, 1990, and denied his petition for rehearing twice up to June 10, 1991.
On June 1, 1995, Abu-Jamal's death warrant was signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Its execution was suspended while Abu-Jamal pursued state post-conviction review. At the post-conviction review hearings, new witnesses were called. William "Dales" Singletary testified that he saw the shooting and that the gunman was the passenger in Cook's car. Singletary's account contained discrepancies which rendered it "not credible" in the opinion of the court. William Harmon, a convicted fraudster, testified that Faulkner's murderer fled in a car that pulled up to the crime scene, and could not have been Abu-Jamal. Robert Harkins testified that he had witnessed a man stand over Faulkner as the latter lay wounded on the ground, shoot Faulkner at point-blank in the face, and then "walked and sat down on the curb".
The six judges of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled unanimously that all issues raised by Abu-Jamal, including the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, were without merit. The Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition for certiorari against that decision on October 4, 1999, enabling Ridge to sign a second death warrant on October 13, 1999. Its execution in turn was stayed as Abu-Jamal commenced his pursuit of federal habeas corpus review.
In 1999, Arnold Beverly claimed that he and an unnamed assailant, not Mumia Abu-Jamal, shot Daniel Faulkner as part of a contract killing because Faulkner was interfering with graft and payoff to corrupt police. The Beverly affidavit became an item of division for Mumia's defense team. Some thought it usable and others rejected Beverly's story as "not credible".
Private investigator George Newman claimed in 2001 that Chobert had recanted his testimony. Commentators also noted that police and news photographs of the crime scene did not show Chobert's taxi, and that Cynthia White, the only witness at the trial to testify to seeing the taxi, had previously provided crime scene descriptions that omitted it. Cynthia White was declared to be dead by the state of New Jersey in 1992, but Pamela Jenkins claimed that she saw White alive as late as 1997. Mumia supporters often claim that White was a police informant and that she falsified her testimony against Abu-Jamal.
Priscilla Durham's step-brother, Kenneth Pate, who was imprisoned with Abu-Jamal on other charges, has since claimed that Durham admitted she had not heard the "hospital confession" she had testified to. The hospital doctors said that Abu-Jamal was "on the verge of fainting" when brought in and they did not hear any confession. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected a further request from Abu-Jamal for a hearing into claims that the trial witnesses perjured themselves, on the grounds that he had waited too long before filing the appeal.
On March 26, 2012 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected his appeal for retrial that asserted, based on a 2009 report by the National Academy of Science, that forensic evidence presented by the prosecution and accepted into evidence in the original trial was unreliable. It was reported to be the former death row inmate's last legal appeal.
Federal ruling directing resentencing
Abu-Jamal did not make any public statements about Faulkner's murder until May 2001. In his version of events, he claimed that he was sitting in his cab across the street when he heard shouting, then saw a police vehicle, and heard the sound of gunshots. Upon seeing his brother appearing disoriented across the street, Abu-Jamal ran to him from the parking lot and was shot by a police officer. Abu-Jamal's brother William Cook, who had been stopped by the police officer, did not testify or make any statement until April 29, 2001. At that time he said that he had not seen who had shot Faulkner.
Judge William H. Yohn Jr. of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania upheld the conviction but vacated the sentence of death on December 18, 2001, citing irregularities in the original process of sentencing. Particularly, he said that
... the jury instructions and verdict sheet in this case involved an unreasonable application of federal law. The charge and verdict form created a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed it was precluded from considering any mitigating circumstance that had not been found unanimously to exist.
He ordered the State of Pennsylvania to commence new sentencing proceedings within 180 days
He ruled that it was unconstitutional to require that a jury be unanimous in its finding of circumstances mitigating against determining a sentence of death. Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish, attorneys for Abu-Jamal, criticized the ruling on the grounds that it denied the possibility of a trial de novo, at which they could introduce evidence that their client had been framed. Prosecutors also criticized the ruling; Officer Faulkner's widow Maureen described Abu-Jamal as a "remorseless, hate-filled killer" who would "be permitted to enjoy the pleasures that come from simply being alive" on the basis of the judgment. Both parties appealed.
