When I first got into radical politics in the late 1990s, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal was one of the first issues that I learned about. At the time, it was not uncommon to see people tabling with information about his case calling for a new trial at political events. In fact, Mumia’s case became the subject of an early Media Mouse project back in 2000–a pamphlet that used Mumia’s case as an introduction to talking about racial disparities in incarceration and the use of the death penalty.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, attention on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case seems to have waned–due perhaps to the rise of the Bush administration and the “War on Terror.” However, journalist J. Patrick O’Connor’s new book The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal provides an important reminder of why this case has gained so much attention over the years. O’Connor’s book provides a thorough account of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, arguing that the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office framed Abu-Jamal for the killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner.
O’Connor provides a detailed and insightful primer into the case of one of the United States’ most famous death row prisoners. O’Connor’s book essentially tells the complete history of the case, examining court hearings, evidence, and the strategies used by the state. Beginning with the events of December 9, 1981 when Officer Faulkner was killed, O’Connor looks all facets of the case. He explores how the judge in the case–Judge Sabo–was biased against Mumia Abu-Jamal from the start and how the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney used that to their advantage. O’Connor discusses how problems with Abu-Jamal’s rushed trial and ineffective counsel–the prosecutor telling the jury that their decision could be reversed in a series of likely appeals, preemptory challenges that excluded black jurors, and bias on the part of Judge Sabo–have led to the likelihood of Mumia Abu-Jamal getting a new trial in upcoming years.
Aside from the bias in the case, Abu-Jamal’s conviction happened with next to no forensic evidence. The police failed to conduct routine tests generally used in murder investigations. Similarly, testimony about the way in which the bullet that shot Abu-Jamal entered his body suggest that the prosecution’s version of events–that Officer Faulkner got off one shot and hit Abu-Jamal as he was falling to the ground–was not true. At the same time, witness testimony and Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “confession” were not credible, with evidence emerging in recent years–along with clues during his 1982 trial–suggesting that the prosecutors and/or the Philadelphia Police Department solicited perjured statements and testimony from two supposed eyewitnesses (one was a prostitute and the other was a convicted felon). Some of these flaws could have been highlighted in the Abu-Jamal’s trial, but O’Connor clearly demonstrates that Abu-Jamal’s counsel was ineffective and poorly prepared to handle the case.
O’Connor also provides contextual information that makes Mumia Abu-Jamal’s framing seem more likely. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department, Abu-Jamal’s work as a journalist defending the disenfranchised and questioning the actions of the police, and his work with the Black Panther Party as a teenager. O’Connor argues that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s sympathetic reporting on the revolutionary group MOVE and its series of confrontations with the police and the City of Philadelphia made him a “marked man.” He says that the framing was set in motion by a corruption Philadelphia Police Inspector named Alfonzo Giordano who was aware of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s political sympathies. It was Giordano who arranged for prostitute Cynthia White to testify. White provided key evidence, yet it seems likely that her testimony was false.
The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a relatively quick read that is simultaneously gripping and enraging. It draws the read into particularly egregious example of how the justice system in the United States operates while at the same time serves as a reminder that institutional racism is an all too real component of the justice system. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could read this book without coming to the conclusion that Mumia Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial at the least–and possibly to be freed.
J. Patrick O’Connor, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008).