A Review of David Lindorff’s Investigation into the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a famous prisoner of the left, in the tradition of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs. NowKilling Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Dave Lindorff, (Common Courage Press, $19.95) offers us the first credible, carefully researched narrative of the case. The book is commendable for its allegiance to truth, even as it describes how Abu-Jamal, a black man in the clutches of a racist criminal justice apparatus, has seen justice repeatedly thwarted for twenty-one years. Lindorff brilliantly managed the hardest play of all, which is to have written a book with good politics which isn’t just a hero-gram about an icon of the left.
A Black activist and radio journalist, he was arrested in 1981 for the shooting death of a Philadelphia cop, Daniel Faulkner. Since then, his case has gradually become a popular cause. I remember my first march for Abu-Jamal, in the summer of 1995 when the clock was ticking down on a death warrant. Maybe a thousand protesters carried a torchlight vigil through foggy San Francisco streets, among us a hefty contingent from Food Not Bombs, a freedom-loving cohort of unwashed food servers then on bad terms with the SFPD. A couple of dumpsters were torched so the police cornered the crowd, arrested over 200 people and charged them with arson. A few of us escaped into a sympathetic stranger’s apartment building, just ahead of a mad cop in riot gear pounding on the door. Years later, on his birthday in 1999, I went to the Millions for Mumia March in Philadelphia. Intervening years of organizing bore fruit with the large multi-racial crowd, respectfully treated by police. It seemed like tens of thousands clogged the streets. Bus after chartered bus came from New York and other cities, and I even ran into a couple of friends who had flown up from Florida. I remember a festive and chaotic atmosphere, bowls smoked among friends; a fiery speech by Zack de la Rocha; and Mumia’s deep voice sounding eerily from speakers as a hush descended on the crowd.
Another thing I remember about my friends was that our sketchy knowledge about the case did not dampen our readiness to agitate for his freedom. This enthusiasm stemmed from a sense of history-a state that shot down Fred Hampton and put Huey Newton on death row could easily frame the former Black Panther Abu-Jamal-and a laudable mistrust of authority figures. Why credit the state’s word that Abu-Jamal is a murderer, when he is one of us, in the sense of being a radical, and the people on our side are proclaiming his innocence? Abu-Jamal’s partisans put out compelling flyers highlighting the oddities and injustices of his trial; listed together on a page, these glaring facts strongly suggested a frame-up. Then, too, there was the thought that criminal sentences in the United States are excessive: even if Abu-Jamal did shoot Faulkner, decades wasting in a death row dungeon is punishment enough; why demand a new trial if we aim for his release.
But the zeal of Abu-Jamal’s staunchest advocates to proclaim his innocence is unlikely to persuade a broad audience of the justice of his cause. Killing Time is a refreshing contrast. In thorough and systematic fashion, Lindorff lays out the facts of the crime and then analyzes the trial, appeals, and extra-legal maneuverings of the various parties. Plowing through reams of court transcripts, interviews and secondary sources, he analyzes prosecution and defense theories, exposing implausible arguments and contradictory testimony on both sides. A key player in Abu-Jamal’s case is the U.S. criminal justice establishment, so Lindorff explores the legal and cultural context of the trial, showing how, as a black murder defendant, the balance of power was stacked against him through devices transparent or apparent. Not hesitating to report the outrageous rulings of Abu-Jamal’s judges, suspicious conduct of police and prosecutors, and craven acts of his own counsel, Lindorff is equally unstinting in his criticism of foolish decisions and unconvincing statements by Abu-Jamal himself. None escape the scythe of Lindorff’s truth-finding pen, not even the widow Maureen Faulkner, who lied to the media about a devilish gesture that Abu-Jamal could not have made at her. The book has its fair share of villains, but no uncomplicated victims or heroes, except perhaps for the slain officer.
