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One night, 18 years ago, a young white cop was gunned down in Philadelphia's Center City. A mostly white jury concluded that Mumia Abu-Jamal was the gunman. They considered him a wound-up militant ready to kill, and recommended death for the former Black Panther. Throughout the legal tug-of-war with Abu-Jamal's executioners, defense lawyers have maintained that someone they call the 'Fleeing Man' is the actual killer, and that prosecutors, tainted witnesses, and a biased jury and judge denied Abu-Jamal a fair trial.
In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of fatally shooting Officer Daniel Faulkner after Faulkner stopped Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, for driving his Volkswagen the wrong way down a city street on the night of December 9, 1981. Prosecutors say Abu-Jamal happened on the scene and opened fire with his .38 caliber pistol, striking Faulkner, 25, in the back and between the eyes. Officers arriving minutes later testified that they had found a dying Faulkner, who had shot Abu-Jamal in the chest. The cops found Abu-Jamal slumped near his own gun.
Several witnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the gunman. Two people testified that he confessed at the hospital. "I'm glad," one of the witnesses quoted Abu-Jamal as saying. "If you let me go, I'll kill all of you cops." Another claimed Abu-Jamal bragged, "I shot the motherfucker and I hope the motherfucker dies." And a former prison volunteer claimed in a Vanity Fairinterview that Abu-Jamal told him he regretted killing the officer. Abu-Jamal has denounced the confessions as "snuff journalism" and "rumor-turned-lie."
Is he guilty? No question, those clamoring for his execution argue. What really happened that night is beyond the shadow of a doubt. But is it?
In their most recent appealan unsparingly detailed attack on prosecutors, judges, and witnesses who helped put Abu-Jamal on death rowdefense lawyers contend that "every element associated with the trial [was] tainted with unfairness." Among the lawyers' contentions is that police intimidated witnesses into giving false testimony. For example, key prosecution witness Cynthia White, who, at the time of her testimony, had 38 previous arrests for prostitution and was wanted on three open cases in Philadelphia, claimed she saw Abu-Jamal holding a gun and shooting the officer.
White eventually became an informant for the police, according to the lawyers. "Each time police picked White up, she revised her story," the defense argues in court papers that won Abu-Jamal a stay of his December 2 execution date. "Without explanation, bench warrants against her were not prosecuted. At the 1982 trial, another prostitute, Veronica Jones, testified that police told her that White was given favors for providing false testimony. The trial court improperly struck this testimony and barred further inquiry into White's relationship with the police, and the incentives given to secure favorable testimony."
The defense also claims that the prosecution withheld or buried evidence; that blacks were kept off the jury, witnesses were influenced, and his original defense was inadequate; and that the prosecution inflamed the jury by bringing up his past political views and association with the Panthers and the radi-cal group MOVE.
The latter allegation struck a responsive chord among supporters, who argue it was unlikely that Abu-Jamal, who had been elected chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists and was described as "one of the people to watch in 1981" by Philadelphiamagazine, would throw away a promising career in a burst of gunfire. They say that in the 1970s, the FBI kept a file on Abu-Jamal and that Philadelphia cops, hostile to MOVE, had targeted him. "In 1981, Philadelphia was in the throes of intense racial tension," his attorneys point out. "Friction between police [and MOVE] had led to deep mistrust and suspicions . . . toward anyone perceived to be affiliated or in any way associated with that organization."
The Pennsylvania courts have found no merit in these arguments. But it is not so easy to dismiss the inconsistencies surrounding Cynthia White's testimony, the allegations of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct, and the theory of the Fleeing Man.
William singletary saw the fleeing man that fateful night in December 1981. At the time of the shooting, Abu-Jamal's lawyers point out, Singletary was a black businessman and decorated Vietnam veteran with friends in the Philadelphia Police Department.
When questioned at the scene, Singletary told detectives that he saw Faulkner gunned down. He said he saw a tall man with dreadlocks, wearing a long army coat, get out of a Volkswagen and fire at the cop. The assailant and the driver of the Volkswagen then fled. Singletary added that he saw Abu-Jamal approach the scene but did not see him with a gun. He did, however, see Faulkner fire at Abu-Jamal, wounding him in the chest. Singletary also described the brutal treatment of Abu-Jamal by police as he writhed in pain on the ground. He remembered seeing "a lot of police officers around the person that was beating him, kicking him, stomping him, sticking sticks in his wound, and just cursing, cursing, saying a lot of bad things."
He insisted that Abu-Jamal was not the shooter and that a third black man had sprinted from the scene as Faulkner lay dying. At a hearing in 1995, Singletary testified that after giving his statement, he was taken to a stationhouse where a black detective ripped up his statement and tried to get him to change his story. Police, defense lawyers charged, "coerced Singletary," and after five hours of badgering, got him to sign a false statement, claiming that he did not see the shooting.
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