Death and the Maidens
(Mumia Abu-Jamal)

by Christopher Hitchens

The Nation magazine, April 14, 1997


In my column in the March 31 issue, about the First Amendment aspects of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, I suspended judgment on whether he was guilty or innocent as charged. I wish I had been completely true to this self-denying ordinance, because in a too-brief summary of the case I made one important error. Although Abu Jamal was carrying a legally registered gun on the night of the crime (he was a taxi driver in a rough neighborhood of Philadelphia), the prosecution did not succeed in showing that he had fired it. More over, the caliber of his gun was .38, while that of the bullet recovered from the dead police officer was .44. A bullet from Officer Daniel Faulkner's revolver had taken Abu-Jamal in the chest and lodged near his spinal cord.

The argument about what happened in the early hours of December 9, 1981, begins with that morning. According to Officer Faulkner's best friend and former partner, Abu-Jamal confessed to the shooting while he was in the hospital waiting room, shouting that he had indeed shot officer Faulkner and that he hoped he had killed him. So, at any rate, Officer Garry Bell told the court in 1982. But his log for the night records no such confession. And a second officer, Gary Wakshul, who accompanied Abu-Jamal from the crime scene, and who stayed with him until he was treated by physicians, reported that "during this time the Negro male made no comment." At the time of the trial, officer Wakshul was improperly given vacation leave by the Philadelphia Police Department, and never testified.

Doesn't sound like much of a trial, you say. Well, Abu-Jamal elected to conduct his own defense. But Judge Albert Sabo -- who, incidentally, has handed out more than twice as many death sentences as any other judge in the nation -- ruled that he was taking too much time about it. He appointed an attorney who by his own admission did not relish the task. For protesting this, Abu-Jamal was excluded from the court for large portions of the trial. Since July 1982 he has been on death row.

Hasty and shabby trials are not exactly a novelty in cases involving "underclass" crime. But two witnesses have now come forward with staggering new evidence. You may have read of the recent federal investigations of the Philadelphia Police Department, which resulted in the conviction of six officers for the grossest corruption, extortion and perjury, involving several major cases of false imprisonment. The chief government witness and informant in this probe, Pamela Jenkins, has now furnished a sworn statement to Abu-Jamal's legal defense team. She says she was pressed very hard by police officers to give false testimony against Abu-Jamal. She further alleges that another witness, Cynthia White, was threatened with death to elicit the same kind of testimony.

It is difficult to think of a self-interested or fell motive for Jenkins's allegation. The Philadelphia cops have already gone to some trouble to discourage inconvenient witnesses. In May of last year, yet another witness at Abu-Jamal's trial, Veronica Jones, came forward to say that her original testimony had been coerced. When visited in jail by two officers (whom she had been told by the warders were her lawyers):

They told me that if I would testify against Jamal and identify Jamal as the shooter I wouldn't have to worry about my pending felony charges. I repeatedly told the detectives that I didn't see the shooting, but only heard the shots and then saw two men run away.... The detectives threatened me by reminding me that I faced a long prison sentence fifteen years on gun -- all the while persisting [sic] that I testify to their version of events.

When asked by Abu-Jamal's attorney at trial to confirm her original statement, Jones's sudden refusal to do so had a devastating effect on an already weak and embattled defense. Her decision to come forward and restate that original testimony might have had a similar effect in reverse. I say "might" because when she did take the oath and the stand in October of last year, at a supplemental evidentiary hearing for Abu-Jamal, she was arrested and dragged from court for a two-year-old bench warrant on alleged bad-check charges. The police, it transpired, had always known her home address. Judge Sabo, again presiding, ended a fine day's work by striking her testimony from the record. This is what is known as a "chilling effect."

Now it is a fact that Jenkins, White and Jones are women who have variously admitted to offenses either against public morals or public order, or to false witness. But any attempt by supporters of the prosecution to blackguard the defense by this association would be self-canceling, since it is precisely the police exploitation of the "low-life" milieu that forms the core of the case against Abu-Jamal. Another direct, non-low-life eyewitness to the shooting, William Singletary, has courageously testified to intensive police bullying, aimed at making him withdraw his original statement that he had seen the shooter and not Abu-Jamal. And while Abu-Jamal has been on death row, the Philadelphia Police Department has been exposed as a safe haven for perjurers, thugs and frame-up artists. Yet its politically powerful Fraternal Order of Police (of which Judge Sabo is a former member and Governor Tom Ridge a political debtor) continues to yell for Abu-Jamal's execution.

I would yet again urge readers to get hold of defense attorney Leonard Weinglass's book Race for Justice (available from Common Courage Press) and also to contact Abu-Jamal's defense committee (Partisan Defense Committee, P.O. Box 99, Canal Street Station, New York, NY 10013; 212-406-4252). There is more material than I can summarize in a single column, but it points very strongly to a race and class frame-up of the most old fashioned sort. (Of the sort, I mean to say, that liberals might wish to believe is old-fashioned.) On the record as it stands, there is no case for keeping Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison, let alone for keeping him guessing every day about the hour of his death.

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