Lindorff shows how Abu-Jamal’s trial starred a cast of characters who are the true archetypes of American justice: a biased judge, merciless prosecutor, bumbling defense lawyer, overly-selected jury, and (probably) evidence-manufacturing cops. At the same time, he explains where Abu-Jamal’s own vacillations and naïve decisions played into the hands of enemies to secure his conviction.
For example, Lindorff relates how Abu-Jamal selected Anthony Jackson to defend him, a politically-compatible lawyer who had never been lead counsel on a death penalty case. A few weeks before the start of trial, realizing Jackson’s shortcomings, Abu-Jamal demanded to represent himself, at which point Jackson stopped preparing for trial. Over Abu-Jamal’s objections, Jackson was re-appointed by Judge Sabo on the day before the start of trial. Lindorff points out that Jackson could have requested a few weeks’ delay to ready himself; instead, he opted to "try and wing it". After naming Jackson’s misdeeds in unambiguous terms, Lindorff dispels the theory that Jackson was part of a conspiracy to remove Abu-Jamal’s right of self-defense, telling how at one point he bravely honored his client’s wishes in the face of a six-month criminal contempt sentence by Judge Sabo. Lindorff’s telling of the Jackson saga exemplifies his cool, level-headed realism: he understands that a lawyer who engages in lazy or foolish behavior is not necessarily plotting against his client.
While Lindorff’s dedication to truth is unwavering, he does not appeal to false ideals of even-handedness to mask the cold brutality with which Abu-Jamal was railroaded onto death row. Arrayed against Jackson and Abu-Jamal was the mighty law-and-order apparatus of Philadelphia, which Lindorff paints in floridly venal colors. Abu-Jamal’s judge, Albert Sabo, popularly known as "the hanging judge," had at the time of his retirement sentenced more convicts to death than any other jurist in America: 31, of whom 29 were non-white. Lindorff investigates a court reporter’s allegation that Sabo said of Abu-Jamal, "I’m going to help them fry the nigger". Lindorff, who devotes a chapter to the culture of police spying and brutality that prevailed in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, lists 17 police officers who played parts in Abu-Jamal’s arrest or investigation and who were later "disciplined, indicted for crimes, found guilty of committing acts of corruption or brutality, or resigned from the department under a cloud of suspicion after being named by corrupt officers."
Lindorff treats Abu-Jamal’s case not merely as an anomaly of justice, but as an illustration of how the rules of the game are structured to disadvantage criminal defendants. Digressing from the story of Abu-Jamal’s jury selection, he explains how the rule of "death-qualified juries"-the requirement that all jurors in capital cases be willing to impose a death sentence in at least some instances-operates to the disadvantage of defendants: it creates a pool of jurors who are "conservative politically, tend to believe authorities and are conviction prone".
Through the methodical dissection of evidence, Lindorff raises strong doubts in the reader’s mind about what actually happened on the night of the shooting. He organizes the state’s evidence into three sets: circumstantial evidence; eyewitness testimony to the shooting; and accounts of a confession that Abu-Jamal purportedly blurted out. According to Lindorff, the eyewitness evidence was weak because "none had seen the whole incident, . . . and each of them had her or his own problems of credibility." One witness, Robert Chobert, was on parole for the paid firebombing of a school, and admitted in 1995 that he had asked prosecutor McGill for help in clearing a suspended driver’s license. (Judge Sabo did not allow the jury, entrusted with weighing the credibility of witness testimony, to hear of Chobert’s mercenary enterprise, ruling that it was not a crime of falsehood.) Another, Cynthia White, was a prostitute with 38 arrests on her record. In one of many lucid appeals to the reader’s common sense, Lindorff inquires whether, "as a prostitute with outstanding warrants and open charges against her, is it likely that seeing the shooting, she would have hung around until the police showed up?" Veronica Jones, a prostitute called by the defense who unexpectedly changed her story on the stand, admitted in the 1995 appellate hearing that police had promised her freedom to walk the streets in exchange for fingering Abu-Jamal. Lindorff highlights major contradictions in witness testimony, such as the fact that Chobert and White did not recall seeing each other on the scene of the crime.