- in relation to sentencing, whether the jury verdict form had been flawed and the judge's instructions to the jury had been confusing;
- in relation to conviction and sentencing, whether racial bias in jury selection existed to an extent tending to produce an inherently biased jury and therefore an unfair trial (the Batson claim);
- in relation to conviction, whether the prosecutor improperly attempted to reduce jurors' sense of responsibility by telling them that a guilty verdict would be subsequently vetted and subject to appeal; and
- in relation to post-conviction review hearings in 1995–6, whether the presiding judge, who had also presided at the trial, demonstrated unacceptable bias in his conduct.
The Third Circuit Court heard oral arguments in the appeals on May 17, 2007, at the United States Courthouse in Philadelphia. The appeal panel consisted of Chief Judge Anthony Joseph Scirica, Judge Thomas Ambro, and Judge Robert Cowen. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sought to reinstate the sentence of death, on the basis that Yohn's ruling was flawed, as he should have deferred to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which had already ruled on the issue of sentencing, and the Batson claim was invalid because Abu-Jamal made no complaints during the original jury selection. Although Abu-Jamal's jury was racially mixed, with 2 blacks and 10 whites at the time of his unanimous conviction, his counsel told the Third Circuit Court that Abu-Jamal did not get a fair trial because the jury was racially biased, misinformed, and the judge was a racist. He noted that the prosecution used eleven out of fourteen peremptory challenges to eliminate prospective black jurors. Terri Maurer-Carter, a former Philadelphia court stenographer, claimed in a 2001 affidavit nearly 20 years after the trial that she overheard Judge Sabo say "Yeah, and I'm going to help them fry the nigger" in the course of a conversation with three people present regarding Abu-Jamal's case. Sabo denied having made any such comment.
On March 27, 2008, the three-judge panel issued a majority 2–1 opinion upholding Yohn's 2001 opinion but rejecting the bias and Batson claims, with Judge Ambro dissenting on the Batson issue. On July 22, 2008, Abu-Jamal's formal petition seeking reconsideration of the decision by the full Third Circuit panel of 12 judges was denied. On April 6, 2009, the United States Supreme Court also refused to hear Abu-Jamal's appeal, allowing his conviction to stand.
On January 19, 2010, the Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reconsider its decision to rescind the death penalty, with the same three-judge panel convening in Philadelphia on November 9, 2010, to hear oral argument. On April 26, 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed its prior decision to vacate the death sentence on the grounds that the jury instructions and verdict form were ambiguous and confusing. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in October.
Death penalty dropped
On December 7, 2011, District Attorney of Philadelphia R. Seth Williams announced that prosecutors, with the support of the victim's family, would no longer seek the death penalty for Abu-Jamal. Faulkner's widow said that she did not want to relive the trauma of another trial. She understood that it would be extremely difficult to present the case against Abu-Jamal again, after the passage of 30 years and the deaths of several key witnesses. Williams, the prosecutor, said that Abu-Jamal would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence that was reaffirmed by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania on July 9, 2013. After the press conference, Maureen Faulkner made a statement condemning Abu-Jamal:
I would like to say that I believe the lowest dimension of hell has been reserved for child molesters and unrepentant murderers, like Mumia Abu-Jamal. After thirty years of waiting, the time remaining before Abu-Jamal stands before his ultimate judge. It doesn't seem so far off as it once did when I was younger. I look forward to that day so I can finally close the chapter of my life and live with the gratification and assurance that Mumia Abu-Jamal will finally receive the punishment he deserves, for all eternity.
In 1991 Abu-Jamal published an essay in the Yale Law Journal, on the death penalty and his death row experience. In May 1994, Abu-Jamal was engaged by National Public Radio's All Things Considered program to deliver a series of monthly three-minute commentaries on crime and punishment. The broadcast plans and commercial arrangement were canceled following condemnations from, among others, the Fraternal Order of Police and US Senator Bob Dole (Kansas Republican Party). Abu-Jamal sued NPR for not airing his work, but a federal judge dismissed the suit. His commentaries later were published in May 1995 as part of Live from Death Row.
In 1999, Abu-Jamal was invited to record a keynote address for the graduating class at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. The event was protested by some. In 2000, he recorded a commencement address for Antioch College. The now defunct New College of California School of Law presented him with an honorary degree "for his struggle to resist the death penalty." On October 5, 2014, he gave the commencement speech at Goddard College, via playback of a recording. As before, the choice of Abu-Jamal was controversial.
