Wrong Guy, Good Cause

  • She has a story to tell and a permit to tell it at 6 p.m. next Tuesday in Philadelphia, but you are not likely to notice Maureen Faulkner in the crowd at the Republican National Convention. So here is her story in advance.

    Faulkner grew up in Philadelphia and married a cop. She was only 24 when he was shot and killed on duty in 1981, and she had to get out of town and start over somewhere else. She ended up in California, and it was going fine until about six years ago. Suddenly, everywhere she turned, she saw her husband's killer. She saw him on T shirts, on posters, on book covers, on television. He'd become an international celebrity, called a hero by some, compared to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. by others. Maureen Faulkner's crusade began then, and the next stop takes her back home.

    "They have a right to protest, and I have a right to protest against them," Faulkner, 43, said last week in Camarillo, Calif., where she manages a medical office. Given George W. Bush's record on executions in Texas, protest groups were putting out the call to "Crash the Executioner's Ball," and thousands were expected to join in. Faulkner respects death-penalty foes. What she resents is that their poster boy is the man who murdered her husband. And so while they do their thing, she intends to hold up Daniel Faulkner's photograph as she reads the 1982 courtroom testimony of witnesses who saw the killer shoot her husband and then stand over him and fire again and again.

    The man's name is Mumia Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, and the facts are these: In the first hours of Dec. 9, 1981, Danny Faulkner made a traffic stop on Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, who was driving the wrong way on a one-way street with his lights off. Witnesses describe an altercation after Cook resisted Faulkner. Abu-Jamal, who was driving a cab and happened upon the scene, traded gunfire with Faulkner. When police arrived, Abu-Jamal was on the pavement with a bullet in his chest, his shoulder holster empty. A gun registered to him was a few feet away, with five empty chambers. Faulkner, on his back nearby, was all but gone. Four witnesses had seen all or part of the shooting and three implicated Abu-Jamal.

    At his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal feuded with the judge and insisted on representing himself. He made political speeches, was removed from the courtroom several times and was convicted by a jury of 10 whites and two African Americans, who deliberated less than two hours in the penalty phase before coming back with a death sentence. I didn't know much about the case when I moved to Philadelphia in 1985 to work for the Inquirer. But I later heard it said that Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and Black Panther Party member, had been railroaded and that evidence pointing to another killer had been buried. Philadelphia being what it was and my politics being what they were, none of that seemed preposterous to me. But I began to educate myself, and the things Abu-Jamal supporters didn't know were shocking.

    They would tell me Abu-Jamal wanted to defend himself or be represented by a local revolutionary because his court-appointed attorney was an incompetent hack who had never handled a homicide. I went to see the attorney, who told me that he had handled about 20 homicides but that Abu-Jamal demanded a political rather than legal defense. They would insist that a .44-cal. bullet was removed from Faulkner's brain and that Abu-Jamal's gun was a .38. But the defense team's own ballistics expert conceded the bullet was consistent with a .38.

    By 1994, the myth of Abu-Jamal had grown, fueled by unsubstantiated defense claims that the true killer, name unknown, was seen fleeing the scene of the murder. National Public Radio signed Abu-Jamal to do reports on prison life from behind bars but backed off when police groups protested. Leonard Weinglass, a famed lefty attorney who had defended Patty Hearst's kidnappers and the Chicago Seven, attracted a parade of celebrities to Abu-Jamal's cause. They included Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Ed Asner and Ossie Davis.

    Like many Philadelphians, I watched in amazement as the Mumia wave swept the globe, even as the appeals courts rejected one flimsy defense claim after another. In Abu-Jamal's name, masked Danes stormed Parliament in Copenhagen. From Japan to South Africa, protesters took to the streets. Last year Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys threw a benefit concert. This year traffic was stopped in Paris, and 22 members of the British Parliament have called for a federal court in Philadelphia to grant a new trial.

    Reasonable people can disagree about various aspects of Abu-Jamal's case, including ballistics reports that were or were not done, evidence and testimony that was or was not admitted, and whether, even conceding his guilt, Abu-Jamal should be put to death. But Joseph McGill, who has prosecuted roughly 125 homicide cases, calls it "the strongest I ever had." And no one can dispute this crowning absurdity: the only two people who know exactly what happened on Dec. 9, 1981, have refused to utter a single word of explanation. One is Abu-Jamal. The other is his brother Billy Cook, whose only known comment on the subject in nearly 19 years was made at the scene of the murder: "I ain't got nothing to do with this."

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