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Vendetta of fear
A review of The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal by J. Patrick O’Connor
“The fact of the matter is simply this: it’s all called law and order....law and order. And, ladies and gentlemen, this is what this trial is all about more than any other trial I have ever seen....Are we going to live in a society with law and order, and are we going to enforce the laws consistent with the intention of law and order, or are we going to decide our own rules and then act accordingly? That’s really what we’re talking about.” –Summation of Philadelphia’s prosecuting attorney Joseph McGill on July 3, 1982, aimed at convincing the jury that Mumia Abu-Jamal should die because a policeman was killed.
The day before, the jury had found Mumia guilty of the murder of Daniel Faulkner after a trial that lasted two weeks. Now the jury would have to decide on the sentence.
Judge Albert Sabo had put the hearing on the fast track the day before so that the jury and all the court officials could go home and enjoy their Fourth of July.
“How plain could McGill have made it for the jury? Either they would sentence Abu-Jamal to death or Philadelphia would turn into a jungle of lawlessness,” wrote J. Patrick O’Connor, author of the new book The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In his analysis of the sentencing hearing, O’Connor notes that McGill’s number one priority was to make sure the jury knew about Abu-Jamal’s history with the Black Panther party, a history that the journalist was proud to claim.
McGill also asked Mumia why he didn’t stand up when Judge Sabo entered the courtroom. “Because Judge Sabo deserves no honor...because he operates...through force and not through right...[stands up...]Because he is an executioner. Because he is a hangman; that’s why.”
O’Connor believes that in his drive to get a death sentence, McGill wanted to convince the jury that Abu-Jamal was “the embodiment of lawlessness.” Not only had he murdered a policeman; he had done it with the same “arrogance” and “defiance” that he had shown for the court throughout the trial. And on top of that, he was a “coward” for supposedly having shot officer Faulkner in the back. One might ask if McGill would have been so offended by the “arrogance” of a white man in a business suit who insisted on his rights.
At the end of his speech, McGill thanked the jury for their “courage” and encouraged them to make their decision without feeling intimidated, an obvious reference, says O’Connor, to Jamal’s family and MOVE supporters who were present at the hearing.
After lying to the jury and hiding information all during the trial, in collaboration with Judge Sabo, O’Connor says that McGill went too far in making jurors believe that they couldn’t consider mitigating circumstances unless they all agreed on a particular circumstance. Supposedly, the jury should weigh the aggravating circumstances (like the fact that the person killed was a police officer) against mitigating circumstances (like the fact that Mumia was a respected member of the community with no criminal record.) McGill’s misleading jury instructions prompted Judge Yohn to revoke the death penalty in 2001 and were one of the grounds for the recent appeal before the Third Circuit.
26 years ago today the jury deliberated only four hours before handing down the sentence that McGill and Sabo wanted: death.
The author and his book
When J. Patrick O’Connor, editor of Crime Magazine, lived just outside Philadelphia in the ‘80s, he liked to hear Mumia’s voice as he read his essays on public radio. “I was impressed with his ability to make listeners feel what he was describing––they knew he cared.”
He was surprised when he found out Mumia was charged with Faulkner’s murder, but since the local papers presented it as “an open-and-shut” case, the death verdict seemed justified.
In the preface of his book, he says that after watching the documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case of Reasonable Doubt and reading the Amnesty International report on the case, he had questions and began to do research. He read thousands of pages of transcripts, books, and all the materials he could find. He says that it was hard to get to the truth of the matter because “the prosecution built its case on perjured testimony with a calculated disregard for what the actual evidence established.” Even so, He came to the conclusion that the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney’s Office framed Mumia Abu-Jamal for Faulkner’s murder.
