A Powerful Story, But Not a True One
Maureen Faulkner, widowed as a young wife by the shooting of her husband, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, has spent the over 32 years since his death on a crusade, first to have the man convicted of his death, Mumia Abu-Jamal, executed, and then, since the overturning of his death sentence on Constitutional grounds, trying to ensure that he remains a pariah in prison.
She has been assisted in her quest by a labor organization and political lobby, the Fraternal Order of Police, which has helped her to widely publicize her claims, often factually challenged, that Abu-Jamal was fairly tried and found guilty of murder, and that he is, moreover, a monster deserving the worst that the US penal system can dish out.
One of the FOP’s favorite claims in that campaign of vilification is a story that the widow Faulkner also tells at every opportunity, namely that during the early days of the 1982 murder trial, when the prosecutor held up the slain officer’s bloody shirt to display the bullet holes in it, Abu-Jamal, seated at the defense table, turned around and “smiled at me.”
It is, to be sure, a disturbing image.
It is also not possible to have occurred.
As I discovered in reviewing the trial transcripts of that day (Commonwealth of PA v. Mumia Abu Jamal, June 26, 1982), and later reported in my book on the case (Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Common Courage Press, 2003), Abu-Jamal had been removed by Judge Albert Sabo from the courtroom at the start of the day before the presentation of evidence, and was not returned to the courtroom until well after the shirt had been displayed to the jury.
The first time Faulkner told that story portraying a cruel and uncaring killer smiling at her pain was during an interview by a reporter writing a feature on the case in the Washington Post, titled “Condemned to Silence? Does a Man Lose His Right to Write if he Kills a Cop? A Widow Says Yes,” which ran on May 18, 1995.
Now it’s possible that Faulkner, 13 years after the trial and 13 years into her campaign of vengeance for her loss, may have imagined the scene. Such things are common. As Jerry Lembcke has documented in his book Spitting Image, although there is not one newspaper photo showing Anti-Vietnam War protesters spitting on a returning soldier from that decade-long conflict, thousands of veterans of the Indochina War claim they were spit on, often in situations that could not have occurred, such as returning to a civilian airfield (soldiers were flown home in military transports, and landed at military airfields, where no protesters could have been present to expectorate on them).
Whether she genuinely believes that this impossible “smile” incident actually happened, or is making it up though, Sen. Pat Toomey, who doesn’t have any excuse, made full use of the false story in a speech on the Senate Floor condemning Obama’s nominee Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — even embellishing on it by saying Abu-Jamal had “smirked” at Faulkner, when her original newspaper account had her saying he had “smiled.”
But then, why should a senator ruin a good yarn by sticking to the actual quote?
Toomey repeated this bogus story, again using his embellishment of “smirk,” in an op-ed article that ran this past Monday in the Philadelphia Inquirer,calling — successfully as it turns out — for his Senate colleagues to reject Adegbile’s nomination.
Although the Inquirer favorably reviewed my book in 2004, with the book critic Steven Weinberg calling it “the most thorough book yet by an author without direct involvement in the murder case,” the paper’s editors didn’t bother to even minimally fact-check the Senator by verifying his claims. Instead, they let his lie about the shirt run, along with a number of other falsehoods he added in, such as that Abu-Jamal had shot the officer on the ground four times. The truth is that whoever shot Faulkner, he was only hit by two bullets, one to the lower back, and one to the forehead. This is a critical fact which, as I and my colleague Linn Washington show — in a video which can be viewed at the bottom of this page — fatally undermines the veracity of the prosecution’s only purported “eye witnesses” to the shooting, who are caught describing a scene that, like this one of Faulkner’s, could not have happened either.
Worse than Toomey, who clearly is simply playing the political role his party expects of him, namely to try and embarrass and further undermine the weakened and increasingly unpopular President Obama by getting his nominee rejected, and who probably couldn’t care less about Faulkner’s pain, is Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat and the state’s senior Senator, who cited her story as the reason for his voting with Senate Republicans to reject the eminently worthy Adegbile for the Justice Department post. Casey’s abject fawning before his state’s rabid FOP lobby is simply a pathetic embarrassment. Unlike businessman Toomey, Casey is a lawyer, and as such well knows that it is the duty of a lawyer to defend those who may have been denied a fair trial or appeal. As a lawyer, he also well knows that, as my colleague Linn Washington writes above, Adegbile had no role in developing the argument that led three levels of the federal courts to find Abu-Jamal’s death sentence to have been unconstitutional and properly overturned.
Senator Toomey, in this sordid sabotaging of a (for Obama!) surprisingly excellent nomination for a Justice Department post, is just playing the expected role of a smarmy low-wattage political hack. Sen. Casey is displaying something worse — a spineless lack of principle.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).