With occasional interruptions due to prison disciplinary actions, Abu-Jamal has for many years been a regular commentator on an online broadcast, sponsored by Prison Radio. He also is published as a regular columnist for Junge Welt, a Marxist newspaper in Germany. For almost a decade, Abu-Jamal taught introductory courses in Georgist economics to other prisoners around the world by correspondence.
His publications include Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience, in which he explores religious themes; All Things Censored, a political critique examining issues of crime and punishment; Live From Death Row, a diary of life on Pennsylvania's death row; and We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, a history of the Black Panthers drawing on autobiographical material.
In 1995, Abu-Jamal was punished with solitary confinement for engaging in entrepreneurship contrary to prison regulations. Subsequent to the airing of the 1996 HBO documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case For Reasonable Doubt?, which included footage from visitation interviews conducted with him, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections acted to ban outsiders from using any recording equipment in state prisons. In litigation before the US Court of Appeals, in 1998 he successfully established his right to write for financial gain in prison. The same litigation also established that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had illegally opened his mail in an attempt to establish whether he was writing for financial gain.
When, for a brief time in August 1999, he began delivering his radio commentaries live on the Pacifica Network's Democracy Now! weekday radio newsmagazine, prison staff severed the connecting wires of his telephone from their mounting in mid-performance. He was later allowed to resume his broadcasts, and hundreds of his broadcasts have been aired on Pacifica Radio.
At the end of January 2012, Abu-Jamal was released into general prison population at State Correctional Institution – Mahanoy. He went into diabetic shock on March 30, 2015 and has been diagnosed with active Hepatitis C. In August 2015 his attorneys filed suit in the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, alleging that he has not received appropriate medical care for his serious health conditions.
Labor unions, politicians, advocates, educators, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and human rights advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern about the impartiality of the trial of Abu-Jamal. Amnesty International neither takes a position on the guilt or innocence of Abu-Jamal nor classifies him as a political prisoner. They are opposed by the family of Daniel Faulkner, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, Republican politicians, and the Fraternal Order of Police. In August 1999, the Fraternal Order of Police called for an economic boycott against all individuals and organizations that support Abu-Jamal.
In 2001, he received the sixth biennial Erich Mühsam Prize, named after an anarcho-communist essayist, which recognizes activism in line with that of its namesake. In October 2002, he was made an honorary member of the German political organization Society of People Persecuted by the Nazi Regime – Federation of Anti-Fascists (VVN-BdA) which Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has considered to be influenced by left-wing extremism.
On April 29, 2006, a newly paved road in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis was named Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal in his honor. In protest of the street-naming, US Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick and Senator Rick Santorum, both members of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, introduced resolutions in both Houses of Congress condemning the decision. The House of Representatives voted 368–31 in favor of Fitzpatrick's resolution. In December 2006, the 25th anniversary of the murder, the executive committee of the Republican Party for the 59th Ward of the City of Philadelphia—covering approximately Germantown, Philadelphia—filed two criminal complaints in the French legal system against the city of Paris and the city of Saint-Denis, accusing the municipalities of "glorifying" Abu-Jamal and alleging the offense "apology or denial of crime" in respect of their actions.
In 2007, the widow of Officer Faulkner coauthored a book with Philadelphia radio journalist Michael Smerconish entitled Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Pain, Loss, and Injustice. The book was part memoir of Faulkner's widow, part discussion in which they chronicled Abu-Jamal's trial and discussed evidence for his conviction, and part discussion on supporting the death penalty.
In early 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Debo P. Adegbile, a former lawyer for the NAACP who worked on Abu-Jamal's case, to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, but the nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan basis because of Adegbile's prior public support of Abu-Jamal.
In April 10, 2015 Marylin Zuniga, a teacher at Forest Street Elementary School in Orange, New Jersey, was suspended without pay after asking her students to write letters to Abu-Jamal, who fell ill in prison due to complications from diabetes, without approval from the school or parents. Some parents and police leaders denounced her actions. On the other hand, community members, parents, teachers, and professors expressed their support and condemned Zuniga's suspension. Scholars and educators nationwide including Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and Cornel West among others signed a letter calling for her immediate reinstatement. On May 13, 2015 The Orange Preparatory Academy board voted to dismiss Marylin Zuniga after hearing from her and several of her supporters.
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