O’Connor puts the case in the context of Mumia’s activism during the notorious Frank Rizzo regime, first with the Black Panthers and later as a journalist who covered the trials of the MOVE organization. He emphasizes the tremendous conflicts in this “city of ghettos” between Rizzo, dedicated to defending white people against the “expanding black population as it encroached on the boundaries or the city’s ethnic neighborhoods” and the anti-systemic MOVE, devoted to stopping the “poisoning of the air, the water, the soil, and to put an end to the enslavement of life––people, animals, any form of life.”
He says: “The more the news media tried to paint MOVE as urban savages, the more Abu-Jamal felt compelled to portray the group as principled revolutionaries willing to stand up to police brutality, a stance that would cost him his full-time public-radio job and by 1981 force him to moonlight as a cabdriver. His coverage of MOVE also made him a marked man to Mayor Rizzo, who angrily threatened him publicly at a news conference in 1978.”
It should be noted that in his book, O’Connor neither defines himself as a MOVE supporter nor as an activist in the Free Mumia movement. To a certain extent, he accepts some of the mainstream media definitions of MOVE and, despite his obvious esteem for Mumia, thinks that, from a legal perspective, he helped to sabotage his own trial due to his stubbornness in rejecting his court-appointed lawyer Anthony Jackson and insisting on representing himself with John Africa’s assistance.
In his analysis, O’Connor presents the cases of both the prosecution and the defense, offering criticisms of the decisions made by different actors. He emphasizes the details that destroy the prosecution’s case and that probably would have exculpated Mumia in the hands of a competent lawyer if it weren’t for the police intimidation of several witnesses and the monumental effort by McGill and Sabo to exclude any evidence favorable to Mumia.
His vision of what happened in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, is that Faulkner, who had savagely beaten Mumia’s brother Billy Cook, fired at Mumia as he ran towards his brother, and that Kenneth Freeman, the passenger in Billy Cook’s car, killed Faulkner and ran away. Even so, he recognizes that there is a great deal of contradictory evidence and doesn’t try to reconcile all the facts to make them fit into a set version of what happened.
Some key figures in the framing of Mumia
Alfonzo Giordano. Among the officers who arrived at the scene only minutes after the shooting was Inspector Alfonzo Giordano, who worked under George Fencl, the head of Philadelphia’s political police, which had kept Mumia under surveillance ever since his days in the Black Panther Party. Fencl had threatened Mumia personally several times. O’Connor points out that according to normal procedure, a detective from the Homicide Department would have been put in charge of the investigation, yet that morning Giodarno took charge immediately. He recruited Cynthia White, and later Robert Chobert, as witnesses to identify Mumia as the shooter; both had been involved in illicit activities and were thus vulnerable to threats if they didn’t say what the police ordered them to say. With blows and racial insults, Giordano interrogated Mumia in the patrol truck on the way to the hospital and reported that he confessed to having dropped his pistol after shooting Faulkner. Although there were no fingerprints or ballistic evidence indicating that Mumia Abu-Jamal had shot Faulkner, the decision was already made: the reporter who had given the authorities so much trouble would be blamed.
Joseph McGill. In the 1982 trial, the incrimination continued under the lead of the prosecutor Joseph McGill, who came up with a new “confession” to replace Giordano’s when the D.A.’s office found it necessary to distance itself from the corrupt inspector. In the jury selection, McGill used 10 or 11 of his preemptory challenges to exclude Black jurors. Although the law forbids the use of perjured testimony and requires that the prosecutor turn over favorable evidence to the defense, he violated the law many times. Some of the offenses listed by O’Connor are the use of the perjured and probably coerced testimony of Cynthia White to identify Mumia and the perjured and coerced testimony of Veronica Jones to refute her original statement that she had seen two men running away from the scene. McGill knew that the results of a polygraph test the police had given to Dessie Hightower were largely favorable to the defense, but didn’t inform the defense of the results; Hightower swore that he had seen a Black man running away from the scene, and the polygraph results would have lent credibility to his testimony. McGill also hid information about the presence of a passenger in Billy Cook’s car; McGill knew that Faulkner had Arnold Howard’s driver’s license application in his pocket that Howard had loaned to Kenneth Freeman, but the prosecutor wanted the jury to believe that Faulkner, Mumia, and Billy Cook were the only ones present at the time of the shooting. Furthermore, although McGill knew that Gary Wakshul was available to testify in court, he lied to the judge, saying that he was on vacation; Wakshul had said in his original statement that “the Negro male made no comments” when he was with Mumia in the patrol truck the night of the killing. This testimony would have been indispensable in refuting the false confession story.
