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 Fair interview 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 appeal—an unsparingly detailed attack on prosecutors, judges, and witnesses who helped put Abu-Jamal on death row—defense 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 Philadelphia magazine, 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.
Abu-Jamal’s original defense attorney, Anthony Jackson, never bothered to call Singletary as a witness because prosecutors allegedly turned over “the falsified account” rather than the accurate statement he had made at the scene. “Had the state disclosed Singletary’s true statement, [his attorney] also would have learned that shortly before the shooting Singletary saw Cynthia White nowhere near the site she claimed to be when the shooting occurred,” his current lawyers note. “More importantly, Singletary would have impeached White’s account in another way [because] she had asked Singletary, upon the arrival of the police at the crime scene, ‘What happened?’ ”
In the court documents, Abu-Jamal’s lawyers declare that police also withheld physical evidence that corroborated Singletary’s story of the Fleeing Man. At the 1995 hearing, Edward D’Amato, a retired police captain and witness for the prosecution, confirmed that police had found a driver’s license application belonging to a third man, Arnold Howard, on the slain officer but suppressed it. The captain also admitted that some detectives at the scene initially pursued the Fleeing Man theory. But this information, crucial to Abu-Jamal’s defense, was left out of the documents handed over to his lawyer.
“Although the prosecution had given the defense what purported to be an interview statement of Howard, the statement was misleading and incomplete because it did not explain that this document, belonging to another man, was found on the officer’s body or that police regarded Howard as a possible suspect or witness who had fled the scene.”
Howard testified that he had given his license to Kenneth Freeman, the vending-stall partner of William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother, “raising the strong implication that Freeman was riding with Cook on the night of the shooting and was the shooter who fled the scene.” This “strong implication” further led lawyers to assert that “Freeman was the passenger with William Cook, and he was not found at the scene when police arrived.”
In piecing together the events that night, the defense recalls that Singletary, the black businessman, had testified at the hearing that the shooter emerged from the passenger side of Cook’s car. “Howard testified that he was taken into custody shortly after the shooting on suspicion that he was involved in the shooting and had fled the scene.”
Abu-Jamal’s original lawyer never got wind of Howard’s earlier statement to police. “The state withheld these facts from the defense and instead provided a witness statement which Howard says was not accurate and on which his name was forged,” the condemned man’s new lawyers charge. “According to Howard, several officers came to his home before dawn and took him into custody. Howard testified he was transported to various police venues for the next 72 hours [and then] asked to sign a statement. The police also tested his hands to see if he had fired a gun.”
Howard also told of two other suspects who were in police custody the day he was interrogated. One of them was Kenneth Freeman. In February 1982, two months after the shooting, Richard Ryan, a detective with the Central Division, arrested Kenneth Freeman. Ryan’s partner that day was James Forbes, a stakeout cop, who was one of the first officers on the scene after Faulkner was shot, and a key prosecution witness at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial. The day after police bombed MOVE’s headquarters, Freeman was discovered dead in Philadelphia under mysterious circumstances.
Despite alleged efforts by police TO cover up evidence of the Fleeing Man, Abu-Jamal managed to call Dessie Hightower as a witness. Hightower had seen the Fleeing Man, and what he saw could have changed the outcome of Abu-Jamal’s trial. But angry cops, hoping to pin Faulkner’s murder on Abu-Jamal, muddied things up again for the defense.
“Hightower,” Abu-Jamal’s appeal attorneys say, “was also subjected to police pressure to change his story, including being subjected to a polygraph test during the course of six hours of questioning, after having told police that he saw a man flee the scene.” None of the other witnesses, including Cynthia White, were subjected to a polygraph test. “In polygraphing Hightower, law enforcement never broached the pivotal issue—namely, the issue about the man seen running away from the scene—thus giving rise to the compelling inference that the polygraph was administered to intimidate this witness.”
As the story goes, police told Hightower he had passed the polygraph, “although the testing officer claimed in 1995 that the results showed ‘deception,’ ” the lawyers argue. “If police knew Hightower passed the test but falsified the results and ignored his account,” they add, “it would establish the worst kind of due process violation. Knowing that Hightower passed the test would itself have affected the defense trial preparation. As things stood, attorney Jackson [Abu-Jamal’s original lawyer] did not even interview Hightower before he took the stand.”
And what about Deborah Kordansky, a white woman who saw a man running from the scene after the shooting? Kordansky never got to tell her story at Abu-Jamal’s trial because his lawyer couldn’t find her. But there is an explanation for that, the appeal lawyers contend in their petition for a new trial. Abu-Jamal’s attorney “never made a genuine effort; the prosecution redacted her address and phone number from her witness statement; and the trial court refused to provide adequate funds for a defense investigator who could have devoted the time and effort to secure her attendance.”
Would Kordansky’s story have altered Abu-Jamal’s destiny? At a hearing, she testified that on the night of the shooting she was residing at a house overlooking the scene. Between 3:45 and 4 a.m., Kordansky said she heard a noise that sounded like firecrackers.
“When she looked out,” notes Abu-Jamal’s lawyers, picking up the explanation, “she, too, saw a man running east on the south side of Locust Street—an observation that harmonized with the other eyewitness accounts. Kordansky came down from her hotel room and promptly told police, in an effort to assist them in apprehending the fleeing perpetrator, that she had seen the man running on Locust Street.”
In his own defense, attorney Anthony Jackson said he reached Kordansky by phone but Kordansky would not give him her address. But Abu-Jamal’s new lawyers excoriate Jackson in their petition. “The defense’s failure to call Kordansky was not a strategic or tactical decision by [Jackson],” they assert. “During the 1982 trial, defense counsel told the court that, had he been given Kordansky’s address before trial, he would have been able to interview her and ‘maintain some contact with the witness so I could have her in court.’ ”
Missing from this tragic scenario is Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook, whom the jury never heard from. But his absence might have a lot to do with the alleged shenanigans of those who want Abu-Jamal dead. Cook had been charged separately with assaulting a police officer and was advised by his attorney that by injecting himself in Abu-Jamal’s trial he ran the risk of being charged with first-degree murder and convicted.
In the 1995 hearing, Abu-Jamal’s appeal lawyers tried to call Cook to the stand, hoping that Cook would testify that he had a passenger in his car the night of the shooting; that this passenger was present when Faulkner was shot; and that Abu-Jamal indeed was innocent. Cook refused to come into court unless he was protected. He disappeared, and Abu-Jamal’s lawyers wound up having to explain Cook’s fear of self-incrimination, adding that he was in hiding because he feared being arrested “or otherwise harmed by police in retaliation for his appearance.”
Abu-Jamal continues to attract international support from death-penalty opponents, celebrities, and politicians who believe he was railroaded.
One of his most fervent backers is the widow of former French president François Mitterand, Danielle Mitterand, who visited Abu-Jamal on death row in Pennsylvania last April. Instead of the convicted cold-blooded killer some portray Abu-Jamal to be, Mitterand found a dreadlocked prisoner with “a great depth of soul,” a man who “incarnates [the] cause” against capital punishment.
“It is my firm conviction that Mumia is innocent,” says Mitterand, the founder of Fondation France Libertés, a Paris-based human rights organization with branches in 53 countries. “We have an expression in French, J’ai la conviction intime, a legal phrase that judges or jurors use to convey their certainty of a man’s innocence. One could use this phrase with regard to Mumia. . . . Everything I have read by the legal experts points to his innocence. I am also aware of testimony that was suppressed, and evidence that was never brought before the court.”
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas