Abu-Jamal deserves prison, but not death

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Today is the 30th anniversary of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Two days ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced that his office would no longer pursue the death penalty against Officer Faulkner's convicted killer -- Mumia Abu-Jamal.

After a trial that featured incompetent defense counsel, a biased judge and outrageous behavior by the defendant himself, Mr. Abu-Jamal was found guilty and sentenced to death. He appealed his conviction many times over the years, delaying his execution, although several governors signed death warrants.

Earlier this year, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reaffirmed a 2008 ruling that Mr. Abu-Jamal's original sentencing hearing was unfair and had made the death sentence in his case more likely.

After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor's petition to reinstate the death penalty, Mr. Williams, the first black DA in Philly's history, had a stark choice: conduct a new death penalty hearing in which new evidence could be introduced, or settle for a life term for Mr. Abu-Jamal.

"There's never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner," Mr. Williams said. "I believe the appropriate sentence was handed down by a jury of his peers in 1982. While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is where he belongs."

As much as I would have preferred to see Mr. Abu-Jamal get another trial so that he could finally testify to what happened that night, it is hard to argue with Mr. Williams' logic. As an opponent of the death penalty, I believe a rough justice has been achieved with the prosecutor's decision to remove Mr. Abu-Jamal from death row and deposit him in the prison's general population. There's nothing to be gained by killing a 58-year-old man who will never be able to outrun the legacy of his crime.

The trial was an affront to any sane notion of jurisprudence primarily because of Mr. Abu-Jamal's acts of self-sabotage. There was no doubt that a fair trial would have been difficult under the most ideal circumstances, but Mr. Abu-Jamal was the prosecutor's best friend every step of the way. His eagerness to denounce the system while refusing to testify to the events of Dec. 9, 1981 neither impressed the all-white jury nor garnered support in Philly's black community.

The defendant's brother, William Cook, the only other eyewitness to Mr. Faulkner's murder, declined to take the stand on his sibling's behalf. Mr. Cook may have had truly valuable information that could have exonerated his brother and spared him the death penalty, but he wasn't about to risk cross-examination and self-incrimination to do so.

Because the defense offered no credible rebuttal or coherent scenario to explain why the slain officer shot Mr. Abu-Jamal or why bullets from the defendant's registered gun were found in the officer's brain, it was relatively easy for the state to make its case that Mr. Abu-Jamal killed Mr. Faulkner.

Although ensconced on death row for three decades, the convict did not live a cloistered life. He consistently proclaimed his innocence and appealed his death sentence. Because of his charismatic persona and his awareness of how the media operates, he successfully cultivated an international following.

Despite being isolated on death row for 23 hours a day, he wrote books and recorded commentaries for public radio. His support among academics, Hollywood types and the well-heeled was impressive.

Many supporters oppose the death penalty in general, while his most intense supporters believe he's innocent of all charges. They will continue to rally for a new trial that will never happen. Even if it did, there's no guarantee Mr. Abu-Jamal would ever risk cross-examination. The greatest part of his revolutionary appeal is the illusion that he is innocent.

Some defenders insist he's a political prisoner whose "uncompromising" journalism on black radio in the '70s made him a target. They claim his strong advocacy of the anarchist cult MOVE and the Black Panthers caused a cadre of corrupt cops to frame him for the murder of Daniel Faulkner.

As a native Philadelphian who vividly remembers that period, I can say that the image of Mumia Abu-Jamal as some kind of crusading journalist targeted by corrupt cops is a fantasy. I know intelligent people who still buy into the hagiography surrounding Mr. Abu-Jamal, and it is deeply frustrating.

Pennsylvania's judicial system failed to deliver a fair and unbiased trial, but the guilty verdict wasn't wrong. It just so happens that a guilty man can be railroaded by a kangaroo court, too.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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