Albert Sabo. Judge Sabo also played a leading role in the frame-up. He had sent more people to death row that any other judge in the country and made his intentions clear: “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” This remark that he made to one of his colleagues in 1982 was reported by stenographer Terri Maurer-Carter in 2001.
Sabo made sure that no evidence favorable to Mumia would be heard by the jury. He did everything possible to silence him once and for all. In one ten-page chapter, O’Connor presents the transcript of several interchanges between the judge, McGill, Mumia, and Jackson; he explains that Jackson had given notice to the court that he might mention a Medical Examiner’s report stating that Mumia was shot by police arriving on the scene. McGill immediately rejected the evidence as “hearsay upon hearsay”, and Sabo backed him up. When Jackson said he wanted to interview the Medical Examiner Stefan Makuch and the officer who made the report, Frederick Westerman, in the presence of Abu-Jamal, the judge responded: “I don’t care about Mr. Jamal.”
An agreement was finally reached to question the two in the judge’s chambers without Mumia being present. Westerman denied that he had ever made such a report. Even so, Mumia wanted the jury, the press, and the public to hear about this “potentially explosive revelation”:
Abu-Jamal: What is the court trying to hide, Judge Sabo?
Juez Sabo: Mr. Jamal, the court is not trying to hide anything.
Abu-Jamal: Why don’t you discuss this investigative log from the...Medical Examiner’s Office?...
Juez Sabo: Nothing is being hidden and your attorney knows all about it.
Abu-Jamal: Well bring it out in open court, judge.
Juez Sabo: At the proper time.
Abu-Jamal: The proper time is now....
Juez Sabo: Are you going to sit down?
Abu-Jamal: No, I am not.
Juez Sabo: You are going to become disruptive.
Abu-Jamal: No, I am pressing this point.
Juez Sabo: Are you going to do it in front of the jury?
Abu-Jamal: I will do it, right. I have no objection to them hearing the truth....
Juez Sabo: You are disrupting this court.
Abu-Jamal: I am disrupting nothing.
Juez Sabo: Sheriff, take him out. Take him out.
Lynne Abraham. O’Connor points to the current District Attorney Lynne Abraham as another key person in the frame-up. Although she could have waited, she went to the hospital to arraign Mumia on charges of murder and possession of a weapon when he was chained to his bed under the guard of five policemen. She also ordered him to be held without bail. Abraham began her career under Frank Rizzo and had signed arrest warrants for MOVE members in ’78 and ’85, paving the way for the military attacks against the organization. Known as the “queen of death,” she has said in public that her life purpose is to achieve “justice” for the widow Maureen Faulkner. O’Connor explains that in spite of the fact that the death penalty was revoked by judge Yohn in 2001, Mumia is still on death row thanks to the spitefulness of Abraham, who opposed his release into the general population.
J. Patrick O’Connor is convinced that the court officials and police had the clear intention to frame and kill an innocent man in 1982 and that they still want him dead. In his book, the writer had expressed his optimism for a favorable ruling in the latest hearing before the Third Circuit, based on the solid case presented by Mumia’s lawyers. In interviews with Hans Bennett and Law & Disorder, he has said that he was incredulous to find out that, once again, a court had invented a special rule to reject the appeal. “It’s a vendetta,” he said. “There’s a lot riding on this case.” As they were deliberating, the judges must have asked themselves, “Do we really want this man to walk free?”