Cornerstones of the prosecution’s case were statements of a police officer and security guard that Abu-Jamal loudly confessed to the crime at the hospital. Lindorff is dubious about these statements, stressing that their circumstances suggest "a grand conspiracy to falsify evidence". Specifically, no officer mentioned the confession for over two months, and it contradicts the statement of Wakshul, the officer guarding Abu-Jamal at the hospital, that "the negro male made no comment". Jackson overlooked Wakshul’s statement until the last day of trial; Sabo refused to grant a brief continuance so that Wakshul could be questioned about the discrepancy. Lindorff argues that "presented to the jury as fact, the confession . . . was a devastating blow." Juries are reluctant to impose a death sentence for fear of dooming an innocent person, but "a confession can prove critical in helping to ease or eliminate those qualms".
The second half of Lindorff’s book covers events following Abu-Jamal’s conviction. He devotes two chapters to Abu-Jamal’s post-conviction hearing, held before the appalling Sabo. Tom Ridge, now head of Homeland Security, makes a sordid cameo as Governor of Pennsylvania, signing a death warrant just as Abu-Jamal was about to request his hearing, probably on information from tampered legal mail. Ridge thereby gave Sabo an excuse to rush the hearing and deny discovery requests by the defense. Lindorff notes that Ridge became an architect of the USA Patriot Act, which erodes the attorney-client privilege in the name of combating terrorism.
Lindorff’s following chapter, discussing the changeover in Abu-Jamal’s legal team and Abu-Jamal’s decision to make an innocence defense based on the Beverly theory, has earned him the scorn of certain Abu-Jamal choristers. A fissure arose within Abu-Jamal’s legal team over whether he should use Arnold Beverly’s affidavit confessing to Faulkner’s murder. Attorneys Leonard Weinglass and Daniel Williams convinced Abu-Jamal not to use the confession, on the grounds that it was not credible. But in 1999, Williams wrote a book on Abu-Jamal’s case in which, astonishingly, he equivocated about Abu-Jamal’s innocence. Lindorff agrees that Abu-Jamal had good reason to be upset with both Williams and Weinglass over publication of the book, noting, not emphatically enough, that Williams’ uncertainty "would seem to be an ethically improper public stance for a defense lawyer to take regarding his or her client". Abu-Jamal fired Weinglass and Williams, and his new lawyers encouraged him to pursue the innocence claim.
In the spring of 2001, Abu-Jamal issued an affidavit proclaiming his innocence for the first time, and publicized affidavits by his brother and Beverly. As with every critical fact, Lindorff evaluates the affidavits with professional skepticism, scrutinizing it in the light of common sense and weighing it against other bits of evidence. According to Abu-Jamal’s affidavit, he heard gunshots, looked up and saw his brother staggering in the street, exited his car and ran to help his brother, at which point he was shot by Faulkner. Lindorff points out that this contradicts the testimony of key witnesses that Abu-Jamal was in the street before the first shots were fired. Abu-Jamal’s brother’s and Beverly’s affidavits are even more doubtful to Lindorff.
Because Lindorff tests his facts against each other and against intuitive truths about human nature and the real-life functioning of the justice system, his narrative has the ring of truth. It is a boon to Abu-Jamal’s cause, far likelier than an impassioned polemic to convince the reader that he has not had "even the approximation of a fair trial" or appeal. Those wanting an extra dollop of squalor should be sure to read Lindorff’s assessment of the media coverage of the case, in which those who would have hastened Mumia into the death chamber, such as Sam Donaldson or The Nation’s Marc Cooper, are displayed in their true unlovely colors.
So, did Abu Jamal shoot Faulkner? Possibly, Lindorff concludes, but he is "almost certainly innocent" of first degree murder.
SCOTT HANDLEMAN is based in the Bay Area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org